Painting Indiana III: Heritage of Place

Painting Indiana III: Heritage of Place

by Rachel Berenson Perry

ISBN: 9780253008527

Publisher Quarry Books

Published in Arts & Photography/Painting

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Sample Chapter


A Condensed History of Landscape Painting

We artists live ideally
We breed our firmest facts of air:
We make our own reality—
We dream a thing and it is so.
The fairest scenes we ever see
Are images of memory:
The sweetest thoughts we ever know
We plagiarize from Long Ago.

—James Whitcomb Riley, "Orlie Wilde" (1916)

The fine art of painting landscapes, for the sole purpose of recreating pleasing natural scenery, has been pursued in America for fewer than 175 years. Beginning in the 1850s, the Hudson River School painters created idealized depictions of nature, aesthetically influenced by romanticism. Like their contemporaries, American writers Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), the visual artists revered our country's unspoiled beauty, believing that God was manifested in nature.

Reflecting early American exploration and colonization, Hudson River School artists often depicted humans existing in harmony with nature. Paintings by Thomas Cole (1801–1848), the credited founder of the art movement, were the first to feature the Hudson Valley's splendor and disappearing wilderness, particularly in autumn.

After Cole's early death in 1848, a second generation of Hudson River School artists ventured far from the eastern valley. Superstar painter Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) painted the far West, and Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) created colossal scenes of South America. They both became known for their immense realist-style landscapes: "Thousands of people would line up around the block and pay fifty cents a head to view [a] solitary work."

Indiana became a state in 1816, but the pioneer survival lifestyle allowed no dallying with creative artwork until the 1830s. "In the early nineteenth century the notion of a landscape was relatively foreign to a farmer, who looked on the land as territory, property, and most of all raw materials." Before that, artist-illustrators accompanying explorers on military or scientific expeditions, like Karl Bodmer (1809–1893) and Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1778–1846), created visual images primarily to keep records of their journeys.

The earliest significant artists to permanently reside in Indiana and create landscapes were George Winter (1810–1876) and Jacob Cox (1810–1892). Winter's works used landscapes as backdrops for his documentation of Potawatomi and Miami Indian lifestyles. Cox, on the other hand, became an accomplished portrait and landscape artist while running his tinsmith business. James Farrington Gookins (1840–1904) and John Love (1850–1880) opened the state's first art school in 1877. "The Indiana School of Art was a significant evolutionary step beyond the quasi-apprenticeship mode of art instruction that had formerly existed."

A very different interpretation of the landscape was taking place in Europe. Paving the way for the development of Impressionism were the French painters of the Barbizon School, between 1830 and 1870. Artists led by Theodore Rousseau (1812–1867) advocated painting directly from life, rejecting classical studio landscapes based on epic narratives and religious themes. Jean-Francois Millet (1814–1875) included peasant figures as an integral part of his landscapes, thus shifting his art's emphasis from rich and influential citizens to those with no social status.

A simultaneous group of Italian painters active in Florence, known as the Macchiaioli, also stressed the importance of painting on location. They considered their outdoor work, however, as source material—inspiration for larger works to be painted in the studio. Created primarily as value studies, to emphasize darks and lights, the sketches were "rarely larger then 10" × 15", [and] usually painted on cardboard or wood. Often the artists used the mahogany panels of disassembled cigar boxes as painting supports. These [were] sometimes left unprimed, so the reddish color of the wood [lent] a warm undertone to the painting."

The Barbizon School, Macchiaioli, and later French Impressionist painters were adamant that painting should be done directly from nature. Unlike the American Hudson River School artists, who created compositions synthesized from various scenes or images, the French painters stayed true to their on-site subjects, painting what they saw. Rejecting the academic art rules of the time, the first Impressionists in the 1870s were interested in capturing the fleeting effects of sunlight by painting realistic scenes of modern life on location. Instead of concentrating on the rigid lines and contours taught in studio painting, their compositions were built with loosely brushed colors, often thickly applied.

As cameras were becoming more portable and widespread, photography "produced lifelike images [albeit only in black and white] much more efficiently and reliably [than paintings]." Some art historians believe that this new, more accurate image making inspired Impressionists to focus on interpretive subjectivity, as well as their use of brilliant complementary colors. Artists were perhaps intentionally widening the gap between photographs and paintings.

A timely logistical reason for the radical change in painting techniques was the introduction of paint tubes to easily transport fairly thick artist colors. This invention liberated artists to go out "in the open air" or en plein air, as the French term describes. The messy studio process of grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil became a thing of the past.

French box easels also resulted from the European plein air painting surge. Created for easy portability, with telescopic folding legs and built-in paint box and palette, these sturdy easels allowed for further roaming off the beaten track, and their use remains common today.

In order to capture their subjects in consistent light, some plein air painters visited the same spot at the same time of day on several occasions until their paintings were completed. But many used an alla prima (Italian for "at once") technique. Artists who used this method created their paintings in one session, without allowing time for the paint to dry. It is also referred to as wet on wet, premier coup, or direct painting.

Strict alla prima adherents begin and finish their paintings in a few hours. Art instructor Reed Kay defines the technique as "a method by which the artist applies each stroke of paint to the canvas with the intention of letting it stand in the picture as part of the final statement. There is to be no retouching or over-painting after the first layer of paint has dried."

In America, the trend toward painting directly from nature in an Impressionist style grew with the formation of art colonies that popped up throughout the country. Loosely organized in picturesque small towns by artists with common aesthetic visions, these colonies flourished from the 1890s through the early 1900s.

Some colonies began as open-air painting classes, as with William Merritt Chase's Shinnecock Hills Summer School on eastern Long Island, New York. Others were formed when urban artists, escaping summer in the city, explored and settled in rural areas. In addition to colonies in the east, like those in Cornish, New Hampshire; Gloucester and Provincetown, Massachusetts; and New Hope, Pennsylvania, artists gathered in such places as Taos, New Mexico; Brown County, Indiana; and Carmel, California. In addition to the countryside's picturesque scenery, artists congregated because they enjoyed the camaraderie and inspirational benefits of being with other artists.

The relative merits of painting among other artists or finding a personal voice by working alone has always been debatable. In 1896, James Stanley Little argued for the latter. He wrote in The International Studio,

A landscape painter cannot be said to begin to know his business until he has become thoroughly saturated with the life and spirit of the country. He must have sat for hours before Nature, reverently studying its varied panorama; its kaleidoscopic changes; its magnificent surprises.... A general rule may be laid down, however, and one admitting to no exception—that the great landscape painter must live, and move, and have his being in the country....

As an almost necessary corollary to this condition [that the painter live with Nature], two others follow: loyalty to a particular corner of the earth—the world is too wide and life is too short to permit the strongest of painters to become a universalist—and rigorous isolation ... It is [the painter's] business to cultivate and accentuate to the very utmost his own individual outlook upon nature. In this personal individual note lies the very essence of his power, and its presence in his work gives to it its chief value.

In Indiana, the development and popularity of plein air painting aligned with national trends. American artists on the East Coast, like Frank Weston Benson (1862–1951) in Massachusetts, and William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Childe Hassam (1859–1935), Theodore Robinson (1852–1896), and John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902) in New York, made their names promoting a market for American Impressionism. Indiana artists, with obvious differences in locale and subject matter, were doing the same. Artists T. C. Steele (1847–1926), William Forsyth (1854–1935), J. Ottis Adams (1851–1927), Otto Stark (1859–1926), and Richard B. Gruelle (1851–1914) attracted national attention in the late 1800s by returning to their home state to paint what they knew best after completing their art studies in Europe.

At an Exhibit of Summer Work in November 1894, sponsored by the Art Association of Indianapolis, Steele, Forsyth, Gruelle, and Stark showed their newest landscape paintings. The exhibit, later taken to Chicago with the addition of paintings by J. Ottis Adams, was renamed Five Hoosier Painters. Critically proclaimed to be the trendsetters of a truly American movement in the Midwest, the Hoosier Group artists continued painting the subtle beauty of Indiana landscapes with reinforced enthusiasm.

Steele's eventual move to Brown County in 1907, and the simultaneous discovery of the area by Wisconsin and Chicago artist Adolph Shulz, launched the influx of several artists who became the Brown County Art Colony. Cut off by hilly terrain and rudimentary infrastructure, the scenery and natives of the county provided nostalgic subjects that resonated with city dwellers hungry for reminders of days gone by.

By the 1920s, the heyday of most American artist colonies had dissipated. Although modern art had captured the nation's imagination with such luminaries as Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) and Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Indiana's preference for landscapes prevailed in local bellwether annual exhibitions of the Hoosier Salon.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, art styles became heavily influenced by the countrywide Regionalist movement, typically attributed to the famous triumvirate of artists Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), John Steuart Curry (1897–1946), and Grant Wood (1891–1942).

Supporting the isolationist tendencies of the United States between the world wars, a new appreciation for specifically American culture arose. The artist's realistic documentation of everyday people in their own communities was easily understood by the general public, and the nostalgic appeal of the images encouraged patriotism. The new director of the Herron Art Institute in 1933, Donald Mattison (1905–1975), spearheaded young Indiana artists' shift toward Regionalism with his mandate for Herron students to enter national competitions, which favored this style. The next generation of Indiana artists, such as Harry Davis (1914–2006) and Robert Weaver (1913–1991), won the coveted Prix de Rome and Chaloner prizes, respectively, with their Regionalist-style work.

This style contrasted with the American Impressionism that had endured in Indiana since the turn of the twentieth century. Well-defined shapes and narrative scenes dominated, with urban settings, industrialism, and the everyday lives and portraits of the common people the favored subjects. The structures and images of civilization replaced nostalgic unspoiled landscapes. Many of the Regionalist scenes, although utilizing sketches from life for reference, were executed in the studio.

To explore why professional artists paint what they paint, it is helpful to keep a pragmatic eye on what collectors buy, as well as the artists' personal philosophies in the context of their times. American art collectors in the late 1800s and early 1900s enthusiastically purchased Barbizon School paintings, causing American artists to trend toward genre paintings and landscapes. But among national art collectors, American Impressionism lost its appeal after the historical 1913 Armory Show of modern art in New York City.

Four or five decades later, original French Impressionism was reborn when several American art museums sponsored exhibitions from their permanent collections. Impressionism, both European and American, gained popularity for general audiences and has remained strong.

The landscape has never lost its allure for Indiana collectors who have consistently, albeit modestly, supported realist-style painting. The stalwart Hoosier Salon annual exhibitions, despite periodic debates about abstract versus representational artwork, have become known for their landscape-dominated content. Just as America's interest in early Impressionism may be partially responsible for today's national plein air painting resurgence, Indiana's current plein air painting style can be traced directly to the Hoosier Group of artists.


The First Generation of Hoosier Plein Air Painters

During the state of Indiana's Golden Age of Culture, in the 1880s and 1890s, Hoosiers led the country in creative trends. The Hoosier Group painters were working at the same time as nationally read Indiana writers James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916), George Aid (1866–1944), Meredith Nicholson (1866–1947), and Booth Tarkington (1869–1946). The visual artists' enthusiastic belief that their state was "as beautiful, characteristic and worthy of being interpreted as anything else in the world"1 helped to promote a tradition of landscape painting that has influenced local artists and collectors for generations.

T. C. Steele, William Forsyth, and J. Ottis Adams's interest in plein air painting had become focused in the early 1880s under the guidance of J. Frank Currier (1843–1909) during their summers away from rigorous studies at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich. While living in the village of Schleissheim, the Indiana students spent their days tramping the moors and attempting to depict the German scenery. Some of Steele's most elegant value studies and Forsyth's most gestural and thickly painted canvases are from these early sojourns.

Steele wrote to his primary patron, Herman Leiber (1832–1908), in the fall of 1881, "Mr. Currier ... says I have made some big steps in this summer's work.... It gives me more pleasure then I can tell to feel I am upon the right road and progressing.... He is a man whose opinion I value very highly for he is honest and frank.... In landscape [painting] I doubt if he has a superior in all Munich."

Currier concentrated almost exclusively on landscape painting after his own study at the Royal Academy from 1870 to 1872. "By 1880, if not several years earlier, Currier had become a total plein-air painter. His daughter, whose recollections went as far back as that year, remarked, 'I cannot remember ever seeing him paint in his studio.'...Even his immense canvases, which could measure up to six feet in width, were carried out onto the moor to be painted and finished."

According to art historian Martin Krause, the three Indiana artists had distinctly different approaches to the landscape. Steele preferred views into the distance, while Adams liked more intimate subjects that he could clearly define. Forsyth, on the other hand, "had no fear of subjects close to the picture plane [and] painted flatly and broadly."

The three artists repeatedly visited the International Exposition in Munich's Glaspalast in the summer of 1883, where they studied the landscapes and genre scenes of their Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian contemporaries. They noticed that "no matter where these artists had trained, upon their return home they had rediscovered the characteristics of their land and their people. They painted in a manner that sympathized with their [own] national character." Realizing that no such identifiable consensus existed among American painters, the Indiana artists resolved to help invent one when they returned home.

Excerpted from "Painting Indiana III: Heritage of Place" by Rachel Berenson Perry. Copyright © 2013 by Rachel Berenson Perry. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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