Published: March 27, 2007
A gifted, underappreciated artist, Charles Rosen (1878‱950) excelled at robust Impressionist views of the Pennsylvania countryside while living in New Hope, and at Cubist/realist views of manmade structures after he moved to Woodstock, N.Y. The wonder is that he was so accomplished and so successful in both phases of his career. Rosen was a star of the Pennsylvania Impressionists and then an important figure in the modernist movement in America.
Rosen’s fascinatingly bifurcated oeuvre and the restless intelligence that led him to shift styles and residences in midcareer is the subject of the exhibition “Form Radiating Life: The Paintings of Charles Rosen.” Organized by the James A. Michener Art Museum and its senior curator, Brian H. Peterson, the exhibition is on view at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz, through May 20.
Born in Reagantown, Penn., in the coal-mining region near Pittsburgh, Rosen showed early drawing ability. After a short stint running a photography studio, at age 20 he went to New York City, where he studied at the National Academy of Design and at the New York School of Art under William Merritt Chase and Frank Vincent DuMond. He worked as a commercial artist and ushered at a theater to make ends meet.
At the New York School of Art, he met fellow student Mildred Holden, whose father taught at West Point. After marrying in 1913, they spent their honeymoon in rural New Hope, which they liked so much that they settled there, eventually in a house along the towpath.
By this time the town’s art colony had begun to form around tonalist painter William L. Lathrop and Impressionist stalwart Edward W. Redfield, both well-known figures in the American art world. They were soon joined by such talented artists as John F. Folinsbee, Daniel Garber and Robert Spencer. The New Hope painters concentrated on landscapes †pastures and quarries, rivers and canals †with occasional mills and bridges, brickyards and tenements in sight.
When commercial art assignments dried up, Rosen began to paint landscapes, which eventually sold well. His earliest works, influenced by Lathrop, were in a delicate tonalist manner, characterized by muted colors and an effort to convey the feel of a place rather than what it actually looked like. Examples in the exhibition include “The Delaware Thawing,” 1906, and “Across the River,” 1909.
Rosen was even more strongly influenced by Redfield, the acknowledged star of area artists, with an international reputation for strongly brushed views of the countryside, especially in winter. “The Boat in Winter,” 1907, and “The Mill Pond,” 1908, large, snowy realistic paintings, executed with gusto, suggest his debt to Redfield.
With people and animals rarely in view, Rosen focused on the scenic countryside of Bucks County, particularly the wide Delaware River and its surroundings. Large, Redfield-like paintings, such as “A Winter Morning,” circa 1913, “Floating Ice, Early Morning,” circa 1915, and “The Frozen River,” circa 1916, also demonstrate Rosen’s predilection for framing dynamic snowscapes of the river with foreground trees or branches, a touch inspired by Japanese prints. A similar aesthetic animates less snowy river views, like “Morning on the Delaware,” circa 1912, and “The Delaware in Winter” and “Winter Birches,” both circa 1917.
Some of Rosen’s best New Hope work involved efforts to capture the changing moods of nature at various times of day. Standouts include “Winter Patterns,” circa 1916, in which the sunlit mountain is reflected in tranquil water, an untitled 1908 work that captures the essence of a rocky island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay that he visited, and “Autumn on the Delaware River,” circa 1916, whose stippled brushwork is reminiscent of Childe Hassam’s oils of rockbound Appledore Island off the Maine-New Hampshire coast.
“Icebound River,” circa 1915, a highlight of the show, utilizes lots of blues and whites to evoke the mood and look of the Delaware River at dawn. The hush of winter hangs over the ice-clogged water in a manner that puts one in mind of John H. Twachtman’s paintings of similarly poetic wintry scenes.
Rosen’s admiration for the subtle, decorative paintings of Garber is reflected in works as early as “Opalescent Morning,” circa 1909, and as late as “Spring Branch,” circa 1916. In these carefully composed, luminescent canvases, the flecked brushwork and multihued paint, along with foreground branches, give an ethereal feel to views across the river.
Like Garber, Rosen liked to depict quarries around New Hope. In “The Quarry in Winter,” circa 1910, the muted palette, misty atmosphere and shimmering reflections in the water project a scene of quiet, icebound beauty. In reality, the quarries were sites of noise, hard work and sweat.
Rosen shared in the accolades accorded the Pennsylvania Impressionists, whose virile, muscular style was contrasted favorably with the more delicate aesthetic of their counterparts in New York and New England. As contemporary artist/critic Guy Pene du Bois put it, the other Impressionists were too aristocratic and too concerned with beauty, whereas the Pennsylvania painters were rugged, vigorous and “truly American.” He characterized their painting in 1915 as America’s “first truly national expression.”
The Pennsylvania School was represented by 50 paintings, 21 by Redfield, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Numerous Bucks County artists won medals, including Rosen with a silver. The display “proved that the Pennsylvania Impressionists comprised the leading school of American landscape painting in the early Twentieth Century,” according to art historian Thomas Folk.
Rosen, however, felt increasing misgivings about Impressionism, telling his friend Folinsbee that his landscape “Winter in Sunlight,” 1917, which went on to win several prizes, would be his last canvas in that style. The diverse styles Rosen employed with great success during his time in New Hope suggest his restless search for a vocabulary with which he was comfortable.
Rosen was increasingly drawn to new modernist art emanating from Europe that had been showcased at the celebrated Armory Show in New York in 1913. The first stirring of modernism came in Rosen’s late New Hope painting, “Under the Bridge,” circa 1918, in which the undergirding of a Delaware River span frames a jumble of buildings. Far removed from his previous poetic evocations of nature, Rosen here applied a kind of quasi-Cubist manner to a realistic scene. “[I]t has most of the fingerprints of his modernist style,” says Peterson.
In 1918, while teaching at the Art Students League’s summer school in Woodstock, Rosen found an art colony much more receptive to modernist styles. In 1920, he moved permanently to the Upstate New York community, where, among more kindred souls, he moved more decisively toward the avant-garde. “I think of it as a most happy development for me,” he said of the move, “since it resulted in opening up a completely new and exciting aspect of the whole art problem.”
The ambience of the Woodstock art colony was initially set by an Englishman, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, who, inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, founded an Arts and Crafts community, “Byrdcliffe,” there in 1903. The arrival of the Art Students League summer school introduced diverse aesthetic interests to the Woodstock mix. “[M]odernist tendencies were in lively competition with traditional practices” in Woodstock, writes art historian Tom Wolf in the catalog.
In Woodstock, Rosen became particularly close friends with painters George Bellows and Eugene Speicher. They built homes near each other on what is now Bellows Lane, forming a close-knit art compound. They painted together in the countryside and their families actively participated in Woodstock’s lively social life. Rosen’s beautiful teen-aged daughter, Katharine, was the subject of a much-admired portrait by Bellows, now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Often joined by artists such as John Carlson and Leon Kroll, the Bellows Lane group relaxed by playing poker at Rosen’s place. The odd man out at these sessions often executed vivid, rapidly sketched “poker portraits,” like Bellows’s graphite likeness of Rosen.
Although he was closest socially to the more traditional Bellows and Speicher, Rosen’s adventurous spirit led him to work in a style that allied him with such like-minded Woodstock modernists as Konrad Cramer, Andrew Dasburg and Henry Lee McFee. Rosen’s fascination with the “thrusts and stresses of form” was grounded in the modernist revolution, spurred by his interest in Paul Cezanne’s firmly structured paintings, sculptor Constantine Brancusi’s simplified birds and human forms, painter Piet Mondrian’s abstracted grids and Bucks County artist Charles Sheeler’s precisionist work.
Rosen’s early experiments with geometric forms led to firmly brushed depictions of jumbled factories and working-men’s homes around town. In choosing to depict architectural subjects associated with blue-collar workers, like “Cliff Dwellings,” circa 1918′0, and “Village Bridge,” circa 1919, Rosen aligned himself with the Ash Can School painters. “[T]his is where the people in Ash Can paintings would have their jobs if they lived upstate,” Wolf observes.
By 1925, in “Railroad Bridge,” Rosen offered a thoroughly modernist view of a bridge and industrial site that somehow melds into a kind of romanticized image. In and around Woodstock, Rosen employed his new style to record such features as wooden houses (“The Village, 1935); cluttered artisans’ structures (“Blacksmith Shop,” circa 1930), and brick factories adjacent to houses (“Brickyard Buildings,” undated).
Around the early 1930s, Rosen returned to the subject of quarries with one of his most ambitious and complex paintings, “Quarry and Crusher.” Seeking to capture the quality of the manmade structures imposed on the natural surroundings of the quarry and the mountain behind, he also tried to bring order out of what was essentially a discombobulated scene. The process by which this complicated image was created, according to Peterson, “was both disciplined in its search for order within chaos and refreshingly ‘seat of the pants’ in its rejection of systems and theories in favor of a more fluid approach to composition.”
Some of Rosen’s strongest modernist works grew out of his affinity for the resilient, sharp-nosed riverboats and tough, squat tugboats that he observed on the Hudson River around nearby Kingston. The Cubist geometry of his mature modernist style, as demonstrated in “Riverboat, Hudson River,” 1939, “Side Wheel in the Rondout,” circa late 1930s, and “Three Tugs,” circa early 1930s, was ideally suited to capturing the gritty solidity of these essential participants in commerce along the Hudson.
Toward the end of his career, Rosen turned out a number of spontaneous, graceful pastels on paper, often vases with flowers, which convey a sense of freedom and feel for color.
In the last year of his life he created an 8-by-10-inch pastel on paper, untitled (tugboats), 1949, utilizing simple lines and shapes in a colorful, semiabstract evocation of docked Hudson River tugs. Its free flowing harmony suggests Rosen’s kinship with Russian avant-garde pioneer Wassily Kandinsky. It is “arguably one of the most masterful pictures Rosen ever made,” says Peterson.
By all accounts, Rosen was a warm, empathetic man and beloved teacher who made friends wherever he went. As Bruce Katsiff, director and chief executive officer of the Michener Museum, puts it, “He was one of those rare artists who, in his lifetime, was respected both for his work and the life he led; he was a revered member of both the New Hope and Woodstock art colonies, and his friendships were legendary” in both communities.
On the day he died of complications from prostate surgery, his friend Speicher said that “the little town of Woodstock is in tears.”
The 198-page exhibition catalog contains useful chapters by Peterson and Wolf that examine both sides of Rosen’s oeuvre, as well as comparing and contrasting his two styles. The book is co-published by the Michener and the University of Pennsylvania Press and it sells for $45.
The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz, is at 1 Hawk Drive. For information, 845-257-3844 or www.newpaltz.edu/museum .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm