Published: September 21, 2004
Since the Nineteenth Century, the natural beauty of the Delaware River and the picturesque streams, hills, trees and villages of the countryside around New Hope have captured the imagination of numerous talented artists. The vibrant art colony that formed around New Hope a century ago produced a distinctively rugged brand of Impressionism that pumped new vigor into that fading style in this country.
The revival of interest in recent years in the achievements of the Pennsylvania Impressionists has focused much deserved attention on the work of their leader, Edward Willis Redfield. An exhibition organized by the James A. Michener Art Museum underscores Redfield’s talents. This exhibition carries on the museum’s efforts to advance knowledge and appreciation for the art of the Impressionists of the Keystone State.
On view at the Michener’s new New Hope gallery, “Edward W. Redfield: Just Values and Fine Seeing” can be seen through January 9. The exhibition travels to Sewell C. Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, Del., January 26-April 26.
Redfield’s vigorous, expressive depictions of the river, brooks, hills, forests and land around Bucks County, especially in winter, made him a leading American artist in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. His bold, strongly brushed glorifications of nature were often contrasted favorably with the more decorative, sentimental canvases of the Impressionists of New England.
The Redfield perspective, organized by the Michener’s curator of collections, Constance Kimmerle, offers more than 50 works from throughout the artist’s long career.
Born in Bridgeville, Del., but raised in New Jersey, Redfield (1869-1965) was the son of a successful Quaker nurseryman. Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in Paris, Redfield was a rugged outdoorsman and something of a loner.
In 1898 Redfield bought a farm along the towpath of the canal adjacent to the stately Delaware River in Center Bridge, Penn. He said he settled in rural Bucks County, away from the noise, bustle and grim of the city, “not for the beauty of the countryside, but because this was a place where an independent, self-sufficient man could make a living from the land, bring up a family and still have the freedom to paint as he saw fit.”
Redfield lived up to that declaration. In Center Bridge he worked not in his studio but outdoors seeking, as he put it, “to capture the look of a scene, whether it was a brook or a bridge, as it looked on a certain day.”
Redfield committed himself to completing plein air landscapes at “one go” as a means of recording his immediate responses to nature. This approach, of course, posed considerable physical challenges to an artist specializing in winterscapes.
“In the midst of a winter storm,” according to Bruce Katsiff, the Michener’s director and CEO, “…he would strap his large 50- by 56-inch canvases to a nearby tree, thin his paints with linseed oil to keep them from freezing, and use his gloved hands to paint the scene before him. His belief that a painting should be completed ‘in one go’ caused him to begin work in early morning and stand in the cold until the picture was finished in late afternoon.”
Until acquiring a car in 1912, Redfield painted most works within a mile walk of his home. He often returned to record the same area from different vantage points and/or in different weather conditions or seasons. Fascinated with the evanescence of the natural world, he utilized a vigorous realism in all his works, with special emphasis on the texture of snow and its receptivity to sunlight.
“By 1910,” Kimmerle writes, Redfield’s “keen ability to capture the ever-changing phases of winter had earned him a reputation as the leading painter of snow scenes.”
His palette, muted at first, grew brighter as he matured as a painter. An early winter scene, “Waiting for Spring,” 1901, shows a dark, low boat tethered in the canal under a gray, cloudy sky. His use of high-keyed colors and admiration for the beauty and power of the Delaware River are reflected in such wintry views as “The Riverbank, Lambertville, N.J.,” circa 1908-10, “The Upper Delaware,” circa 1918, and “Late Afternoon,” circa 1925-30.
He often zeroed in on water flowing over rock-strewn streams under bright sunshine in the midst of winter. In “The Trout Brook,” circa 1916, and “Winter Wonderland,” circa 1917 – each measuring a substantial 50 by 56 inches – quick brushstrokes and heightened colors enliven a brilliant wintry setting.
In perhaps his most beautiful winter scene, “Lumberville in Winter,” 1930, sunlight gives the thick mantel of snow a bluish tinge reminiscent of Frenchman Claude Monet’s snowscapes.
Later, as in “Early Spring,” 1920, he depicted scenes, such as the Delaware and its banks, in other seasons. One of his most striking fall views, “October,” or “Autumn,” depicts a solitary figure standing on a narrow country road amidst colorful autumnal foliage that nearly obscures a house.
In 1923 Redfield sketched on an envelope the dramatic conflagration that resulted when lightning struck the wooden bridge across the Delaware near his house. Back in his studio he created a dramatic view of people looking on helplessly as spectacular flames engulf the wooden span. Measuring a sizable 501/4 by 561/4 inches, “The Burning of Center Bridge,” 1923, is one of his most memorable images.
During the course of many summers in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where his house remains in family hands, his works emphasized the beauty of the coastal setting and the power of the sea. Redfield’s view of the harbor, replete with fishing shacks, boats bobbing on blue water and the village in the distance, are standouts. Top examples: “Boothbay Harbor,” 1915, and “October Breezes,” 1927. “Solitude,” 1927, captures waves confronting the rocky shoreline.
Redfield contributed to American art history while in Maine when he recommended to his visiting friend, painter-teacher Robert Henri, that he check out the spectacular scenery of nearby Monhegan Island. Henri’s enthusiasm about the place was reflected in his vigorous seascapes – and the number of his students, including George Bellows, Randall Davey and Rockwell Kent, whom he encouraged to visit and paint the rocky island.
An aloof figure in rural Bucks County who shied away from social events and shunned publicity in favor of working, Redfield nevertheless achieved wide popularity with critics and the public. Many viewed Redfield as a leader among artists who were invigorating American art, free of European traditions.
He won a boatload of honors – it is said he received more medals and prizes than any other artist except John Singer Sargent – and major museums collected his work. When he became an Academician at the National Academy of Design in 1904, Thomas Eakins presented a fine portrait of his friend.
Redfield was honored with his own gallery, displaying 21 works, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Critics hailed him as a strong, virile American painter who created simple, direct and appealing canvases.
By the time he died in 1965 at the age of 96, the art world had passed by powerful, expressive realists like Redfield, and his work had receded into the shadows. This splendid retrospective, with so many beautiful works documenting Redfield’s rare gift of evoking nature’s most profound moods, should give further impetus to the revival of his reputation and that of the Pennsylvania Impressionists.
The 114-page Redfield catalog, written by Kimmerle, contains more than 70 color reproductions and numerous vintage photographs. Handsomely co-published by the Michener Museum and University of Pennsylvania Press, it is priced at $34.95 (softcover).
The Redfield exhibition is at the Michener Art Museum at 500 Union Square Drive in New Hope. For information, www.michenerartmuseum.org or 215-340-9800.
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