Paintbox Leaves: Autumnal Inspiration from Cole to Wyeth

September 25, 2010 - January 16, 2011


The Modern Naturalist

Modernism and the advent of abstraction transformed rather than subsumed the American artist's relationship with nature and autumn. Arthur Dove, often cited as America's first painter of pure abstraction, remained deeply tied to the landscape in his subject matter and philosophy. The energy and colors of seasonal change and life cycles inspired him and the other artists in this gallery. Fall leaves, with their bright colors, relative two-dimensionality and strong, sinuous lines are perfect subjects for focused experimentation.
What School of Design can vie with this? Think how much the eyes of painters of all kindsare to be educated by these autumnal colors. If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look farther within or without the tree... Thoreau
Landscape painting in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has to some extent been defined by anxiety about the divorce of the modern world from the rhythms and cycles of nature. Many artists schooled in mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism adapted those new ways of looking and painting to re-embrace representational art. These impulses were often entwined with an increasing awareness of a return to connection with the land. Artists like Richard Haas and Yvonnne Jacquette also reflect contemporary desires to bring a greater sense of nature into the urban and suburban environments where most Americans live.
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)
Dogtown, 1931
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Babcock Galleries
Hartley may have been the first major American artist to truly explore autumn in a Modernist style, but in works like Dogtown, he came close to Thomas Cole in his willingness to engage a brutal landscape and its relationship to autumn. Hartley visited Gloucester, Massachusetts, the setting for Dogtown, three times late in his career. The area's rocky, jutting boulders and underbrush did not make for a typically picturesque setting. In fact, many other painters in Gloucester overlooked the place until Hartley embraced it. He frequently chose to depict the area of Dogtown in autumn, the rich red of the scrubby underbrush providing the perfect foil to its white boulders and brilliant blue skies.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)
Autumn Sunlight, c.1917
Watercolor on paper
Charles E. Burchfield Foundation, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York
Burchfield, whose sensitivity to the environment made him feel isolated from modern art and life, often depicted seasons at the point of change. This golden, energetic treatment of a late autumn scene that many might find bleak is actually a joyful expression of his affection for nature in all its seasons and moods. He painted in the woods as often as he could, mostly near his homes in Ohio up to 1921, and then in Buffalo, New York, where he worked as a wallpaper designer.

Arthur Dove (1880-1946)
Abstraction, Autumn Leaves, n.d.
Watercolor and ink on paper
Private Collection, Maryland
By the 1870s some art critics felt that autumn as a theme had rather played itself out, but numerous paintings by American Impressionists and Modernists disproved this prediction. Dove exemplifies the continuation and transformation of close relationships between American artists and their natural surroundings. Like Thomas Cole in the 1830s and 40s, Dove is one of many 20th-century artists who had country homes in addition to urban residences. Originally from New York's Finger Lakes region, he lived Upstate again in the 1930s, when he painted many small watercolors similar to this one. The energy and colors of seasonal change and life cycles were central to his work, and this seemingly non-representational piece repays close study with gradual realizations of form and detail, while his free handling of watercolor captures the shimmering quality of autumn leaves.

Helen Torr (1886-1967)
Autumn Leaves, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY,
Gift of the Baker/ Pisano Collection, 2001.9.243
Torr studied with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but in the 1920s, after meeting her future husband Arthur Dove, she began a much more adventurous and contemporary exploration of botanical form and color. Their two paintings -- so similar in color tone yet veering in opposite stylistic directions from loosely organic to controlled precision-are rewarding to examine side by side. Her artistic geometry shows more kinship with the linear, symmetrical paintings of her friend and advocate Georgia O'Keeffe, than with Dove, at the same time it harks back to the age-old use of stylized natural forms on decorative arts.

John Marin (1870-1953)
Trees in Autumn Foliage, Maine, 1948
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Adelson Galleries
For Marin, as for so many artists, the fall landscape was an escape from the city -- a last gasp of pleasant air before the harshness of winter descended. The artist spent more than 40 years painting autumn, returning to the subject repeatedly as he tested the relationship between avant-garde aesthetics and the traditional landscape. He was among a group of American Modernists, including Hugh Breckenridge and Milton Avery, who pushed autumn to its abstract extreme, and yet his landscapes retain their tenuous link to the natural world. Marin's use of oil, not watercolor, in late paintings like this gave his seasonal reds and yellows a pulsating intensity.
Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Black Lake, 1963
Oil on paper
Collection of Estate of Sally M. Avery
Avery's reductive approach to color and abstraction is ideally suited to tranquil fall landscapes and he painted many. Here, distant mountain foliage becomes an undulating patterned band. Raised in upstate New York and Connecticut, Avery was surrounded by beautiful scenery but forced into factory work to help support his family and to pay for art classes. Later, he enjoyed painting outdoors regularly and formed a close friendship with fellow Modernist Marsden Hartley.

Frank Vincent Dumond (1865-1951)
Autumn Colors, Lyme Rock, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Collection of Kristian Davies
Here, Dumond studies the interplay of fall foliage on rock. This painterly device was popular with a range of painters in the exhibition, from Samuel Colman to Childe Hassam.
The distinctive seasonal changes in the northeast United States -- combined with the mild weather of early autumn encouraged painting outdoors and added orange and gold tints to the American Impressionist palette. Dumond was an influential teacher, counting among his students J. Winthrop Andrews and Gifford Beal. Along with Andrews, Dumond exhibited a painting called October in the first exhibit of the Yonkers Art Association (1916).

Richard Haas (b. 1936)
View of Central Park Looking West from National Academy, 2009
Oil on canvas
The Artist and David Findlay Jr. Gallery
In the last several decades, in the post-modern era in art, there has been an increasing awareness of a return to connection with the land and the desire to bring a greater sense of nature into the urban and suburban environments where most Americans live. The truly urban autumn landscape has historically been a rare phenomenon in American art. Almost by definition, significant architecture is absent from the landscape. Richard Haas, best known for his architectural murals, is sensitive to the contributions of green spaces to a sense well-being in an urban environment. Here, Haas pays homage to the foliage of Central Park and the city skyline.

Yvonne Jacquette (b. 1934)
Courthouse Sculptures Overlooking Madison Square Park, 2010
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York
Jacquette has made the aerial view -- a uniquely modern perspective -- her own genre. Her painting of fall foliage in Madison Square Park, seen across the roof of the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, reminds us of the beautiful vistas of New York City. She contrasts warm fall colors and cold white stone, an effective visual device. It is perhaps an ironic commentary, as well, on the precarious balance of contained nature and human control.

Janet Fish (b. 1938)
Pumpkin, 2008
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York Art
Fish indulges her love of color, reflections, and dense compositions by placing each organic element of the setting in its own glass container and letting the pumpkin and the maple leaves set the tone. Her high intensity realism, almost surreal in its delineation of details, is informed by, but also a reaction against, the treatment of autumn by abstract artists dating back to the early 20th century. As a girl, she often visited her artist grandfather Clarke Voorhees, an American Impressionist at the Old Lyme art colony in Connecticut. Her still life paintings present a joyful horror vacui of color and light, partly influenced by those painters and partly by the Abstract Expressionists, who dominated the art scene during her master's studies at Yale.

Jeanie Tomanek (b. 1949)
Thoreau's Pumpkin, 2007
Oil on canvas
Collection of Jeanie Tomanek and Mason Murer Fine Art
I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
Tomanek, who often references 19th-century literature, illustrates Thoreau's famous line from Walden (1854). Like him, she uses the ripe pumpkin and implied harvest reference to comment on our relationship to the environment. The woman's ghostly form adds shades of meaning to her austere isolation. Thoreau concluded,
Men have become the tools of their tools.... Wehave settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.... The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition. ...
Jack Stuppin (b. 1933)
Olana Forest, 2009
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of ACA Galleries, New York
Stuppin grew up in Yonkers but has spent much of his artistic career in California, painting the Western landscape and coastline. For his current work, he has drawn inspiration, like Bill Sullivan upstairs, from the Hudson Valley and the home of Frederic Church. If Sullivan's work is a contemporary version of Hudson River School panoramas, then Stuppin's composition harks back to the more intimate forest interiors that many of the second generation Hudson River School artists also painted. From his lower vantage point, Stuppin allows the viewer to feel the protective canopy of the foliage, a swirling golden mass of pointillist brushstrokes. The contrasting dark vertical trunks and flattened perspective contribute an abstract decorative order to his visual riot of color.

Simon Gaon (b. 1943)
Autumn Tree, 1995
Oil on canvas
Collection of Simon Gaon
Gaon has long painted expressionistic city street and dock scenes near his New York apartment. Opening a second studio at Shelter Island, however, brought him face to face with the landscape. The raw energy of his tree series, whether inspired by or competing with the elements, brings to mind early 19th-century concepts of the sublime. Gaon has said he "like[s] to indulge in some of the techniques used by non-objective painters.... however, my main purpose has always been to create a mood and a sense of nature."
Robert Kushner (b. 1949)
Winter Pursuing Spring, 1993
Oil, acrylic, gold, silver leaf, and glitter on canvas
Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York
As in the oldest autumn subjects in art, Kushner uses the seasons to signify change and renewal. Compressing all four into one work emphasizes the natural continuity of the seasons. Kushner, a leading member of the Pattern and Decoration Movement, employs a vocabulary of stylized natural forms influenced by Japanese screen painting to convey his theme. The linear progression set up by the vertical bands and primarily rightward linear thrust of the leaves gives this mural-sized piece a sense of continual motion and progression. The fiery autumn colors are the focal point in an otherwise cool palette. His homage to Japanese screen painting is apparent and reminds us that Japan is our rival in its appreciation of its own autumn foliage.

John Henry Dolph (1835-1903)
Haying Near New Rochelle, 1880
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Godel & Co., Inc., New York
As Regis Gignoux's First Snow Along the Hudson River, upstairs, represents the sudden shift from autumn to winter in the seasonal cycle, Dolph's Haying presents the gradual transition from late summer to the harvest of early autumn. Residing in New York City at the time it was painted, Dolph found rural inspiration in Westchester County at a commuting distance from the metropolis, while many of his compatriots were searching further afield in the Catskills or White Mountains for artistic inspiration. In this piece, he showcases his strengths as both a landscape painter and an animalier.
Robert Emmett Owen (1878-1957)
Autumn Harvest, c. 1910s-30s
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Spanierman Gallery, LLC
Owen's Impressionistic views of the New England landscape capture the rhythms of the countryside. He often painted specifically seasonal work, such as the harvest scene here. Vivid autumnal foliage was a specialty for him. Owen's mature style was influenced by the work of the leading American Impressionists of his day, Willard Metcalf and Childe Hassam. In 1920, Owen opened a successful gallery in New York called The Robert Emmett Owen New England Landscape Gallery that reflected the popularity of seasonal pictures derived from an idealized "Old Yankee" New England.
Dwight Tryon (1849-1925)
Fall Plowing, 1916
Oil on wood panel
Collection of Erik Davies
Tonalism, with its moody golds and ochres overlaid on a French Barbizon aesthetic, was a style well suited to subdued autumnal scenes of rural countryside. In this early fall view, Tryon's inclusion of the tiny field workers is reminiscent of traditional European paintings of the seasons, while his foreground greenery and blue sky may owe as much to his Impressionist contemporaries as to a faithfulness to the atmospheric conditions at that time of year.

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
Hunter's Ledge, 1988
Watercolor on paper
Courtesy of Adelson Galleries and Frank Fowler
Wyeth employs a muted palette, capturing the moodier side of later autumn-the wet, dark days of November. With deft watercolor washes, he evokes the hunting scenes of the 19th-century master watercolorist -- W inslow Homer. Wyeth creates a doppelganger of the hunter in the water's undisturbed reflection, adding to the sense of waiting and a watchful stillness. This impulse to view autumn in a darker color key has a long tradition in American art and poetry.
Sanford Gifford (1823-1880)
New York Landscape, 1860
Oil on canvas
Collection of Erik Davies
Gifford painted small landscapes as preliminary sketches, as sales tools and sometimes, if requested, as copies of his larger works. This mountain lake, probably in the Catksills or Adirondacks, seems a peaceful refuge from the political tensions of New York City, where he had his winter studio, in the year before the outbreak of the Civil War. A single figure in a rowboat by the shore faces away from the viewer, coming or going from a quiet day of fishing in the crisp fall air. The next year, Gifford would be headed south as a soldier in the Seventh Regiment of the New York State National Guard.
Thomas Hewes Hinckley (1813-1896)
Hunting Scene in Milton, Massachusetts, 1868
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Godel & Co., Inc., New York
Hinckley's picture presents autumn as the season of the hunt. A youth has already "bagged" two rabbits and set aside his rifle. He looks on eagerly as two small dogs stand poised beside a cleft in the rocks, waiting to ferret out fresh prey. Hinckley's rust-colored foliage provides visual contrast to the grey boulders. In his later years, Hinkley painted more landscapes than the animal studies for which he was best known. Hunting Scene strikes an elegant balance between the two.


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