Friday, July 30, 2010
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Just back from a well-received lecture I gave with a colleague of mine from Chester College on White Mountain art and artists. This time we gave the presentation at The Balsams, a grand hotel in Dixville Notch. I tried to give context for the arc of American landscape painting from the 1820s to about 1870 and today with a focus on the twin lights of White Mountain art as these painters saw it: the pastoral vistas and the sublime precipices of the White Mountain range.
The following essay of mine appeared in the catalogue of an exhibition of White Mountain art mounted by The Banks Gallery. It appears in the book “Visions in Granite II,” published in 2008 by Blue Tree in Portsmouth, N.H.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains played a crucial and still under-appreciated role in the coming of age of American art. Arriving in the midst of nineteenth century America’s desire for a worthy symbol of national identity, the artistic “discovery” of the White Mountains was a key moment in the establishment of a nationalist aesthetic under the banner of the liberat
ion of American painting from European models. In the 1820s, before the opening of the American West, the White Mountain region offered unparalleled expansive pastoral views coupled with the most rugged peaks and chasms accessible at the time. During the nineteenth century, their majestic views and picturesque valleys proved irresistible to hundreds of artists, both men and women, who found in them not only a dazzling beauty but a Romantic Eden full of sublime portent and seemingly endless creative possibility.
Lancaster hunter-trapper Timothy Nash discovered the area known as Crawford Notch in 1771 while tracking a moose over Cherry Mountain. He correctly matched the gap he spotted to his south with Native American lore describing a steep-walled pass through the mountains. He made his way there, pushed through it, and kept going all the way to Portsmouth to tell the governor about it. He was promised that if he could get a horse through the Notch from Lancaster, which was doubtful, and then build a road in from the east, a good chunk of the land was his. He and a partner had to lower the horse over a few boulders with ropes, but they succeeded, and the first carriage road to the White Mountains opened in 1775. The Crawford family, the first to permanently settle there, ran a well-known inn and tavern at the base of Mount Washington, the Mount Crawford House, for years.
Early nineteenth-century paintings and engravings of Crawford Notch provided the country’s first glimpses of the magnificence of the White Mountains. Massachusetts landscapists Thomas Doughty and Alvan Fisher traveled to the White Mountains in the 1820s and ‘30s, and a Romantic painting of the Notch by Fisher made a sensation when he exhibited it in Boston in 1834. But Thomas Cole’s celebrated 1839 work, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., inaugurated a whole new ideal in American art.
A critic writing that year in New York’s art newspaper The Knickerbocker hailed Cole’s painting as a “truly American picture,” in no small part because of the “boldness of the scenery itself.” Grand with towering mountain peaks and lush with streams, lakes, and valleys, the White Mountains more than anywhere else in the nation seemed to offer early-to-mid nineteenth century artists and writers a distinctly American synthesis of picturesque beauty and sublime grandeur superior even to European antecedents. Cole, considered a major pioneer of the so-called Hudson River School style, singled out New Hampshire and its “wild” mountains as uniting all of the quintessentially “American” qualities of the new world’s landscape. In his influential “Essay on American Scenery,” published in the American Monthly Magazine’s January 1836 issue, Cole rhapsodized that:
“in the mountains of New Hampshire there is a union of the picturesque, the sublime and the magnificent; there the bare peaks of granite, broken and desolate, cradle the clouds; while the vallies (sic) and broad bases of the mountains rest under the shadow of noble and varied forests …. although in some regions of the globe nature has wrought on a more stupendous scale, yet she has nowhere so completely married together grandeur and loveliness – there [one] sees the sublime melting into the beautiful, the savage tempered by the magnificent.”
Hallmarks of nineteenth century Romanticism, the “sublime” and the “picturesque” represented two poles of emotional response to nature; the picturesque spoke to nature’s beauty and its Platonic symbolism of the harmony between the human and the divine; the sublime spoke to mortality and the insignificance of human life in the face of the violent, impersonal forces of nature.
In Crawford Notch, Cole, who was a strongly didactic and dramatic narrative painter, depicted a tense, forbidding, dangerous wilderness such as the public had been led to expect from cautioning guidebooks and “reports from the interior.” At the bottom of the steep, broken cliffs of the pass, Cole included the deserted cabin of the famous Willey family. In 1826, a massive landslide in Crawford Notch drove the valley’s first pioneering family, that of Samuel Willey, Jr. his wife, five children, a hired man and a boy, from out of their homestead and to their deaths, perversely sparing the cabin they’d evacuated. Adjacent to it, Cole depicted a larger homestead, perhaps the Crawfords’, as emblematic of the Jeffersonian ideal of small holders contentedly cultivating their share of the land. Above them, blue sky battles a passing storm. Dead trees throw up blanched, contorted branches while foreground shadow darkens the looming stumps of trees downed by axes and nature’s caprice.
Nathanial Hawthorne blended traditional elements of the sublime and the picturesque in his sketch of the Willey incident in “The Ambitious Guest,” in which “the lowly cottage,” its hearth “piled high with the driftwood of mountain streams” and “the splintered ruins of great trees” is engulfed by the “unutterable horror of catastrophe” in “a cataract of ruin.” The “Willey Disaster,” as it came to be known, kindled interest as its story reverberated along the eastern seaboard, confirming early reports of the dangers of this “wild” region. For artists, however, the vacant Willey cabin, standing abandoned to the elements, instantly created a “ruin” emblematic of the darker forces in nature, furnishing artists such as Cole with a pictorial theme worthy of earlier European art’s “Gothick sublimity.”
Over the succeeding decades, Crawford Notch, Mount Washington and Chocorua and the rest of the White Mountains provided more than just compelling subject matter. Then, as now, they provided an ideal site for artists seeking American scenery illuminated by high Romanticism’s twin lights: nature’s primeval sublimity and “picturesque” – and unforgettable – beauty.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
A friend of mine who writes for the Valley Advocate has produced a wonderful love-letter to my favorite natural history museum, the lost-in-time Woodman Institute in Dover NH. It's a wonderful read, and I make a cameo appearance in it to boot.