Published: July 16, 2002
By Bob Jackman
CLINTON, N.Y. – The Emerson Gallery of Hamilton College is presenting a fine exhibition entitled “Hamilton College Collects American Art” through August 7. Hamilton alumni have lent works from their personal collections. Ordinarily these paintings hang in private homes where they are enjoyed by owners and their comrades, out of public view. Many of these works are on public exhibition for the first time in decades.
The selection committee chose 63 works that comprise a balanced cross-section of fine art produced in America. A few showstoppers enjoy universal popularity — Smibert’s “Vew [sic] of Boston,” Homer’s “How Many Eggs?” and von Wiegand’s “Individual Worlds” — but all other paintings are also fine works.
Each of Emerson Gallery’s three rooms presents a thematically group of works hung roughly in chronological sequence. Themes are the natural landscape, the face of society and response to modernism.
It appears Hamilton collectors prefer works by male, rather than female, artists. While more than 50 male artists are represented, the only female artists are Charmion von Wiegand, Ilya Bolotowsky Ellen Day Hale and Jane Peterson — each with one work.
Curator of the exhibition and acting director of Emerson Gallery is artist William Sazillo. On July 1 he returned to his position as professor of studio art. His successor as acting director is David Nathans, formerly an investment advisor from Princeton, N.J.
Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum of Art, penned an essay that overviewed the exhibition. The three-member selection committee was composed of Daniel Dietrich II (Class of 1964), D. Roger Howlett (Class of 1966), and Adrienne Ruger Conzelman (Class of 1992).
The exhibition is the first show in a “Hamilton Collects” series. Next in the series will probably be “Hamilton College Collects Photography.” Two other shows in the planning stage will feature European art and Japanese prints. Most shows in the series will present works from many alumni collectors, but some will feature rdf_Descriptions from a single collection.
The Natural Landscape
The first painting visitors see upon entering Emerson Gallery is John Smibert’s (pronounced smeye- bert) 1738 masterful “A Vew of Boston.” Richard Saunders wrote in his 1995 book John Smibert: Colonial America’s First Painter that this work “is probably the first large-scale cityscape painted in America.”
For centuries, earlier military officers drew utilitarian topographical sketches, and around 1600 Dutch artists created the first fine art panoramic landscapes. Colonial printmakers published panoramic landscapes such as William Burgis’s “A View of Ye Great Town of Boston,” but there is no known painted American precedent for this work.
The fair-weather summer scene depicts extensive harbor activity including square-riggers under trimmed sails edging along the channel, cargo ships offloading at wharves and vessels riding at anchor. In developed sections of the city, most structures have been suggested with a roof or gable. About 20 of the largest buildings are, however, presented in detail with emphasis placed on architecturally distinct features. Beyond the commercial center, pastoral lands are depicted with hills in their proper location, scale and profile.
The city in the painting is definitely Boston as seen from Noddles Island in East Boston. The topography, layout of wharves and distribution of buildings precisely conforms to Boston. Nineteen of the buildings are major Boston landmarks of the era with the proper locations and designs. All buildings painted red are known to have been brick, and brown buildings are known to have been wood. A stone building on Fort Hill is painted gray.
The view was painted after 1735 since it shows the distinctive tower of Trinity Church that was added that year. The latest date for the painting is 1743 since it does not show Faneuil Hall, which was constructed in late 1743 and 1744.
The painting has been attributed to Smibert based upon aesthetic, technical and documentary grounds. Aesthetic grounds include the similarity between this painting’s sky, clouds and ships and landscape and the same elements in the backgrounds of portraits painted by Smibert. The painting of four foreground figures is highly skilled, and indicates that the artist was a superior Boston portrait painter.
Among the documentary evidence is a passage from Smibert’s personal notebook in which he listed his paintings. Smibert’s last entry for 1738 lists “A vew of Boston.” Contrary to earlier beliefs, Smibert was not exclusively a portrait painter since his notebooks list a total of 13 landscapes.
Numerous Smibert paintings have been found in England. It is possible that Loyalists fleeing Boston around the time of the American Revolutionary War took Smibert’s valuable paintings with them. “Vew of Boston” was purchased in England by American collectors who later consigned it to a Washington auction gallery where Roger Howlett of the Childs Gallery acquired it. After acquiring the work and having it cleaned, Howlett was able to establish that it had been painted by Smibert.
The Hudson River School is particularly well represented in the exhibition with works by Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, Albert Bierstadt, John Kensett and Louis Mignot. Bierstadt’s (1830-1902) “Seascape” and Mignot’s “Mountain Lake in Autumn” can also be classified in the Luminist School since they capture scenes bathed in golden light.
While the two works share a similar overall look, they evoke different emotions. The Mignot produces a tranquil, dreamy mood while the Bierstadt has an internally dramatic character that conveys alertness, even intensity. These differences are rooted in alternative approaches to the craft of depicting Luminism.
Mignot’s luminous effect was imparted in the initial stages of painting when a yellow glow was spread across the background sky and a deeper glow was applied over the centrally located river. As Mignot painted in his foreground areas on the left and right, he only added a few golden highlights, such as those seen on rocks. Most of the luminous effect on either side of the foreground was created by golden background light passing between tree branches. The gestalt effect is a pervasive, diffuse glow that depends upon a thin fog in the air, usually observed around dawn. The effect carries the viewer into an idyllic fantasy.
The luminous effect in Bierstadt’s small work “Seascape” was accomplished in a more meticulous manner. His glowing effect was created with the selective application of small highlights to surfaces of most elements in the work. The role of the artist’s eye was to recognize where reflecting surfaces are located on each rock, branch and other element of the scene. Across the painting Bierstadt applied tiny yellow, gold or orange dabs to every highlighted, reflecting surface.
Possibly influenced by Turner, Bierstadt captured scattered light with thousands of reflecting surfaces. The luminous effect he depicted was created when the broad glow of the distant sky passes through a clear atmosphere and tints all objects on the earth. This effect usually occurs during dusk.
Artists of the White Mountain School painted in a style closely related to that of the Hudson River School. The White Mountain School placed less emphasis upon idyllic renderings and concentrated a bit more upon the task of documenting natural landscapes from particular vantage points. A fine example on exhibit is Homer Dodge Martin’s “The White Mountains From Randolph Hill.”
This work documents the progression of seasons with altitude. On the flat plain of the central foreground, full autumnal colors blaze on birches and swamp maples. The mountains to either side have advanced into early winter as the hardwoods have lost their foliage, and the slopes are colored exclusively by evergreens. In the far distance, the caps of the presidential range are buried in winter snow. At the center, Mount Washington sits majestically as the center of the universe, or at least New Hampshire. Later in his career, Martin adopted a looser style sometimes referred to as American Barbizon.
The most quickly identified work on exhibit is Winslow Homer’s watercolor “How Many Eggs?” Visitors immediately recognize an association between this watercolor and the woodblock illustration “Raid on a Swallow Colony” that appeared in the June 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly. While the images share some elements, their compositions differ significantly. The later woodblock has a reversal of left and right, an addition of two boys in the lower section of the sand dune and a glimpse of the ocean beyond the face of the dune.
“How Many Eggs?” is an evocative and beautiful image. Scholars place it within Homer’s Gloucester series, which features barefoot boys in broad-rimmed hats enjoying leisurely pursuits. Published to celebrate blissful summer days, woodblocks in the series have assumed nostalgic appeal.
The work also chronicles Homer’s artistic development. Homer began his career as an illustrator responsible for precisely rendering events. Most of his watercolors prior to 1881 reveal the tight hand of an engraver. In “How Many Eggs?” however, Homer used his brush much more loosely, particularly in the lower half of the dune. He permitted himself to paint a cobblestone with a dab of blue and dab of orange, without introducing sculptural shadows.
As landscapes go, the composition is unconventional, with very little sky and thick grass near the top. There are attractive renderings of dune sand and clays. While the most prominent band of clay is orange, there are more gray clays. Homer has also depicted dry, white sand that has blown over the face of the dune, producing a gossamer coating.
While Italian and Dutch artists often painted fantasy landscapes blending features from different locations, American landscapes usually depict a specific site, emphasized with well-known landmarks. In Alfred Thompson Bricher’s “The Return of the Yacht, Scituate Glades” the viewer’s attention is deliberately directed toward the famed Minot lighthouse beyond rock outcroppings on the Cohasset coast.
Four devices lead the viewer toward the Minot light. First, the light is located on the horizon immediately behind the most brightly colored rocks of the picture. Second, the light is a short distance off the stern of the largest and most brightly colored sailboat. Third, a lady looking through binoculars, the most prominent figure in the composition, peers intensely in the direction of the sailboat and lighthouse. Fourth, fishing rods leaning in the left foreground are strong vectors pointing toward Minot light. One hundred and thirty years after the painting, it is possible to walk through the Glades section of Scituate and locate the same shoreline seen in Bricher’s painting.
Another strength of the exhibition is strong, abstract landscape. George Bellows’s “The Wave” breaks from the traditional seascape palette with colors and patterns that convey the ocean’s dynamic energy. Leon Kroll’s “Monhegan Rocks” emphasizes contrast of rocks and ocean by setting warm colors against cold, bright pigment against dark, and vertical strokes against horizontal. James Fitzgerald’s “Moonlit Ocean” abstracts further by reducing clouds and wave trains to geometric forms. Contrast is further intensified by darks that approach black and lights that are near to white.
The Face of Society
In the second room of Emerson Gallery the theme is “The Face of Society,” and one of the most popular works is Norman Rockwell’s “Barbershop Quartet,” loaned by J. William Holland. In preparing to paint his 1939 work “The Pharmacist,” Norman Rockwell borrowed some props from the Holland Pharmacy and offered to give the Hollands the finished painting.
Holland recounted, “‘The Pharmacist’ was either destroyed in a studio fire or asked for by one of the people at Curtis Publishing. Norman felt badly about that and resolved to give my father the ‘Barbershop Quartet,’ which he said was a better painting since it contained four, not two, figures.”
Holland recalled, “I remember him visiting our house to deliver the painting and explaining some of its composition to my parents. He said that rendering hands is a most difficult task.”
While Rockwell may have found hands challenging, he was immensely successful in capturing their expressive gestures. His depiction of faces and hands imparts energy and conveys individual personalities of the sitters. The four New Rochelle sitters for the portrait, from left to right, were a barber, police officer, firefighter and the artist Walter Beach Humphries.
Frederick Bridgman was the foremost American member of the Orientalist School that in the late Nineteenth Century specialized in depicting North African and Arabian scenes. One of his most striking interiors was “Oriental Scene.” In this work, strong, reflected light from a doorway or hearth illuminates two Arabian women creating skeins of wool thread while attired in exotic robes and jewelry. In the foreground, a cloud of smoke rises from a large incense burner. Fine textiles hang in the background.
The half-dozen American Impressionist works depicting people survey the stylistic range of the movement. Of all the American Impressionists, William Glackens most nearly painted in the manner of French Impressionists, with an emphasis upon color and light and with little concern for form. Glackens’s “At the Beach” depicts a hilly shore scene in brilliant colors, including some artificial hues such as red rocks and green sky. Form was presented so loosely that the viewer cannot be certain whether the red foreground contained sand or rock. The essence of the image, however, is immediately obvious — many women enjoying a wonderful summer’s day at the coast.
Similarly, in Maurice Prendergast’s “Figures on a Grassy Hill,” color again triumphs and conveys people at pleasure on a blustery summer’s day. Prendergast’s strong, unmixed colors bear more realistic hues than Glackens’s colors, and he offered a bit more attention to form.
Beyond the rolling cliff in the foreground, the viewer can discern the ocean and a second cliff. A cluster of cottages runs to the shore on the left. Three women in dresses walk along the cliff edge — so loosely painted viewers do not know whether they approach or depart. At the center of the foreground there appears to be a red picnic blanket and several figures. These scant hints leave the viewer spinning a dozen narratives.
In “New York Street Scene,” Childe Hassam’s suggestion of the background crowd, buildings, horses and coach is as loosely painted as the background in Prendergast’s scene. Hassam, however, rendered form to the foreground lady to assist in conveying a crucial sense of motion. The same dynamic brush strokes that delineate form also indicate the graceful, brisk sway of the lady.
The most evocative modern portrait on display is George Luks’s “Portrait of John.” Many artists of the modern movement collected American folk art, and some, such as Charles Sheeler and Marguerite Zorach, were well known for creating modern paintings stylistically consistent with early folk paintings. The Luks portrait is another such example. The broad brushstrokes are distinctly modern, but the toy soldier to the left of the child, along with directness of pose and flat presentation of form, hearken back to folk painting a century earlier.
“Portrait of John” was loaned to the exhibition by John Root, the sitter depicted in the image. Although he does not remember posing for the portrait, Root gave this later recollection of Luks: “My impression of Luks was that of a gruff, forceful adult in my mother’s Adirondack summer camp the year before his death. He had come to ‘dry out.’ Once when I was disrespectful to my parents, he, in my mother’s words, ‘boxed your ears.'”
Response to Modernism
The third room of Emerson Gallery features ten works around the theme “Response to Modernism.” The most visually dramatic and interesting of these works is Charmion von Wiegand’s “Individual Worlds.” Von Wiegand’s legacy will forever be linked to that of Piet Mondrian. As a young artist, she was struck by Mondrian’s work, and she followed his lead into Neo-Plasticism. She became a friend of Mondrian, and she, like Henry Holtzman, assisted the master by translating his New York writings into English. She was one of three people admitted to Mondrian’s room as he lay dying January 31, 1944.
Mondrian’s influence upon von Wiegand’s “Individual Worlds” is immediately apparent in her use of the three primary colors (red, blue and yellow) and three noncolors (white, black and gray). The work strikes a chord that brings to mind Mondrian’s “Victory Boogie Woogie” that the artist completed in the final month of his life. Both are busy, enthusiastic works that involve sometimes placing a smaller color pattern atop a large pattern of a different color. In this work, however, von Wiegand departs from Mondrian’s sole reliance upon rectangular color masses and straight lines
Among scholars of modern art, there has been a swing from an idealist interpretation of Mondrian and his followers to a materialist interpretation. Von Wiegand’s “Individual Worlds” demonstrates the artist’s intense concern with materials. While Mondrian’s abstractions were often musically inspired, specifically by jazz, von Wiegand’s abstractions often had a visual, more easily recognized, source. For example, toward the lower right of the image, there is a traffic light with blue substituted for green, because green is not a primary color. A few inches above that there is a red heart.
The Emerson Gallery
The Emerson Gallery, located on the campus of Hamilton College, occupies the first floor of Christian Johnson Hall. Campus signs indicate various visitor parking lots. Park and walk toward the chapel spire that is visible from all campus locations. Walk to the rear of the chapel, and Johnson Hall is visible across a short common.
Summer hours are Monday through Friday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 pm. Those who are considering a visit may want to purchase a catalog in advance. Catalogs are available for $30, and if purchased by mail the shipping and handling fee is $3.75. For information, 315-859-4396.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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