It is not often these days that a previously neglected, highly accomplished Nineteenth Century American painter is rediscovered, much less that his superb collection of works by like-minded colleagues comes to public attention. Yet that is the case with “Luminist Horizons: The Art and Collection of James A. Suydam” currently on view at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts through December 31.
The exhibition introduces most viewers to Suydam (1819–1865), a masterful landscape painter, and the rich collection he acquired — and gave the National Academy of Design, predecessor of the National Academy Museum — works by himself and distinguished friends and colleagues. It also provides insights into the oft-misunderstood Luminist movement.
Displayed are nearly 20 of Suydam’s beautifully composed, serene canvases, along with 35 works by such Hudson River School and Luminist compatriots as Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey, Asher B. Durand, Sanford Gifford, William Hart, Daniel Huntington, Eastman Johnson, John F. Kensett, William Trost Richards and Worthington Whittredge. Many of these artists formed a circle of Suydam friends, who influenced each other’s work and charted new paths for landscape painting.
The first major exhibition in a quarter century to examine Luminism, the show offers a fresh, individual perspective on the development of that landscape aesthetic in the 1850s and 1860s. It suggests the manner in which Luminists, with their expressive depictions of the effects of light and atmosphere, advanced American art at a crucial period in the nation’s history. For a nation torn asunder by the Civil War, Suydam and his peers created beautiful images filled with peace, order and stability, whose appeal endures to this day.
Suydam (pronounced “soo-DAM”) came late to painting and collecting. Born in Manhattan into a wealthy merchant family, he dabbled in medicine and architecture, traveled extensively in Europe and became a businessman in New York before he began painting landscapes in the late 1840s. His pride in his Dutch heritage was reflected in his purchase of Eastman Johnson’s charming “The Art Lover,” 1859, depicting a Dutch child perusing an illustrated book.
Suydam’s inherited fortune gave him the opportunity to take a decade to evolve from amateur painter influenced by Durand and coached by Kensett to a respected professional artist. His affluence also enabled him to assemble an impressive art collection, and to become one of the best-read artists of his generation.
Modest to a fault, Suydam shunned the public spotlight and did not exhibit his work at the National Academy of Design until 1856, when he was 37. Two years later he opened a studio in the famed Tenth Street Studio Building in Manhattan. He was active in the prestigious, art-oriented Century Association.
An early impetus for Suydam to take up serious painting was provided by his acquaintance with the oldest Hudson River School artist, Durand (1796–1886), and his acquisition by 1851 of the latter’s exquisite “Landscape,” 1850. Here, two artists, whom co-curator Katherine E. Manthorne, professor of American art at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, speculates may be Durand and Suydam, commune in a forest clearing in front of a Catskills-like vista. One of a number of canvases acquired by Suydam that contain pairs of figures, it reflects his view that the “enjoyment of the natural world was not a solitary but rather a communal occupation,” according to Manthorne.
By the time Kensett (1816–1872) took Suydam under his wing, in the early 1850s, the former had trained in Düsseldorf, exhibited in New York for more than a decade, and was well on his way to becoming one of the nation’s leading landscape painters. Kensett’s small but evocative “Glimpse through the Wood,” circa 1850, an image of trees framing men and cattle and a distant mountain, and his much larger view of a vigorous stream flowing over rocks in a woodland interior, “Bish Bash,” 1855, reflect the influence of Cole and Durand, early leaders of the Hudson River School. Manthorne contends in the catalog that while Suydam learned much from Kensett early on, the latter’s later work was significantly influenced by Suydam’s reductive, nonnarrative style.
Suydam also purchased Church’s “Scene on the Magdalene,” 1854, a characteristically expansive South American view which, along with his domestic panoramas, notably “Niagara” of 1857, catapulted landscapes to new heights in America, and signaled their status as a national art. Also in Suydam’s collection was “Coastal Scene,” 1862, by William Trost Richards, who received both encouragement and advice from his patron and became well-known for his shoreline scenes.
Gifford (1823–1880), the only Hudson River School painter born in the region, benefited from college study and inherited wealth, as did Suydam, and they shared a passion for vistas of New England. The Suydam collection includes Gifford’s “Mt Mansfield, Vermont,” 1859, a grand, poetic view of the distant peak with two Native Americans in the foreground.
Suydam’s first masterpiece, “At River’s Bend,” circa 1855, with its gemlike rendition of expansive space, soft atmospheric illumination and pronounced tranquility, suggests how rapidly the neophyte painter mastered a Luminist style.
Another early Suydam work, set in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, “Conway Meadows,” circa 1857, emphasizes the brilliant light and pastoral qualities of golden-hued trees in the foreground meadow and the placid Saco River, rather than the Presidential range of mountains in the distance. The atmospheric delicacy, simplicity and freshness of this view help explain its lasting appeal.
Suydam’s affinity for quiet, panoramic views of New England scenery prompted him to collect work of Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832–1928), a talented painter largely overlooked nowadays, who ended up living in Granby, Conn. On view in the exhibition are three Suydam-like canvases by Shattuck, all painted in New Hampshire, “The Ford (River Scene),” 1856, “Along the Saco,” 1857, and “On the Saco, North Conway,” 1857.
Suydam’s art reached its maturity after 1861, when his professional standing was confirmed by election to full membership in the prestigious National Academy of Design. “Beverly Rocks,” circa 1860, featuring boulders, sea and sailboats, is thought to be his diploma work for the academy. He was a key player and a principal fundraiser for that expanding institution.
For the brief remainder of his life, Suydam’s paintings became larger and were more expertly and confidently executed. “Hook Mountain, Hudson River” of 1863, a shimmering, atmospheric picture, wonderfully evokes the serenity and beauty of the area around Lake George.
His friend, patron and fellow painter Daniel Huntington presented Suydam in an 1862 portrait as a dignified gentleman with muttonchop sideburns, posed before a turbulent seascape that symbolized concerns about the onset of the Civil War. Too old to serve, Suydam anguished about the conflict from the quiet, genteel precincts of Manhattan’s Washington Square and laid-back Newport. His acquisition of Thomas Hicks’s “Harriet Beecher Stowe,” 1855, depicting the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ignited the abolitionist movement, suggests Suydam’s support for the cause.
Although his own art tended to be small and serene, Suydam’s collecting tastes included images that were large and violent. Two of his seascapes, Cropsey’s “Coast Scene,” 1855, and German painter Andreas Achenbach’s enormous “Off Ostend,” 1859, showed the fury of the stormy ocean at its dramatic best. As Gifford observed, Suydam “was always ready to recognize and acknowledge excellencies of whatever kind and whatever school.”
Between 1861 and 1865 Suydam did his finest work, focusing on the shoreline around Newport, R.I. The area and subject matter offered solace and escape from concerns about the Civil War.
Co-curator Mitchell observes that in these last few years Suydam’s work became larger in scale, and is “recognizable by its level of abstraction, heightened use of local color, miniaturized figures and truncated perspective….”
In “Beach at Newport, Rhode Island,” circa 1860–65, a man sits on the beach reading a letter with his dog nearby, a woman shades herself with a parasol by her son on the grassy embankment, and a fisherman casts from the bow of a small dory.
On the calm sea in the distance, under Newport’s famed Cliff Walk, a score of sailboats sparkle in the sunlight. It is a “poetic rendering of light and atmosphere in [a] generally still panoramic composition,” observes art historian and Princeton professor John Wilmerding — and a far cry from the trauma of the war.
The distinctive Paradise Rocks on the Newport shoreline were the subject of several Suydam oils. Especially notable is an 1860 version, “Paradise Rocks, Newport,” long considered a quintessential Luminist work. Measuring 25 by 45 inches, it uses a silhouetted depiction of the unusual outcropping to form the backdrop to a view of a farmer and his cattle on the foreground meadow and beach. Vintage photographs verify the accuracy of Suydam’s portrayal.
Some of the most beautiful and evocative work of Suydam’s aborted career was inspired by visits to Long Island, especially East Hampton. A rosy, golden sunset casts a romantic glow over “Long Island,” 1862. In another acknowledgment of his interest in Dutch culture, a windmill is featured in a tranquil daylight view, “The Windmill (Easthampton, Long Island),” circa 1864. It looks like the windmill that stands today across from the pond-side cemetery where Thomas Moran is buried and adjacent to John Howard Payne’s “Home Sweet Home.” Another windmill is dramatically silhouetted against a red-yellow sky in “Twilight with Windmill,” undated.
After he began exhibiting his late, larger works at the National Academy of Design Annuals, Suydam’s paintings were acquired by some of New York’s leading collectors. His work was regularly praised as “poetic,” and as Mitchell puts it, “his abilities as a technician of gentle tonal gradation and as portraitist of nature at rest” were widely admired.
Exhausted by his philanthropic and aesthetic endeavors and depressed, Suydam succumbed to dysentery in New Hampshire at the age of 46. Gifford, who was at his bedside when he died, praised his friend’s art with its focus on nature’s “simpler and quiet phases, those phases which win our affection, rather than those which compel our admiration and wonder.”
Others hailed Suydam as a gentle man, a prominent supporter of the cultural life of New York, and as a painter of uncommon sensitivity and genius. His gift of 92 paintings to the National Academy, whose fortunes he had already done so much to advance, formed the nucleus of its fine permanent collection.
This long overdue display of Suydam’s exquisite paintings and the collection he bequeathed to posterity, along with the scholarly interpretation in the catalog, are important contributions to a neglected chapter in American art history. This intriguing, revelatory exhibition is co-curated by the National Academy Museum’s assistant curator of Nineteenth Century Art, Mark D. Mitchell, and Manthorne, in consultation with Wilmerding and retired Columbia professor Barbara Novak.
The illustrated, 192-page catalog, with essays by Manthorne and Mitchell on Suydam, his collection, his role at the National Academy of Design and his contributions to the development of Luminism, is published by George Braziller, Publishers; it sells for $29.95 (soft cover).
“Luminist Horizons” travels to The Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati (January 26–April 29); The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y. (June 3–September 16, 2007), and The Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah (October 9–January 6, 2008).
The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts is at 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. For information, 212-369-4880 or www.nationalacademy.org.