Monday, September 22, 2014

The White Mountains, Beautiful & Sublime

Early impressions of the majesty and drama of New Hampshire's White Mountains and the Catskills fired up artists' and the public's imagination and set American painting on its feet.

Thomas Doughty and Alvan Fisher were early artists to find beauty and majestic power the Whites.

Alvan Fisher, Crawford Notch, c. 1820s

Alvan Fisher, The Gate of the Notch from the House of Thomas Crawford

Alvan Fisher, Elephant's Head, Crawford Notch

Thomas Doughty, A Lake in the White Mountains

New York's Hudson River Valley was more accessible in the early 1800s, but a young Thomas Cole, a transplanted British-born landscape painter steeped in European Romanticism, was on the lookout for something more "sublime" than could be found in the picturesque Catskills. He got it in the form of a massive mudslide that wiped out the only settler family in Crawford Notch in 1826. 

Most of the nineteenth century art world thought of beauty in terms of three categories, the pastoral, the picturesque, and the sublime. The first two were about "pleasing the eye" and representing humanity in harmony with nature as a source of spiritual sustenance.

Thomas Cole, Catskill Creek, 1845

Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1650
Cole in the 1800s, as you can see from comparing the two paintings above, often repeated a European formula for landscape painting laid down by Claude Lorraine in the mid 1600s. Many of Claude's paintings are "pastoral" because they depict idealized scenes of classical rural life - shepherds, nymphs, pagan temples and benign characters from Romand and Greek literature. Cole painted "picturesquely" throughout his career. The Cole above is "picturesque" because of the bucolic, pleasing aspects of nature he presents in a harmonious way.)

The last of the three categories of natural beauty, the sublime, as articulated by English philosopher Edmund Burke, refers to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed Nature and its overwhelming forces such as thunderstorms, deep chasms, glacial rivers and voids - anything that reminds us that humanity is not in control.

The European Sublime: Salvator Rosa's 17th century depiction of a hermit in the wilderness.

The infamous landslide disaster that befell the Willey family was national news (at the time "national" meant pretty much the east coast to the Mississippi). It had spooky overtones too - although the family evacuated the homestead to shelter in a smaller structure, the thundering avalanche of rocks, trees, and tons of heavy earth hit a boulder in back of the house and split into two streams, leaving the Willey house untouched, only to flow together again and obliterate the shelter and the nine people within it. A Bible was found open at the table in the empty house, where the patriarch must have been reading aloud from Psalm 18: 

"The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hail stones and coals of fire... the foundation of the earth was [laid bare] in thy rebuke, Oh God."s

As a motif of the New World Sublime it was tailor made, and Cole came up to sketch the site as soon as he could. Europe had classical ruins, abandoned medieval abbeys and other emblems of humanity's smallness in the face of time and natural law, but America was too new for that kind of mythology. What it did have though was wilderness. Cole's depictions of the White Mountains wilderness, complete with symbolic summits and dead trees dwarfing tiny emblems of humanity, were a sensation. 
Thos. Cole, Autumn Landscape, Mount Chocorua, NH, 1828
On arriving at the location, Cole wrote the following: We now entered the Notch, and felt awestruck as we passed between the bare and rifted mountains. . . . The site of the Willie [sic] House standing with a little patch of green in the midst [of] the dread wilderness of desolation called to mind the horrors of that night. . . when these mountains were deluged and rocks and trees were hurled from their high places down the steep channelled sides of the mountains. . . .

Ten years later, his famous A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (1839) depicts the hotel that was built on the site two years after the slide.

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839 
Here Cole has harmoniously married the beautiful and the terrible, the peaceful and the threatening, as evidenced most clearly in the two skies, one calm, the other stormy, and the inclusion of both hand-hewn tree stumps and naturally broken trees. 

Here's another example of White Mountain paintings that touches upon the sublime.

Jasper Cropsey, An Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains, 1857
Blending to varying degrees the sublime and the picturesque in single paintings, Cole would become the father of the style of painting that would later be called the Hudson River School; the nation's top landscapists and many others followed to discover and sketch on many other painting sites in the Whites.

William Trost Richards, View in the White Mountains, 1866

John Frederick Kensett, A Reminiscence of the White Mountains

John Frederick Kensett, An October Day in the White Mountains, 1854

Close to 200 years later, the White Mountains still offer artists a sense of the primeval and the vast. Here in Eric Aho's 2008 "Blasted Tree" we get a contemporary painter's interpretation of the wilderness of the north, even down to the broken tree that here takes a central role.

Eric Aho, Blasted Tree, 50" x 70," oil on linen, 2008

White Mountain Workshop

I'll be teaching a three-day plein air workshop in the White Mountains, not far from the site of the Willey disaster in Crawford's Notch next week (Sunday - Wednesday, Sept 28-30). Want to come? You can register here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Notes, Redux

Art can change your life
I'm convinced: that nagging feeling is correct - the one that tells you, "This can't be all there is."

Art is proof. It's a concrete portal to a renewed sense of real life, the promise of experiencing yourself and the life around you in a more authentic way. The problem is, in reality YOU are the portal, and art, like everything else, only reflects back what you bring to it. So what, exactly, is “real?”

Christopher Volpe, View from Laudholm Farm, York, ME

My practice tends to swing between abstraction and representation, which, unfortunately, are are often the terms in which I think of my work. Because every now and then I wake up and realize that it doesn't really matter - in reality, a painting is worthy (or not) for reasons other than style, technique, or artistic approach.

JMW Turner, Off Margate, c. 1850

The exhibition Turner and the Sea (which closed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts on Sept. 1) demonstrated to me (among other things), that contrary to the Modernist's battle cry, a great artist need not reject or shatter conventions to create lasting works of genius.

I think what's needed for truly good work is the determination to combine inherited conventions with personal vision but to put that vision first - to make technique subservient to a moment of authentically felt heightened emotional perception. In practice this means to use all the art you possess to serve a preexisting sensation rather than to dress up a conventional landscape with personal touches - to begin with the feeling, totally unsure of anything else, letting go of the question of whether or not you are about to make a good painting. This is my new plein-air rallying cry.

Christopher Volpe, Provincetown, Late August

I realize that the unspoken assumption behind these ideas is that the quality of a work of art depends as much on the depth and quality of the artist's self development (as a person) as upon his or her "talent," training, or technique (a trap for artists at any stage). 

But if this is true, the resulting work becomes more than just a picture; it becomes a reminder that options are open and that much more is possible.

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples

Fortunately or unfortunately, it ONLY becomes real in the process of painting! Despite such promises of transcendence, working out an artistic practice in your head is like wrestling with ghosts.

So you paint for the sake of painting, waiting for the magic. Maybe the more often the magic comes, the easier it becomes to summon it (one can hope!). 

Quite recently, I've been able, for brief interludes, to stop overthinking it and just keep painting. It's like sleepwalking - even if, inevitably (as Billy Joel says), you wake up with yourself.

Christopher Volpe, Summer, Rocky Pond

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Notes to Myself

The artist's job is to discover and cultivate an authentic relationship between self and nature (nature = "everything else").

Art INVENTS: spontaneity, discovery, creation.

Gustav Klimt, The Park

You can’t control what people think about your work, so stop trying to.

JMW Turner, Cilgerran Castle, Pembrokeshire

Q: "Are you a musician or do you just play the piano?" 

A: All you can do is play the piano until the day comes when, as you're watching your hands in motion, you look up and say, "Wow, I can really play the piano."

Sketch by Picasso (making friends with a sphinx?)