Harmony and Place and the History of American Art



By Ric Kasini Kadour



 



Prior to the 19th century, American art largely mimicked British painting. The subjects tended to be historic events and portraits of people wealthy enough to afford one. That changed in 1825 when young, British-born painter Thomas Cole took a steamship up the Hudson River and made some paintings. When he returned to New York City, he put them in the window of a bookstore where they caught the eye of the New York Evening Post and a number of wealthy patrons from along the Eastern Seaboard. Cole began teaching others his technique of applying the British style of sublime painting to the American landscape. 



The Hudson River School was an important development in the history of America because it was the first time that painting expressed contemporary American themes of exploration and settlement. Painters like John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford traveled extensively throughout New England and painted not only the land, but how people lived with the land. When Frederic Edwin Church came to Maine, he painted the coast near Mount Desert. His masterpiece, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), not only captures a brilliant sunset over Mount Katahdin, it expresses the tension over the coming Civil War. The artists created images that reflected a reverence for America’s natural beauty that was being expressed by writers at the time. These painters, along with writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, stitched the early cultural fabric of America. More importantly, it set the tone for the role visual art would play in the development and evolution of the nation.



In the first part of the twentieth century, two great debates took place in the art world which would alter and refine the role of painting in American culture. The first was a revolt against the tradition of painting laid out by the Hudson River School and an embrace of realism. When Robert Henri went to Monhegan Island in 1903, he wanted to avoid the quaint, clichéd images of the coast and paint the clash of the sea and the shore. He wanted to paint what Jessica F. Nicoll called the “elemental drama of the Maine coast.” The other great debate happened over a decade later when these ideas of American realism were challenged by ideas of Modernism that were coming from Europe after World War I. The Regionalism of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and Maine’s Marsden Hartley argued that American art should focus on rural America where most people lived. Hartley in particular returned to Maine to paint life at the local level. But Modernism, with its emphasis on individual psychology, was essential to the development of a twentieth century America, as it allowed for the softening of regional differences that divided the nation. The triumph of Modernism allowed America to become one America. This act fit squarely into the larger narrative of the nation. An emerging, post-World War II middle class created a culture of consumerism and changes in technology resulted in a consolidation of the media, particularly radio and television, which in turn sought advertisers with an interest in reaching consumers across the country. Markets and brands consolidated. Regionally specific potato chip companies merged to form nationwide snack brands. Television networks advertised brands of laundry soap available in stores from Bangor to Chicago to Los Angeles. America truly became one united nation. Maine painters became American artists.



One of the disadvantages to this new art world was that painting, while for the first time enjoying national attention through magazines like Life, was consolidating in New York City. Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and the myriad of succeeding art movements were no longer rooted in communities. The notion of a “local artist” became an artist whose success did not extend past their community. An artist’s regional identity was completely lost. 



“Maine. As they see it.” offers a rare opportunity to rediscover the work of artists who paint with a sense of place. Given Maine’s geography, it is not surprising that water is a frequent theme. Ocean waves crash into rocks in The Breakers by Ed Hicks or gently ripple ashore in Terese Rogers’s Evening Song. Anne Burnett-Hidell, Claudette Gamache, Scott Moore, Jill Valliere, Judith Schuppien and Monique Sakellarios give us images of marshes and wetlands and lakes. Susan Wahlrab’s Evening Cruise is a lush and meditative portrayal of the water, land, and sky. Gretchen Huber Warren’s Goose Rocks Beach is ostensibly about water but really about the people who flock to it. She renders beautifully a busy beach on a summer day and the myriad of activities--walking, swimming, floating, sailing, sandcastle building--that goes on there. The water in Jeffrey T. Fitzgerald’s Lightly appears abstract but is as realistic as the reflection in Olaf Schneider’s Red Boots



While the boats sailing the coves of Kennebunk are seemingly the subject of Brad Betts’ painting, the title reminds us of the remarkable role the sky plays in defining the landscape. The Maine sky plays an important role in paintings by Sandra L. Dunn, Craig Mooney, Holly Ready, and Henry Isaacs, but in a different way than in Ellen Welch Granter’s Listen, where it forms the top third of the composition. Along the horizon line in Granter’s painting is a row of houses, reminding us that in the midst of thisgreat landscape, people live. The house becomes as much a part of the landscape in the paintings of Anne Ireland, Randy Eckard, Abbie Williams, and Edward Gordon. In Island Line, Kim Case uses the house to frame the view of the ocean, in Late Light by Janis H. Sanders, the house becomes the focal point. Laura Waller paints a backyard, as does Wade Zahares. The serenity of Waller’s scene is nearly opposite of the cotton-candy portrayal of Zahares.



Some paintings reflect our values. The blueberries in Robin Swennes’ Got Blues? and the pumpkins in Choices by Daniel J. Corey remind us of the importance of agriculture. Trip Park’s Bright Buoys, William B. Hoyt’s On the Waterfront, and David Witbeck’s Hardy remind us of how important fishing is to the Maine experience. Barbara Jones Peabody’s Veterans Day is a portrait of the American flag set against the late fall landscape, a stand of leafless trees a reminder of the sacrifice our soldiers make. The artists in “Maine. As they see it.” show us our world, the parts that are familiar and the parts that are too familiar for us to notice. But unlike the regionalism of their early twentieth century artists, these artists live in a post-Modernist world. In 1928, Marsden Hartley wrote “Art is not a matter of slavery to the emotion or even a matter of slavery to nature or to the aesthetic principles. It is a tempered and happy union of them all.”



These artists make paintings fully aware of the larger, more complex world. Their paintings show the influence of Impressionism, Modernism, and all the art that came after. By painting with a sense of place, they do not paint Maine to ignore the rest of the world but rather to be in harmony with it.


Listen
Island Farm
Lost Afternoon: Monhegan
Choices
Summer in Maine
Bunker Hill
Late Light
Bright Buoys
Evening Song
Red House, Pink Cloud II
Harpswell Sound, Low Tide
Yesterday
Got Blues?
Hardy
Golden Sky and Pine
Lightly
Evening Cruise
The Breakers
More Than Chance
Harbor Sunset
Goose Rocks Beach
Break Through
Off Flying Point #3
July Morning
On the Waterfront
My Back Yard
Clouds Over The Kennebunk River
Veterans Day
Late Day Whispers
Island Line
Morning Sail