Paintbox Leaves: Autumnal Inspiration from Cole to Wyeth

September 25, 2010 - January 16, 2011



 
 

The Psychology of Autumn

 
Like every season, autumn is a moving cycle, never a fixed moment in time. This is the tension inherent in the loveliest part of fall and in many of these paintings. Where a canvas resides in that seasonal cycle, early or late-the brilliant red bower of Frederic Church, or the bleak browns and grays of Andrew Wyeth-shifts the meaning signaled to the viewer.
 
The nostalgic idea of the Northeast as a model for the rest of the country has roots in nineteenth-century anxieties about the regional divisions leading to the Civil War, and, later, the stream of immigrants who transformed the nation during the Gilded Age. Whether the Hudson Valley, Catskills, Berkshires, or Green Mountains, the most distinctive visual identity to this emblematic place was the autumn landscape, which brought memories of harvest celebrations, the satisfaction of reaping what has been sown, but also wistful regret for the fading summer and dread of winter.
 
Although the crowd may look for a blaze of color for two weeks in October, the connoisseur, like Thoreau, will find beauty at the edges of autumn, in its first leaf and its last as the days slowly grow short.
 
Let your walks now be a little more adventurous.... If, about the last of October, you ascend any hill in the outskirts of our town, and probably of yours, and look over the forest, you may see -- well, what I have endeavored to describe.
 
 
 
William Moore Davis (1829-1920)
Autumn Leaves, 1875-1880
Oil on panel
The Long Island Museum of Art, History and Carriages, 2001.013
 
Davis' black background, a popular stylistic device, adds formality to his simple composition of a few branches of maple leaves. The variations of color in the leaves become the subject of his close observation. As another acute observer of the time noted,
 
On critical examination at close quarters the leaves that showed so clear and pure a tint as the light shone through them, reveal usually a more or less stained mixture of impure shades.
McMillan, "Our Autumn Foliage"
 
 
 
Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)
Autumn Landscape, Vermont, 1856
Oil on paper on board
Collection of Florence Griswold Museum,
Gift of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
 
Thomas Cole's pupil Frederic Church embraced the Arcadian vista of autumn in this small cabinet painting completed en plein air. Writers in every discipline from science to art to tourism have commented on the importance of sunlight to bring out the most gorgeous tones in autumn leaves. With the quick, sure brushstroke typical of his oil studies, Church magnificently conveys their sheen and translucency. The art historian Henry Tuckerman said of Church, "Few artists have so profoundly and habitually studied sunshine and atmosphere."

 
Hugh Breckenridge (1870-1937)
Autumn, c. 1931
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Hugh H. Breckenridge, 1936
 
Seen together, Breckenridge's painting reads as Church's traditional Autumn Landscape gone abstract. The foliage and shadows of an autumn forest allow Breckenridge to revel in a Modernist play of color, the hallmark of his mature style. He studied and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but Breckenridge's love of color stems from two trips to France, where he absorbed, first, the Impressionist palette and, later, more avant-garde developments. His attention to a softer, more painterly delineation of the masses of orange leaves amid the sharp Cubist blocks of the rest of his canvas, reveal a subtle romantic feeling for his subject.
 
 
 
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)
Autumn, 1908
Oil on academy board
Collection of the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection
 
Hartley captures a suggestion of vivid, swirling leaves that passes the reality of autumn and transcends to a fantastical plane. He was the first major American painter to explore autumn in a truly Modernist style. Autumn suggests the influence of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night in its swirling sky and landscape and the work of the Fauvists in its lurid coloration, a style Hartley termed Neo-Impressionism. His brushwork suggests the influence of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night in its swirling sky and landscape, while its lurid coloration owes much to Fauvism, a style Hartley termed Neo-Impressionism. In 1909, he showed a series of small works collectively titled Songs of Autumn at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery "291." Painted in Maine, these constitute Hartley's first mature works.
 
 
 
Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
The Jewel Box, Old Lyme, 1906
Oil on canvas
Collection of National Academy Museum, New York, 548-P
 
The American Impressionists, commonly associated with summer at art colonies such as Old Lyme, Connecticut, actually painted a surprising number of pictures that reflected the autumn season's palette and light. Hassam is one of the key leaders who returned to the subject again and again. This painting is likely Hassam's diploma work to the National Academy, originally presented as The Pines when published in 1911. Here it appears that the splendid, dappled foliage was his inspiration. In 1921 the artist requested the return of this work for restoration, and subsequent records list the painting as The Jewel Box. Hassam was known to exchange his titles for more poetic references. By 1906, is style was considered fairly conservative, and only two years later Marsden Hartley was painting new works like Autumn, which helped define an emerging American Modernist style.
 
 
 
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Autumn Woods, 1886
Oil on canvas
Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Gift Mrs. Albert Bierstadt, 1910.11
 
This masterpiece of late Hudson River School painting was created as Bierstadt's career was falling into a valley of critical disdain in the face of modern styles, including a trend toward intimate "bleak autumn" landscapes in smaller formats. The painting depicts two rivers, the Chenango and the Unadilla, near Waterville, New York, the home of his first wife Rosalie. While the scale signals his continuing artistic ambitions, the glowing autumnal subject reads as one of meditative reflection and tranquil resignation. This is nature's chapel: the stillness is all the more powerful in contrast with the size of the canvas. Amid the remaining green on the trees and crimson leaves strewn like rose petals across the water, a dead gnarled branch lies as a memento mori.
 
 
Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
The Ledges, October In Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1907
Oil on canvas
Collection of Florence Griswold Museum
Gift of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company
 
Although stylistically based on the Parisian avant-garde of the preceding generation, American Impressionism in New England during the early 20th century embodied a consciously conservative character. Artists sought to reinforce the beauty of New England and assert a traditional way of life in a region of the country that was industrializing faster than any other. As one scholar noted, the brilliancy of fall foliage remerged as a cultural signifier across southern New England after much of the white pine undergrowth was cleared in the years around 1900. This allowed greater views of the old growth, brilliantly colored hardwood trees with their splendid foliage.
 
 
 
Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
View of Hoosac Mountain and Pontoosuc Lake Near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 1834
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Newark Museum, Purchase by exchange, 1988.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, 88.67
 
In his famous poem "To Cole the Painter Departing for Europe," William Cullen Bryant specifically mentions America's "autumn blaze of boundless groves," and Cole clearly took the message to heart. He painted View of Hoosac Mountain not long after his return to the United States in 1832. Cole must have been struck anew by the brilliance of the American autumn. Due to the lack of brightly colored maples and other deciduous trees in the British landscape, the contrast would have been startling. As Jasper Cropsey would later discover in the 1860s, the English public was skeptical of the fall foliage in American pictures. Cole's dealer wrote to him in 1839, despairingly noting "British critics unable to accept Autumnal tints."

 
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Autumn, 1940-41
Oil tempera on composition board
Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Loula D. Lasker Bequest, 66.114
 
Benton flirted with Modernism early in his career, and produced several leaf still lifes, which in their attention to abstracted form conjure the work of fellow Americans Georgia O'Keeffe and Helen Torr. Benton's later Autumn is unique in the assembled exhibition, in that it is not so much a bleak vision of autumn as an ominous one. Painted as the United States was entering World War II, the painting conveys, in its lack of bounty, a subtle anxiety about the future. Although nature and the landscape have been presented as an antidote to regional differences by a number of scholars, Benton, the art world's best known "regionalist," calls into question how true this statement is of the autumn season, which has such a persistent Northeastern cultural cast.
 
 
 
Anna Mary Robertson ("Grandma") Moses (1860-1961)
Pumpkins, 1959
Oil on pressed wood
Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York
 
The pumpkin has a longstanding hold on autumnal popular culture. Native Americans planted pumpkins, corn, and beans together, but mechanical farming cannot accommodate such cross-beneficial crowding. In a Depression era starved for regionalist nostalgia and the innocence of folk art, the comforting subject matter of Grandma Moses reminded people of bygone ways. A late-blooming artist, from a farm in Hoosic, New York, Robertson became a "20th-century Currier & Ives," with her paintings which, licensed as prints, hung in living rooms across America
 
 
John Ehninger (1827-1889)
Hound Dog and Pumpkins, c. 1860s
Oil on canvas
Collection of Erik Davies
 
Ehninger's genre scenes are comparatively rare, and often show examples of rural life during the mid-19th century. This scene of a youth surrounded by ripening pumpkins and a regimented row of corn sheaves evokes autumnal moments of leisure during the harvest and satisfaction after a hard day's labor. Ehninger's painting is likely related to his large post-Civil War canvas entitled October (1867). Widely distributed as a Harper's Weekly wood engraving that specified the New England locale, October depicts blacks and whites working together to bring in the harvest. During the 19th century, the idea of the harvest was a particular artistic genre that melded aspects of autumnal landscape with scenes of people and animals at work or at rest within the landscape.
 
 
 
Charles De Wolf Brownell (1822-1909)
Old Lyme Pumpkins, 1865
Oil on paper
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Davies
 
A New Englander, Brownell was ending his residence in New York when he made this study of a rural Indian Summer at its most picturesque. Filled with glossy pumpkins, under a pink Luminist sky, his scene conjures an anonymous, purportedly 17th-century poem often quoted to illustrate Pilgrim dependence on Native American crops:
 
For pottage and puddings and custard and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.
(A Century of American Literature, 1878)
 

James Bruce Southard (b. 1921?)
Autumnal Trio, 1973
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Hudson River Museum, Gift of Henry S. Hacker, 96.14.2
 
Southard's spare composition, with no additional harvest references, would seem an artistic exercise-a study of the pumpkin shape from three angles. But its title evokes the gourd's cultural significance as a symbol of fall. Since ancient times they have symbolized fertility, and long before the commercialization of Halloween, pumpkins were already vital to American legend. The Native Americans introduced pumpkins to the pilgrims, who at times might have starved without their nourishment.
 
 
 
Irving Lewis Bacon (1853-1910)
Autumn Still Life with Straw Hat, 1894
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Godel & Co., Inc., New York
 
Bacon made a specialty of tabletop still lifes showing bountiful produce and used neutral backgrounds as a foil to intensify the color of his subjects, here autumnal reds and golds. Apples and corn, painted as spilling from a straw hat "cornucopia," are potent autumn symbols of fertility and plenty. Fall corn signifies a good harvest as well as rebirth. (The vast majority of the corn crop, for feed and grain, is reaped much later than the sweet corn eaten in summer.)
 
Images like these have more links with nostalgic agrarian myths than with leafy autumn references to death and rebirth, whether pensive or reassuring. The melancholy associations of leaves, compared to the fruits of harvest, may be because autumn-tinged leaves, fallen or not, have no further practical function.
 
 
 
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
In the Orchard, 1973
Watercolor on paper
Courtesy of Adelson Galleries and Frank Fowler, AG5561
 
Andrew Wyeth painted his famous model Helga Testorf in an orchard as a metaphor for an autumnal Eve or Persephone, contrasting her life force with the dying November that surrounds her. The apple is both a symbol of the Garden's fall as well as of the autumn harvest, sweetening after the first cold snap. Here Helga is shown as a kind of puritan Eve, but her expression, rather than alluring, is fixed and formal. Wyeth noted, "Helga was a symbol of all the blond Prussians I'd ever met or dreamed about. I was interested in her in many ways-as a human being and as something abstract as an idea. I was seeking to combine the tawny fields and gray skies of this part of Pennsylvania with her stunning blondness."
 
 
 
Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946)
Apple Bags (Walnut Bags), 1962
Watercolor and gouache on paper
Courtesy of Adelson Galleries and Frank Fowler, AG6915
 
As in his father Andrew's adjacent painting, Jamie eschews the prevalent richness of autumn color in this early work. Instead, he chooses to present workaday aspects of the harvest. The large burlap bags are mysterious, their contents not immediately clear. The color has been drained out of the landscape, and neatly "bagged" to keep, contained, through the winter. In painting a more somber autumn in transition Jamie Wyeth recalls the work of 19th-century painter Jervis McEntee, who portrayed the cheerless and chilly aspects of the later season.
 
 

Paintbox Leaves and the accompanying catalogue have been made possible by a generous grant from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc.
 

Return to Wall text and labels for the exhibtion


Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.