Art: 'American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting' on display at Reading Public Museum

"Niagara Falls" (1872) by John W. Casilear. Most of the painters featured are not Hudson River School A-listers, but second- or third-tier artists - highlighting the movement's depth of talent.
"Niagara Falls" (1872) by John W. Casilear. Most of the painters featured are not Hudson River School A-listers, but second- or third-tier artists - highlighting the movement's depth of talent.
Posted: March 20, 2011

'American Scenery" sounds like a bland title for an exhibition of landscapes, but don't be misled. This show of 116 paintings at the Reading Public Museum is exceptional - perhaps even extraordinary - for several reasons.

First, the rest of the title, "Different Views in Hudson River School Painting," alludes to an important and insufficiently appreciated fact about America's first native-born art movement - that many of its artists recorded their favorite subjects again and again, under varying circumstances according to time of day, season of the year, and changing weather.

This practice produced a lot of pendant paintings - for instance, Wissahickon Creek in spring and autumn by Daniel Charles Gorse - and even more extended series.

One rarely sees such "sibling" views exhibited together, but in Reading we find an abundance of such groupings, allowing us to see more clearly how intensely Hudson River painters responded to their inspirations.

The other remarkable feature of this show is its origin. All 116 paintings, by 72 artists, come from a single private collection. One is amazed to learn that these paintings represent only about a third of the total collection, which has been formed over a half-century.

The Pennsylvania collector prefers to remain anonymous, but over three decades he has been admirably generous in letting the public savor his remarkable achievement. This traveling show, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art near Pittsburgh, represents the third such exhibition drawn from his holdings.

The second, "All That Is Glorious Around Us," traveled to the Allentown Art Museum in late 2002. The current show also was presented at the Everhart Museum in Scranton in 2007.

The Westmoreland's director, Judith Hansen O'Toole, curated "Different Views" and wrote an accompanying book that discusses the theme in detail. She not only presents contrasting interpretations of particular subjects by the same artist, but has also brought together views of popular Hudson River subjects such as Lake George, Mount Washington, and Niagara Falls by different artists.

Keep in mind that, in contrast to the way earlier artists treated landscape, as allegory or narrative context, the Hudson River painters usually were responding to nature as they experienced it.

"Different Views" allows us to appreciate this shift in extended perspective.

For the most part, this isn't an exhibition primarily of big names or monumental canvases - no panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains by Albert Bierstadt, for instance.

Major painters are represented, and in fact the show opens with the two biggest names, Thomas Cole and Frederic E. Church. Ironically, neither is represented by an American subject; Cole's landscape is Italian, while Church's depicts Roman ruins at Baalbek, Lebanon.

Most of the show's artists are not A-listers such as John F. Kensett or Martin Johnson Heade; they are second- and third-tier members of the school, such as Homer Dodge Martin, John W. Casilear, and Edmund Darch Lewis.

Yet this distribution reveals something important, that the Hudson River ranks were broad and deep with talent. It is not the familiar names that make this show engrossing, but the consistently high levels of insight and skill by lesser names.

One other feature is striking: The majority of the pictures are small, more typical of a private collection than of one assembled by a museum. Domestic scale makes the experience more intimate, less like a public performance.

The show is installed in nine thematic sections, such as Time of Day, Weather Conditions and Mood, Seasons, Nature Without Man, and Man's Impact on Nature. These classifications further suggest how Hudson River artists responded to the native landscape, which was generally less cultivated and organized than European counterparts.

The pairings and groupings occur within each section, but they aren't always easy to distinguish, mainly because of spacing and the way the installation turns corners. For the most part, though, the procession is logical and the comparisons are readily grasped.

This is helped by the fact that the museum has reorganized its second-floor art galleries to provide a contiguous suite of spaces for special exhibitions. Installations no longer need to be divided between the two sides of the floor, but can be laid out more fluidly and logically.

In the works on paper gallery on the ground floor, the museum has installed a complementary show of more than 20 drawings, watercolors, and prints by Hudson River artists from the permanent collection. Being more fragile than oils, they are not often exhibited.

Together, the two shows offer a splendid opportunity to expand one's understanding of the Hudson River aesthetic by examining this historic surge of nationalistic expression in detail.

Maine, perfectly. Now and again one comes upon an exhibition that feels pitch-perfect in its quality and spirit and the scale and coherence of its presentation, a show that lingers in memory long after it comes off the walls. Philip Jamison's group of 30 small watercolors at the Chester County Art Association is such an event.

The subjects are mostly Maine landscapes, with a few interiors focused on floral still lifes. Jamison made the landscapes during 35 summers on Vinalhaven island at the mouth of Penobscot Bay. He filed them away, never exhibiting them until now.

The watercolors confirm the 85-year-old artist's mastery of the medium. They are tightly and economically composed and in terms of color, which he deploys judiciously, absolutely spot-on as far as nature is concerned.

What makes them special is their capacity to communicate Jamison's deep engagement with this rugged landscape, which so many artists have loved and painted.

The views are similar - rocks, water, dark-green fringes of conifers, tiny sailboats in the distance - but also individual. One doesn't have to love Maine to become besotted.

Several landscapes include a colorful and, I believe, symbolic interpolation - a cheerful floral still life transposed from where one expects to find it, on a table in a room, into the foreground. These are typically composed of poppies, daisies, and black-eyed Susans.

The bouquets should seem incongruous, but they don't - I think because they inject human presence. Perhaps they represent the artist's mother, whose name was Daisy. Perhaps Jamison installs them as chromatic counterpoints to the predominant earth tones. Whatever their purpose, they add sparkle and humanity to one of the most endearing landscapes in America.


Art: American Scenery

"American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting" continues at the Reading Public Museum, 500 Museum Rd., through June 5. "American Landscapes: Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection" continues through July 7. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 Sundays. Admission: $8 general and $6 for visitors 60 and older, children, and students with I.D. Information: 610-371-5850 or www.readingpublicmuseum.org.

The Philip Jamison exhibition continues at the Chester County Art Association, 100 N. Bradford Ave., West Chester, through April 29. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Free. 610-696-5600 or www.chestercountyarts

.org.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ edwardsozanski.

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