This post comes to us from Gina Ciralli, Curatorial Intern.
Nelson Holbrook White, contemporary realist and Connecticut native, has built his career on painting majestic landscapes. Inspired by a life of travel, White is best known for his beach and shore oil paintings. His survey exhibition, Scenic Spirit, is on view in the Davis gallery.
Born in New London, Connecticut in 1932 to a family of successful American artists, Nelson first studied art with his father, Nelson Cooke White (1900-1989), and grandfather, Henry Cooke White (1861-1952). Carefully coached on aesthetics, young Nelson learned the significance of half-tones, which characterize the work his grandfather’s mentor, Dwight W. Tryon (1849-1925). He was additionally introduced to an array of classical realists including R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) and Richard Lack (1928-2009) through his family connections. In 1954, a visit to Florence, Italy prompted a friendship and mentorship that would forever impact White’s emerging style.
Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988) was a Florentine painter heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Skeptical of modern and post-modern artistic styles that dominated the mid to late-20th century, Annigoni gained notoriety for his representational portraiture. Oil on canvas, watercolors, and frescos characterized Annigoni’s artistic output, and his sitters included Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family. In 1954 he took Nelson on as an apprentice, teaching his traditional technique to the young and eager artist. It was at this time that Nelson additionally began studying with renowned painter and teacher Nerina Simi whom Annigoni praised as “one of the most important Italian painters of this century.” Nelson recalls that “like my grandfather and father, she [Simi] taught comparative measurement to understand proportions in drawing” and that “life drawing was an important part of the curriculum.”
Nelson H. White’s portraiture does not dominate Scenic Spirit, but rather complements the collection by demonstrating his skills beyond landscape. Portraiture is also where we find the most direct links to Nelson’s apprenticeship in Florence under Annigoni, with whom he remained friends and travel companions for nearly 30 years. In his self-portrait Autoritratto (1946), Annigoni epitomizes classic Renaissance technique through the careful lines that render each crevice of his face and textured draping of fabric. Like Annigoni’s self-portrait, White’s self-portrait shows his traditional sense of shading and reflection of light in a fleeting application of paint. In painting Haven, White also reveals his understanding of light, form, and value to render natural beauty in its purest sense while capturing the spirit and essence of the subject. The painting’s elegant sitter comes to embody the radiance and vitality of youth.
While Nelson’s portraiture highlights his academic training and demonstrates Annigoni’s significant influence on his style, it simultaneously exhibits his move towards a more liberal technique. In Self-Portrait,the bright white smear on Nelson’s forehead pops against the otherwise dark palette of browns and navy, making the viewer ponder whether the white is a reflection of light against the subject’s skin, or a modern, gestural application of paint on canvas. Also seen in Kitchings Point (2009) and Sea and Sky (2011), his bright strokes of white become the focal point of the composition. The background, brown and muted, sits flat on the canvas against White’s cerulean shirt created with heavy, chunky strokes applied with a palette knife. Annigoni, however, displays his technical virtuosity and anti-modern ideology through the careful, precise draping of his cloak. Furthermore, Annigoni illuminates his face in not a single concentrated spot, but all over in a subtle, more natural tone. Annigoni’s portrait is meticulous, studied, perfected, and timeless. Nelson’s, by comparison, appears more immediate and more temporal.
Over the years, Nelson’s approach to outdoor painting also has evolved tremendously from a more precise, academic style to a looser, highly dynamic application of paint, greater economy of detail, and bolder colors. As he explains, “Now I am more intent on the atmosphere, to render a feel for the moisture, the humidity of the air.” “With discipline comes freedom,” he continues. A tireless worker and lifelong student, Nelson has studied at the Florence Academy of Art since 2002, to maintain a sense of both – discipline and freedom.
Recalling that Nerina Simi “did things with absolute certainty,” White paints without hesitation. His brush moves across the canvas melodiously. Characteristic of his mature works, his small canvases, like Poppy Fields (2011), are completed in a single sitting en plein air, using the alla prima technique, which involves layering paint before it has a chance to dry. His recent challenge has been using a limited palette of only four colors like famous 19th century Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920), noting that “it lends to a unified tonalist vision.” On weekends, White travels to the shores of Italy, painting small canvases on the beach, from his car, or in a hotel room, explaining that “hardly one day goes without my painting.” He continues to show his works in private art galleries and public museums around the world, as well as assist and inspire future generations of hopeful painters. His latest, most emotive works that evoke feeling and atmosphere rather than pure, illusionistic likeness can be seen at the NBMAA until October 13, 2012.
Have you had a chance to visit Nelson H. White: Scenic Spirit? Which painting is your personal favorite? Which destination do you find most enticing? Where do you think Nelson will venture next?