Monday, April 6, 2015

Tracking Abbott Thayer's Monadnock

I had the words of poet Donald Hall in my head:

"Great blue mountain! Ghost."

I was driving to Dublin, New Hampshire in late March, about an hour from where I live, chasing a different mountain from Hall's in "Mount Kearsarge." I wanted to see and to paint Mount Monadnock, the name of which means "mountain that stands alone." Native Americans are said to have called it "Mountain of the Great Spirit." 

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Monadnock in Winter at the Currier Museum, Manchester, NH.
High res!- click to see it close.

I've been interested in Monadnock since seeing the painting above by Abbott Handerson Thayer. Today Thayer is known, when he is known at all, for painting angels and calling the world's attention to protective animal coloration, which quickly led to the invention of military camouflage in W.W. I. 

Not as widely known is that Thayer obsessed over Mount Monadnock, which towered above his Dublin studio, painting it many times in his later years. A total transcendentalist, he was a manic depressive who believed God was within nature and was dictating his imagery to him. William James, Henry's philosopher brother, sent his son to be tutored by Thayer, who was then among the most famous painters in the country (Thayer joined but quickly quit The Ten American Painters.) Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Frank W. Benson, and Edmund C. Tarbell all came to paint with him in Dublin.  

As both an American art history geek and an American literature geek, I was fascinated to learn that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote one of his most famous poems about the mountain. "Monadnoc" turns out to be a sort of rhyming instruction manual for applying transcendentalist ideals to everyday life (I like Emerson, but I find the poem unreadable). 

Among his circle at Concord, Emerson started a virtual cult of Monadnock. It became Henry David Thoreau's favorite mountain. He hiked it in 1844, 1852, 1858, and 1860 and studied its botany and geology extensively. It can take between four and nine hours to the summit and back, depending on the route one takes.

A. H. Thayer, Monadnock in Winter, owned by the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

I do prefer Thoreau's Monadnock poem to Ralph's. 

"With frontier strength ye stand your guard,
With grand content ye circle round,
Tumultuous silence for all sound..."

He imagines it as some vast, proud ship, "Sailing through rain and sleet,/Through winter's cold and summer's heat;/Still holding on upon your high emprise,/Until ye find a shore amid the skies..."

A. H. Thayer's Monadnock

The sight of the mountain, distinct because of its snow-collecting, denuded peak ("—its sublime gray mass," wrote Thoreau "—that antique, brownish-gray, Ararat color. Probably these crests of the earth are for the most part of one color in all lands, that gray color of antiquity, which nature loves.") certainly held a profoundly earthy yet mystical significance for him. Indeed, Thoreau seems to recommend seeing Monadnock over climbing it: 

"Those who climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself from the plateau below surpasses any view which you get from the summit. It is indispensable to see the top itself and the sierra of its outline from one side.... It is remarkable what haste the visitors make to get to the top of the mountain and then look away from it."

Surprise! Another of Thayer's depictions of Monadnock in winter.
At the turn of the 20th century, a wealthy admirer (related to the Boston Copleys I believe) offered to build the Thayer family a house and artist's studio in Dublin. Between the literary fuss and Thayer's relocation, Dublin became a magnet for wealthy socialites and the writers and artists who love them. 

Yup, another Monadnock in winter by Thayer

After studying a few of Thayer's Monadnock paintings, I realized that although the compositions vary, they're all painted from the same location and the same time of year - they all show the same wintry view of Monadnock as it rises from behind a smaller slope that's offset to the left. The time of year - March - was right. I became obsessed with finding that spot. 

"O pilgrim, wandering not amiss!" (Thoreau)

Monadnock about a 3/4 mile from the state park trailhead.

Leaving Monadnock State Park (there's little point going unless you're going to climb it) and checking the paintings, I realized Thayer had to be painting it from the other side. Of course - Dublin, NH, and the Dublin art colony. I drove along the skirt of the mountain to the Historical Society of Cheshire County Archive Library and Museum in Keene, NH.

Here I pored over histories of Dublin and its art colony as well as the one at nearby Cornish, NH. I learned that the land procured for Thayer's use was "above Dublin Pond," in other words, between the pond and the mountain.  

Of the many luminaries who came and went here during the "American Renaissance" the most famous today are Mark Twain, Tarbell, Benson, Birge Harrison, Rockwell Kent, who was actually a student of Thayer's, the Rev. Higginson who first published Emily Dickinson, Imagist poet Amy Lowell, scores of transcendentalists, and many other painters and writers, amid sojourners such as Amelia Earhart, Ethel Barrymor, and William Howard Taft. 

I learned that some of the artists (Thayer?) resided in an enclave called Lone Tree. I left Keene and headed over to the "town" of Dublin. 

If there's really a town here it's well hidden. Although there stands a town hall, a library, and a few other quaint, quasi-official looking buildings, I didn't see any evidence that anyone ever went in or out of them; I think Dublin's still around so it can support the headquarters of Yankee Magazine.

There's a Dublin historical society and a library too, but neither was open, so I kept on scouting about.  

Abbott H. Thayer, Dublin Pond, New Hampshire, c. 1896

Dublin Pond in winter

It didn't take long to find Dublin Pond (I passed it on my way into town), and sure enough, but for the ice and snow cover, it looked just like they'd painted it (sort of). During the colony's heyday, the road above the pond was dotted with mansions, many of which are still there. Between the mystical aura, the genuine natural beauty of the place, and the ready market of well-heeled sophisticates, the Dublin Art Colony, as it's known today, was born beneath the mountain - just exactly where, I didn't know. 

Rockwell Kent, Dublin Pond (1903)

Rockwell Kent, Winter, Monhegan, Island (1907) has been called the 20th century's first American masterpiece. But why not the 1903 "Pond" above?

I could see from the road above the pond that the mountains here could align the way they look in Thayer's painting.

This is the view from directly across the pond.

But Thayer's view was closer than I could get just by driving back and forth looking for a way up into the hills.

Remnants of faded 19th century opulence were everywhere.
There was nothing but private roads. I did find one called "Lone Tree Road," and I even ventured up it. There was an old rambling manse at the top of the hill but absolutely no view of Monadnock. It did occur to me that maybe the waves of pine trees had grown up and obscured the peak. A Real Estate listing for the place told of "two art studios on the property," so I assume this was in the "Latin Quarter" and certainly not far from Thayer's studio.

This looked very promising based on the alignment of the two mountains in Thayers' paintings, but I decided it wasn't worth being automatically arrested. 

Eventually I had to drive on without locating Thayer's vantage point. However, I did find a good spot to paint out of the wind in a cemetery across the pond. 

Here's the sketch I came away with. It's not much next to Thayers' but I hope to expand on it as he was wont to do, in the studio.

Monadnock Sketch, 6" x 8" oil on paper
I of course will go back to paint Monadnock. And I do still want to find out where Thayer's studio was. 

Monadnock from Wachusett

I would I were a painter, for the sake
   Of a sweet picture, and of her who led,
   A fitting guide, with reverential tread,
Into that mountain mystery. First a lake
   Tinted with sunset; next the wavy lines
   Of far receding hills; and yet more far,
Monadnock lifting from his night of pines
   His rosy forehead to the evening star.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1862)

Monadnick as rendered by Rockwell Kent


  1. A lyrical post befitting a lyrical subject....and
    a lovely painting, too. Thanks, Chris.

  2. A lyrical post befitting a lyrical subject....and
    a lovely painting, too. Thanks, Chris.

  3. Loved reading and seeing this. I have very close friends who live in the woods of Dublin NH and have loved it all their lives. A well kept secret.

  4. It's great to get the insights of a painter who actually lives in or near New Hampshire. It's also encouraging that you give Thayer the recognition he deserves. My blog about him is primarily about the angels, but he's also a sensational still life and landscape painter.

  5. Thoughtful and illuminating as ever. Thanks for the literature and history and art history lesson.