22 October 2017

Harry Van Der Weyden: An American Tonalist Abroad




















The first question most art-minded people ask about Harry Van der Weyden (1868-1952) is whether he was descended from the great Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464).  Art historians answer with a resounding  "Maybe."
He was born in Boston, won a scholarship to the Slade School in London at age nineteen, and studied at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1890-1891.  Until World War I, he lived near Etaples  at Montreuil-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast.  During the war Van der Weyden worked as a camouflage officer with the British Royal Engineers from 1916 to 1918 when Etaples was a major transit point and storage depot for the British.  He died in London in 1952. Most of Van der Weyden's paintings are in private collections and tonalism, although a small part of his work, showed him at his best.
The sun was almost below the horizon on the evening in 1898 that Van der Weyden set out to paint.   In the shadow of the cliffs at left,  two men anchor a boat while another man rows toward shore and into  the shadows. Looking closely, you find a varied palette of tones has went into the making of this lavender-blue image.  The affinity with early photography is obvious in tonalism's monochromatic effects.  James McNeill Whistler and George Inness are the two American artists best known for their atmospheric paintings (and in Whistler's case, also prints).

For further reading, visit a review of the exhibition  American Tonalism
Image: Harry Van Der Weyden - Landscape, 1898, Museum of Franco-American Cooperation, Blerancourt.

08 October 2017

The Georgics: Charles Daubigny & Childe Hassam



















This little beauty, Sunrise-Autumn  by Childe Hassam (1859-1935), is not in a museum but how well it would look paired with one that is - Charles-Francois Daubigny's Fields in the Month of June at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University.  At the time he painted Sunrise-Autumn Hassam  was still a young artist under the influence of the Barbizon School, fresh from his first trip abroad in 1882 and not yet ready to immerse himself in study in Paris at the Academie Julian.  In contrast, the Daubigny comes from the last years of a long, successful career, one that has been curiously overlooked until the recent exhibition Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape.

I had never thought much about Daubigny until I saw Fields in the Month of June.  But there it was and I came to relish the times I sat on a bench in front of it, absorbing it or being absorbed into it, the light coming down from a window high above, my own personal floating world of meadows and agriculture, made seamless by the drive to Ithaca through other similar meadows.  It hardly matters whether Hassam painted his meadow in England or the United States, any more than that Daubigny's meadow is French; there is something charming and familiar in this vision of agriculture as human handwriting on the land.


















From a family of artists, Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878) had his first lessons at home with his father.   Like Hassam after him, Daubigny apprenticed with an engraver; indeed his first exhibited works were prints.  His attentiveness to landscape was intensified by the year Daubigny spent with his friend Jules Breton aboard Le Botin, a houseboat converted into a movable studio; the two artists floated along the rivers of northern France, the Seine the Marne, and the Oise, on a matchless  peripatetic painting trip.

Without Daubigny, the man who inspired Claude Monet to establish a studio in 1872, the development of Impressionism would have been different.  In his day, Daubigny's landscapes were often dismissed as "mere impressions" for his use of rapid brushstrokes and his preference for capturing fleeting aspects of light. Theophile Gauthier, the author doubling as critic lamented, "His pictures are no more than sketches barely begun."   Understanding backward, the specialty of art historians, we now think of Daubigny and his cohort as being more romantic and less naturalistic  than they did themselves while it is the Impressionists who are considered more objective because of what we have since learned about visual perception.

You can read The Georgics by Virgil, courtesy of MIT.

Images:
1. Childe Hassam - Sunrise - Autumn, 1884, oil on canvas, 12in. x 18in., Sullivan Goss: An American Art Gallery, Santa Barbara.
2. Charles-François Daubigny, Fields in the Month of June, 1874, oil on canvas,  88in. x 53in., Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.

01 October 2017

Essex Moonrise: John Leslie Breck














I've written about this landscape before, one of the much loved and still missed landscapes of my childhood: the coastal marshlands of  Essex County, Massachusetts.   The Great Marsh, as it fittingly called,  enchanted me long before I saw it through the eyes of the artists Arthur Wesley Dow and Martin Johnson Heade.
To name the towns and beaches that border the Great Marsh is, for me like fingering a string of beads, each  one more beautiful than the last: Newburyport, Plum Island, Ipswich, Crane Beach, Essex, The Dragon.  Moviemakers concur: The Thomas Crown Affair was filmed at Castle Hill in Ipswich and The Witches Of Eastwick at Crane Beach, while The Crucible was shot on nearby Choate Island.

Salt marshes are nature's  lungs,  grasslands and tidal estuaries that ilter out storm water and pollution, thus protecting the fish, insects, mammals, and sea birds that live there and, not incidentally, their human neighbors.  But more than that, they are beautiful to behold; the air really does shimmer with a luminance I have seen nowhere else.
John Leslie Breck (1859-1899), who was born at sea near Hong Kong and spent his final years in and around Ipswich, made his most evocative paintings of the littoral zone, that restless, shape-shifting place between land and sea, a objective correlative to his favorite time for painting - the crepuscular hour between day and night.  And so it is that the blue marsh estuaries have turned violet and pink.  I wonder if Breck had ever had the twilight experience of seeing the earth's shadow in the eastern sky as the sun sets in the west, a demarcation between blue and violet that is a product of particles of the earth's atmosphere.  I first saw this as a child living in Newburyport one evening when my parents pointed it out to me from our backyard.

Claude Monet  settled his family at Giverny in 1883, just beginning to enjoy some commercial success in his forties, thanks to the efforts of his Parisian dealer Durand-Ruel.  He began by renting the house at Giverny, only becoming able to purchase it seven years later when he turned fifty.   It was no part of his intention to establish an art colony in  the picturesque Norman  village but by 1887 the first group of his American admirers had descended on him for the summer: Willard Leroy Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, and John Leslie Breck.   Breck  became an especially close friend of the artist.  However a  romance with Monet's stepdaughter Blanche ended badly and sent Breck home in 1890.  But Breck returned an altered painter, his colors brighter, his brushwork looser,  having cast his lot with the plein air or outdoor painters,  He died, an apparent suicide, at thirty-nine years old just as critics reckoned that he had come into his own as an artist.

Image:
John Leslie Breck - Essex  Massachusetts Moonrise, Breck family estate,  courtesy of Boston Center for the Arts.