Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 7, 2012 by permission of the Telfair Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which the essay is drawn, please contact the Telfair Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
A Native Son: Paintings by West Fraser
by Courtney McNeil
A Native Son: Paintings by West Fraser considers the landscapes, marine views, and city scenes for which artist West Fraser is best known, as well as travel paintings created around the world and figure-based compositions depicting family, friends, and the artist himself. The exhibition demonstrates the evolution of Fraser's technique, beginning with the large-scale watercolors of the 1980s, which were painted from photographs in the artist's studio, to his plein air oil paintings, beginning in the 1990s. This shift in technique forced him to seek out a more flexible and adaptable medium, resulting in his switch from watercolor to oil. Today, Fraser continues to work in oil, and alternates between plein air painting and studio work (sometimes combining the two). Fraser cites the canvases of the American impressionists as a frequent source of inspiration for his landscape paintings, while his city views often evoke the work of painters of the American scene.
Considered by many to be among the region's leading practitioners of traditional realism, West Fraser's luminous landscapes and engaging city scenes encapsulate the stylistic achievements of the American impressionists active around the country at the turn of the last century. Despite coming of age at a time when modernism and abstraction had achieved a firm hold on the prevailing modes of art instruction, West Fraser has remained a traditionalist. Fraser was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1955 and has spent most of the past three decades methodically chronicling lives and landscapes in the South Carolina Low Country and coastal Georgia. Fraser's landscapes find their closest stylistic antecedents in the work of the American impressionists, including John Henry Twachtman, Childe Hassam, and Edward Redfield. His city scenes represent contemporary life in a straightforward manner, neither glossy nor gritty, linking him to the painters of the American scene who worked in the Southeast in the middle of the twentieth century. Featuring strong examples of work by these artists, Telfair Museums' permanent collection provides a helpful context within which to explore Fraser's art.
Both Fraser's landscapes and city scenes are invested with an unflagging affection for this particular corner of the country, bringing to mind the work of another "native son" of Savannah, artist Christopher A. D. Murphy (1902-1973). Compare Murphy's untitled painting of a modest but charming cottage (fig. 1) to Fraser's Taylor's Fish Camp (plate #); both artists revel in the unique qualities of the Southeast without sentimentalizing their subjects. Also like Murphy, Fraser embraces subject matter that extends beyond the genres of landscape and city scene as described above; Fraser has produced a notable body of portraits of his family and friends as well as a series of self-portraits exploring the theme of the artist at work. An inveterate traveler, he also applies his interest in exploring the effects of light and atmosphere to works created in Sweden (the native country of his wife, Helena), France, Italy, California, and New England.
Another artist whose influence can be seen upon the work of West Fraser is John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902). Twachtman is best known as a leading American impressionist and one of the founders of the Ten American Painters, a group of artists who withdrew from the Society of American Artists in 1897 in order to protest the Society's increasingly conservative tendencies. Twachtman practiced and taught plein air painting and, in the words of scholar Lisa N. Peters, was consistently interested in "the expression of a direct experience of nature." The Telfair's Mouth of the Seine (fig. 2) is an early example of the artist's work. The diminutive painting demonstrates the influence of Twachtman's training in Munich, dating from a time before he fully embraced impressionism and a high-key color palette. Still, the work displays his tendency to gravitate to ordinary, modest subjects in nature rather than grand, dramatic vistas. As his obituary in the New York Times stated: "Twachtman's landscapes were appreciated most by those who studied nature in her delicate phases and find poetry not so much in Alpine scenery and stormy seas as in the inner glow of atmosphere bathing common objects-a farm, an old house, an old pasture, a seaport, a stretch of quiet ocean." This description could just as easily be applied to Fraser's plein air paintings Old Boat Rail (plate #) and Daws Island Sunrise (plate #).
Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935), another founding member of The Ten, was a prolific American impressionist known particularly for his urban subject matter. Hassam frequently portrayed monumental architectural achievements of the day, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, in order to pay tribute to mankind's achievements in architecture. In Brooklyn Bridge in Winter (fig. 3), Hassam allots the entire top half of the canvas to the massive bridge, which was just over twenty years old at the time of the painting's creation in 1904. Like Hassam, Fraser acknowledges the impact of modern feats of engineering in his city views by including Savannah's Talmadge Memorial Bridge as a key component of the compositions of Savannah River (plate #) and Savannah Rooftops (plate #). The former work, which dates from the 1980s, presents the cantilever bridge that was erected in 1953, while the latter work dates from 1992 and depicts the current cable-stayed bridge, which opened in 1990. Rather than merely attempting to depict the precise details of a city's appearance, Fraser is interested in capturing its true spirit. This concern drove Hassam's city views as well, as indicated in his 1913 statement: "The portrait of a city is in a way the portrait of a person-the difficulty is to catch not only the superficial resemblance but the inner self. The spirit, that's what counts, and one should strive to portray the soul of the city with the same care as the soul of the sitter."
The concept of a "portrait of place" also figures in work of Edward Willis Redfield (1869-1965), the most prominent of the impressionist painters working in the area of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Redfield had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Robert Henri and Philadelphia impressionist Hugh Breckenridge. Later, in 1898, he settled in Center Bridge, Pennsylvania. Redfield's large, vigorous landscapes depicting the picturesque area near his home, such as Center Bridge in Winter (fig. 4), came to define the artist's style. In a 1900 letter inviting Robert Henri to visit him in Center Bridge, Redfield urged him to "come up where purity of air and morals will do much toward painting masterpieces." Clearly, Redfield was interested in conveying the wholesome spirit of Center Bridge rather than meticulously rendering every minute detail of the village's landscape. Fraser became a great enthusiast of Redfield's work while living near New Hope in the early 1980s, and would go on to imbue his own work with the same vigorous energy and spirit of place that he so admired in Redfield.
While American impressionism was an adaptation of an aesthetic originating in France, American scene painting was a uniquely American style, first appearing between the two World Wars and flourishing through mid-century. American scene paintings typically depicted straightforward views of moments from everyday life, neither sentimentalized and glossy nor rough and gritty. The style developed in reaction to several factors, including the debut of avant-garde European modernism at the 1913 Armory show in New York and the perceived erosion of small-town values in light of the increasing industrialization and modernization occurring throughout the United States.
One prominent painter of the American scene in Savannah was Augusta Denk Oelschig (1918-2000). Oelschig trained with Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia in Athens and with Henry Lee McFee in Savannah, and was known both for American scene paintings and works demonstrating scathing social and political commentary. In Old City Market (fig. 5), Oelschig depicts a pleasant, everyday scene bustling with the activity of citizens of all ages and walks of life. No judgment or social commentary from the artist can be seen here. Rather, the painting is a frank portrayal of the vendors, shoppers, and passers-by at Savannah's old City Market. Incidentally, the 1953 demolition of this Savannah landmark gave rise to the city's still-thriving historic preservation movement. In works like Morning Business (plate #) and Shop 'Til You Drop (plate #), Fraser carries on the tradition of American scene painters by depicting a variety of figures conducting everyday business as they pass through city streets.
Although based in New York, artist Alexander Brook (1898-1980) visited Savannah frequently between 1938 and 1948. His work in Savannah was frequently set in the city's poorer neighborhoods, yet Brook did not sermonize about the plight of the underprivileged. While the palette of Savannah Street Corner(fig. 6) is generally subdued, the clothing of the youngsters seated on the curb contains bright and cheerful colors; the same vivid colors are repeated in the church windows. The scene appears to be an unstudied view of everyday life in Savannah, its unfinished surface emphasizing the fleeting quality of the moment it depicts. Although brighter in palette, Fraser's Early to School (plate #) also captures an ephemeral moment of everyday life in a less affluent urban neighborhood. Dressed for school and with backpacks in tow, five young children make their way to school. The street they traverse is downtrodden in appearance, but the children's postures are jaunty and joyful.
West Fraser's engaging landscapes, city views, and figure-based compositions have earned the artist great acclaim in their own right, but in the context of the Telfair's A Native Son exhibition the paintings have even greater meaning. Here, they can be considered alongside examples of work by the American artists who have inspired Fraser over the course of his career. Carrying on the tradition of the aforementioned painters of American impressionism and the American scene, Fraser has created a compelling body of work that captures a true portrait of place.
About the Artist
West Fraser was born in Savannah in 1955 and spent his childhood on his family's farm in Hinesville. His family's ties to the region stretch back over two and a half centuries; his ancestors were the recipients of a land grant from King George II in 1752 and were among the first colonial settlers in the Hinesville area. Fraser's family moved to Hilton Head Island in 1964, where his father and uncle spearheaded the development of Sea Pines Plantation, the first of the large resorts and communities that characterize the island today. After completing high school at Savannah Country Day, Fraser earned his B.F.A. from the University of Georgia in 1979. He then lived briefly in Savannah, working as a commercial illustrator. He spent a few years living and working in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, before returning permanently to the Southeast, settling in Charleston in 1984. There, his career as a painter quickly took off; he was given his first solo museum exhibition at Charleston's Gibbes Museum in 1986. This initial solo show has since been followed by solo exhibitions at the Springfield Museum of Art, Ohio; Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia; Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina; Bakersfield Museum of Art, California; and the Spartanburg Museum of Art, South Carolina. Fraser's work has been exhibited in group museum exhibitions in seventeen different states, and his participation in the State Department's Art in Embassies program has brought his work to locations ranging from Ottawa to Tanzania. Fraser's paintings can be found in the permanent collections of institutions including Telfair Museums, Morris Museum of Art, Gibbes Museum of Art, Greenville County Museum of Art, California's Laguna Art Museum, and many prominent private and corporate collections. Fraser resides in Charleston with his wife, Helena Fox Fraser, owner of Helena Fox Fine Art. Together, they have four children: Sarah LaBanna Fraser, a performance artist; Rebecca West Fraser, a visual artist; Rebecca Helena Fox, student at the College of Charleston; and Robert Gosta Fox, student at First Baptist High School.
About the author
Courtney McNeil is Curator of Art at the Telfair Museum of Art.
Images of paintings from the exhibition
(above: Walt Fraser (American. b. Savannah, Georgia, b. 1955), From Monterey Square, 2002, Oil on linen panel, 16 x 20 inches. Gift of Mrs. Helen Fox-Fraser, 2005.21 © West Fraser. Nürnberg Photography. LLC)
(above: Walt Fraser (American. b. Savannah, Georgia, b. 1955), Untitled (Savannah River Scene), 1985, Watercolor on paper, Sight: 21 1/4 x 38 5/8 inches. Gift of Michael and Elizabeth Terry 2007.12 © West Fraser. Bailey Davidson)
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay from the exhibition catalogue for A Native Son: Paintings by West Fraser, on view February 24 through May 5, 2012 at the Telfair Museum of Art and artist biography from a recently published collections catalogue, were reprinted in Resource Library on March 7, 2012, with permission of the Telfair Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on March 5, 2012.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Beth Moore of the Telfair Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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