This post comes to us from Gina Ciralli, Curatorial Intern.
“What he loved best were the pastures of Southern New England in the later autumn after the deciduous trees had shed their leaves and great white oaks and graceful birches stood singly or in groups on gently rolling meadows or moorlands with here and there a glacial boulder or granite ledge out-cropping above the soil.” – Artist Nelson C. White about his father Henry C. White, 1954
Nelson Holbrook White’s (b. 1932) survey exhibition Scenic Spirit is currently on display at the New Britain Museum of American Art. Nelson’s grandfather, Henry Cooke White (1861-1952) was an acclaimed American painter and member of one of America’s most distinguished art colonies in Old Lyme, Connecticut. From Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935) to Willard L. Metcalf (1858-1925), the colony comprised upwards of 200 artists during its three decades of creating nature-based scenes in oils and pastels. Inspired by French artists Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), the colony defined American Impressionism by commemorating the tranquil aspects of rural New England life through use of vibrant palettes and broken strokes on wood and canvas.
The Lyme Art Colony began in 1899 after Henry Ward Ranger (1958-1916) returned to New England from a trip to Europe and desired to create a colony of painters modeled after the French Barbizon School. Florence Griswold (1950-1937), a mother from Old Lyme seeking supplemental income, gladly boarded Ranger and soon became “keeper of the artists’ colony” as the reputation and success of the group grew. The scenic, untouched expanse of nature in Old Lyme attracted artists from all over New England and created a conglomerate of en plein air painters occupied with the poetic surroundings of Connecticut farm life.
The colony in Old Lyme was connected to the community through its dedication to painting local scenes. Joining in 1903, Frederick Childe Hassam became one of the most famous artists associated with the colony and he befriended Henry Cooke White. The NBMAA is currently displaying three of Hassam’s paintings in the American Impressionist gallery, including the monumental Le Jour de Grand Prix (1887), Ten Pound Island (1896) and The Dragon Cloud, Old Lyme (1903). The Dragon Cloud, Old Lyme was painted during Hassam’s affiliation with the colony, which lasted from 1900-1915 . It was at this time that the colony began to transition from tonalism to impressionism. Hassam was first exposed to French Impressionism through time spent in Parisian art galleries. While in France, he was one of the only Americans to paint the modernized Paris—a theme seen in his mature works of cityscapes. The Dragon Cloud, however, displays the melodious nature of Old Lyme which he considered a place for “high thinking and low living.” He depicts the sky occupied by a monstrous churning cloud and the ground swirled with verdant greens and soft browns. Streaks of reds and yellows in the clouds add lyrical movement and even a sonorous element to the scene as viewers imagine a breeze contorting the white of the dragon cloud into another formation. It’s a scene of imagination, an intersection between what Hassam saw before him and what he felt.
The artists in Old Lyme embedded this junction of representation and emotion in their works. Renowned member Willard L. Metcalf joined the colony only two years after Hassam in 1905. His membership additionally aided the transition from tonalism to emerging impressionism. Mountain Laurel (1905) was painted in Old Lyme during the height of Metcalf’s career when he was hailed as “the Robert Frost of New England Landscapes.” The high-key colors and liberal application of paint nod strongly to impressionistic influences. Flowers govern the scene, closing the viewer off to the distant reflecting water and receding trees. Henry Cooke White, while more realist than impressionist, exposed both his son, Nelson Cooke White (1900-1989) and grandson to works by Metcalf and Hassam at a young age, informing their approaches to style, tone, composition, and taste. It is Metcalf’s expressive treatment of white in rendering the flowers that parallels the contemporary land and seascapes of Nelson H. White’s Scenic Spirit.
While Nelson H. White learned color and textural brushwork from his artistic surroundings, he was heavily influenced by his grandfather’s realistic style. Henry Cooke White’s works in Scenic Spirit include the Old Man (1878) and Clearing After the Storm—New London (1903). Mentored by Tonalist Dwight W. Tryon (1849-1925), Henry’s works are characterized by a use of harmonious colors and delicate rendition of light to create suggestive moods. Though he did not paint en plein air like the impressionists of Old Lyme, he possessed the same affinity and appreciation for undisturbed nature. Clearing After the Storm—New London is reflective of the artwork produced in Old Lyme during the early 20th century in terms of genre and stylistic technique. It embodies his tonalistic training with an emphasis on truthful representations of nature rather than modern expressions of color, elements that his son and grandson would instill in their own artistic careers.
In an era of surfacing American industrialization, Old Lyme was a haven for landscape painters, many of whom fled city life to create scenes of remembered simplicity. Other works in the NBMAA collection by colony members include Barberry Field (n.d.) by Allen B. Talcott (1867-1908) and Under Gray Skies (1923) by Guy Wiggins (1883-1962). Like the paintings of Hassam, Metcalf, and White, these works illuminate the natural serenity of New England. Referred to by press at its height as the “American Barbizon” or “American Giverny”, the colony became an adapted version of a European trend. Its legacy influenced following generations of American painters, like Nelson Holbrook White, to embrace simplicity and paint with more emotive intent.
As you visit Scenic Spirit at the NBMAA, on display until October 13th, 2012, you can compare works by these prominent Old Lyme Colony artists to the paintings of Nelson H. White and his family. Have you ever visited Old Lyme? Do you prefer urban or nature-based paintings of this period? And how do the works by members of the colony compare to other American Impressionist paintings in the permanent collection?