11 November 2013

Berce par le murmure d'un ruisseau

Where is our universe?  All crumbled away from us; and we, adrift in chaos, may harken to the gusts of homeless wind that go sighing and murmuring about, in quest of what was once a world!” - Nathaniel Hawthorne, excerpted from The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

Lulled by the murmur of a stream, yes I was, into thinking that this painting might be a picture of West Arlington, Vermont, because it was a place I was familiar with.  Naive, yes, but this is an exemplary New England landscape, of clapboard houses and a road that winds with the twists and turns of a stream in rocky terrain.  It was, however, painted in Cornwall Hollow, a small town in northwestern Connecticut near the Housantonic River.  This was the place where the artist Ben Foster came to live after his return from Paris.  Paris had welcomed the young American upon his arrival in 1886 but Foster, who had grown up in North Anson, Maine, was "inconsolably lonely" for the woods of his native New England. 

Today, Ben Foster (1852-1926) is obscure, even for a Tonalist painter.  The critical consensus has it that Foster's lifelong bachelorhood was a bad career move, since it meant that he left no offspring to guard his reputation.  Foster was also pigeon-holed as a late blooming artist when the forty-eight year old  won a gold model at the Universal Exposition in Paris 1900 for Berce par le murmure d'un ruisseau, an honor he shared - and deservedly I think - with Winslow Homer for his much better-known painting Summer Night, an eerily lit painting of two women dancing by the ocean shore at night.  The French saw something distinctively American, a brooding melancholy they might have encountered the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in these pictures, purchasing both for the French nation after the exposition ended.  They are now part of the collection of the Musee d'Orsay.
Foster's compositions can appear off-balance at first, in a way that we may overlook now but that struck his contemporaries as awkward.  One critic even described Foster's subject as being "the aloofness of nature."  But that strikes a wrong note to me.  The Connecticut River Valley and its environs, that Foster painted over and over again, have been a harmonious landscape bearing the imprint of human hands for a long time.  The first European settlers of the 1620s, who found coastal Massachusetts an unwelcoming place, moved west a decade later and found in the Valley the fertile New World of their dreams.
(A) perfect neatness and brilliancy is everywhere diffused, without a neglected spot to tarnish the luster or excite a wish in the mind for a higher finish”.  
 - Standing at the top of Mount Holyoke, Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) saw it that way, too.

After being elected to the Presidency of Yale University in 1795, Timothy Dwight embarked on a course of regular summer excursions, a campaign that lasted ten years and took him to the farthest extents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts which was no small undertaking.   ( I can vouch for that myself, having stood by the bronze historical plaque  that marks the Massachusetts Pre-emption Line by the side of U.S. Route 20  at the outskirts of Geneva in western New York.  Geneva, you may remember, was the limbo to which F. Scott Fitzgerald consigned Dr. Dick Diver at the end of Tender Is The Night).
As a writer, Dwight's style was undistinguished, but his historical sense kept him from being bored or being dull to read. A thoroughly bourgeois man, Dwight found the new pioneers distasteful; their politics and religious beliefs tended to quackery away from the stabilizing influence of the Puritans.  Rather than "settling in the New England manner",  they merely grabbed land. For the record, Timothy Dwight described New York as a crude and lawless place when he passed through around 1802.  His Travels, published in four volumes, were the  prodigious result of his observations.  For Dwight, a Puritan theologian, a beautiful landscape expressed a moral truth; the uncultivated wilderness that was Vermont left him cold.  In a curious way, this connects Dwight to the early Italian Renaissance master, Fra Angelico.  An art history professor suggested to us that, rather than looking for signs of mathematical perspective in his work, we might consider his spaces as metaphysical places, where moral actions take place. 

It is hard for us to admit that most human qualities, like hydroponic vegetables, manage to flourish even when they have no roots in the soil.  But there can be no doubt that an entirely new relationship to the environment has evolved…”  

  - In our own time, the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson has ruminated on the meaning of place, particularly what he called the 'vernacular landscape' and our confused responses  in the absence of Puritan pieties.  Jackson (1909-1996) an American who was born in Dinard, France, taught in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and founded and edited for years the journal Landscape in 1951.  Jackson is credited with creating a field called Cultural Geography, but he knew better.  His tribute to Timothy Dwight is typically generous of a man who, no Puritan he,  could write: "The older I get and the longer I look at landscapes, the more convinced I am that their beauty is not simply an aspect but their very essence, and that that beauty derives from the human presence." 

For further reading:
1. Timothy Dwight - Travels in New England And New-York, S. Converse, New Haven, CT.: 1822-21.
2. John  Brinckerhoff Jackson -  Timothy Dwight: A Puritan Looks At Scenery in
Discovering The Vernacular Landscape, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1984.

1. Ben Foster - Berce par le murmure d'un ruisseau, September - 1899, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Benjamin Foster - Autumn, no date given, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, New Brunswick, ME.

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