Monday, September 22, 2014

The White Mountains, Beautiful & Sublime

Early impressions of the majesty and drama of New Hampshire's White Mountains and the Catskills fired up artists' and the public's imagination and set American painting on its feet.

Thomas Doughty and Alvan Fisher were early artists to find beauty and majestic power the Whites.

Alvan Fisher, Crawford Notch, c. 1820s

Alvan Fisher, The Gate of the Notch from the House of Thomas Crawford

Alvan Fisher, Elephant's Head, Crawford Notch

Thomas Doughty, A Lake in the White Mountains

New York's Hudson River Valley was more accessible in the early 1800s, but a young Thomas Cole, a transplanted British-born landscape painter steeped in European Romanticism, was on the lookout for something more "sublime" than could be found in the picturesque Catskills. He got it in the form of a massive mudslide that wiped out the only settler family in Crawford Notch in 1826. 

Most of the nineteenth century art world thought of beauty in terms of three categories, the pastoral, the picturesque, and the sublime. The first two were about "pleasing the eye" and representing humanity in harmony with nature as a source of spiritual sustenance.

Thomas Cole, Catskill Creek, 1845

Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1650
Cole in the 1800s, as you can see from comparing the two paintings above, often repeated a European formula for landscape painting laid down by Claude Lorraine in the mid 1600s. Many of Claude's paintings are "pastoral" because they depict idealized scenes of classical rural life - shepherds, nymphs, pagan temples and benign characters from Romand and Greek literature. Cole painted "picturesquely" throughout his career. The Cole above is "picturesque" because of the bucolic, pleasing aspects of nature he presents in a harmonious way.)

The last of the three categories of natural beauty, the sublime, as articulated by English philosopher Edmund Burke, refers to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed Nature and its overwhelming forces such as thunderstorms, deep chasms, glacial rivers and voids - anything that reminds us that humanity is not in control.

The European Sublime: Salvator Rosa's 17th century depiction of a hermit in the wilderness.

The infamous landslide disaster that befell the Willey family was national news (at the time "national" meant pretty much the east coast to the Mississippi). It had spooky overtones too - although the family evacuated the homestead to shelter in a smaller structure, the thundering avalanche of rocks, trees, and tons of heavy earth hit a boulder in back of the house and split into two streams, leaving the Willey house untouched, only to flow together again and obliterate the shelter and the nine people within it. A Bible was found open at the table in the empty house, where the patriarch must have been reading aloud from Psalm 18: 

"The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hail stones and coals of fire... the foundation of the earth was [laid bare] in thy rebuke, Oh God."s

As a motif of the New World Sublime it was tailor made, and Cole came up to sketch the site as soon as he could. Europe had classical ruins, abandoned medieval abbeys and other emblems of humanity's smallness in the face of time and natural law, but America was too new for that kind of mythology. What it did have though was wilderness. Cole's depictions of the White Mountains wilderness, complete with symbolic summits and dead trees dwarfing tiny emblems of humanity, were a sensation. 
Thos. Cole, Autumn Landscape, Mount Chocorua, NH, 1828
On arriving at the location, Cole wrote the following: We now entered the Notch, and felt awestruck as we passed between the bare and rifted mountains. . . . The site of the Willie [sic] House standing with a little patch of green in the midst [of] the dread wilderness of desolation called to mind the horrors of that night. . . when these mountains were deluged and rocks and trees were hurled from their high places down the steep channelled sides of the mountains. . . .

Ten years later, his famous A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (1839) depicts the hotel that was built on the site two years after the slide.

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839 
Here Cole has harmoniously married the beautiful and the terrible, the peaceful and the threatening, as evidenced most clearly in the two skies, one calm, the other stormy, and the inclusion of both hand-hewn tree stumps and naturally broken trees. 

Here's another example of White Mountain paintings that touches upon the sublime.

Jasper Cropsey, An Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains, 1857
Blending to varying degrees the sublime and the picturesque in single paintings, Cole would become the father of the style of painting that would later be called the Hudson River School; the nation's top landscapists and many others followed to discover and sketch on many other painting sites in the Whites.

William Trost Richards, View in the White Mountains, 1866

John Frederick Kensett, A Reminiscence of the White Mountains

John Frederick Kensett, An October Day in the White Mountains, 1854

Close to 200 years later, the White Mountains still offer artists a sense of the primeval and the vast. Here in Eric Aho's 2008 "Blasted Tree" we get a contemporary painter's interpretation of the wilderness of the north, even down to the broken tree that here takes a central role.

Eric Aho, Blasted Tree, 50" x 70," oil on linen, 2008

White Mountain Workshop

I'll be teaching a three-day plein air workshop in the White Mountains, not far from the site of the Willey disaster in Crawford's Notch next week (Sunday - Wednesday, Sept 28-30). Want to come? You can register here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Notes, Redux

Art can change your life
I'm convinced: that nagging feeling is correct - the one that tells you, "This can't be all there is."

Art is proof. It's a concrete portal to a renewed sense of real life, the promise of experiencing yourself and the life around you in a more authentic way. The problem is, in reality YOU are the portal, and art, like everything else, only reflects back what you bring to it. So what, exactly, is “real?”

Christopher Volpe, View from Laudholm Farm, York, ME

My practice tends to swing between abstraction and representation, which, unfortunately, are are often the terms in which I think of my work. Because every now and then I wake up and realize that it doesn't really matter - in reality, a painting is worthy (or not) for reasons other than style, technique, or artistic approach.

JMW Turner, Off Margate, c. 1850

The exhibition Turner and the Sea (which closed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts on Sept. 1) demonstrated to me (among other things), that contrary to the Modernist's battle cry, a great artist need not reject or shatter conventions to create lasting works of genius.

I think what's needed for truly good work is the determination to combine inherited conventions with personal vision but to put that vision first - to make technique subservient to a moment of authentically felt heightened emotional perception. In practice this means to use all the art you possess to serve a preexisting sensation rather than to dress up a conventional landscape with personal touches - to begin with the feeling, totally unsure of anything else, letting go of the question of whether or not you are about to make a good painting. This is my new plein-air rallying cry.

Christopher Volpe, Provincetown, Late August

I realize that the unspoken assumption behind these ideas is that the quality of a work of art depends as much on the depth and quality of the artist's self development (as a person) as upon his or her "talent," training, or technique (a trap for artists at any stage). 

But if this is true, the resulting work becomes more than just a picture; it becomes a reminder that options are open and that much more is possible.

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples

Fortunately or unfortunately, it ONLY becomes real in the process of painting! Despite such promises of transcendence, working out an artistic practice in your head is like wrestling with ghosts.

So you paint for the sake of painting, waiting for the magic. Maybe the more often the magic comes, the easier it becomes to summon it (one can hope!). 

Quite recently, I've been able, for brief interludes, to stop overthinking it and just keep painting. It's like sleepwalking - even if, inevitably (as Billy Joel says), you wake up with yourself.

Christopher Volpe, Summer, Rocky Pond

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Notes to Myself

The artist's job is to discover and cultivate an authentic relationship between self and nature (nature = "everything else").

Art INVENTS: spontaneity, discovery, creation.

Gustav Klimt, The Park

You can’t control what people think about your work, so stop trying to.

JMW Turner, Cilgerran Castle, Pembrokeshire

Q: "Are you a musician or do you just play the piano?" 

A: All you can do is play the piano until the day comes when, as you're watching your hands in motion, you look up and say, "Wow, I can really play the piano."

Sketch by Picasso (making friends with a sphinx?)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Notes On Technique


Technique is JUST technique. 

My favorite painting by Ad Reinhardt
Sometimes without realizing it, when the public admires a work of art, what they are admiring is the artist’s technique, not what the artist had to say or meant for them to grasp. To be fair, conversely quite a few artists without realizing it mistake mastering a technique for having something to say (I know because I myself have been guilty of this in the past).

Tiffany by Sarolla
The task of the artist is to find himself and to invent a special language for his personal expression. As Robert Henri taught, to “work both mind and body to the limit of endurance to find in himself whatever there is of value, to find his truest thoughts and find a means, the simplest, straightest, the most fit means to make record of them.”

A Glass of Water (2000) by Alex Kanevskey

The end of painting is “to express what you care for most by the simplest means that will avail you - your personality, your knowledge, your experience; whether you do it in work that takes years, or whether you do it, like Caran d’Ache, in the line of a few seconds.” - John La Farge. 
It seems that what’s most important in painting is the felt idea - a “vision” or strongly held conception will find or invent the technique needed for its expression. 

A still life by Susan J. Walp 
“The man who has something very definite to say and tries to force the medium to say it will learn how to draw.”  -Robert Henri

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive. Instead of establishing a vast stock of technical tricks, it would be far wiser to develop creative power …. by developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or the emotion which has moved you to expression.” -Robert Henri

Outdoor cafe at night by Robert Henri
“The real study of technique is not the acquirement of a vast stock of pat phrases, but rather the avoidance of such, and the creation of a phrase special to the idea. To accomplish this, one must first have the idea and then the active, inventive wit to make the specifying phrase. This places the idea prior to the technique as a cause for the latter, contrary to the academic idea, which is the reverse.”

Landscape sketch by Degas

“Those meek students, plodding away, afraid to use their intelligence lest they make mistakes, have a faith that after so much virtuous humble tint and line copying, years of it, the gift of imagination, the power to say things the world is in need of hearing for profit or pleasure and the special management of the medium, will be handed to them as a diploma is handed to a graduate.”- Robert Henri

All great artists invent their own technique anyway. They “find” the means, invent the techniques, that we later misguidedly canonize and take for the necessary “first things first” that must be learned before one can do anything meaningful in art. I think this is precisely not the case, and that it is actually fear of not possessing these techniques (that is, of making a “bad” picture or of being found to be “untalented”) which cripples the beginners’ ability to make successful paintings. 

Irish Coast by Robert Henri
“The man who becomes a master starts out by being master of such as he has, and the man who is master at any time of such as he has is at that time straining every faculty. What he leans then from his experience is fundamental, constructive, to the point. His wits are being used and are being formed into the habit of usage.” - Robert Henri

If this is true, then the good news is that, if could only get out of our own way, we already possess exactly those techniques needed to create our art - and I mean real art of lasting value. Do you think so? Or is this going too far?

Landscape by Cezanne
“Your ability to see is your tools of trade… Remember, when you hear people say they can see a thing but not do it that they cannot really see it. If they did, they could do it even if they put the paint on with their fingers.” - Charles Hawthorne

Sunday, July 6, 2014

I Sit and Look Out (Whitman)

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame,

George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Mississippi, 1845

I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done,

I see in love life the mother missed by her children, dying, elected, gaunt, desperate,

I see the wife missed by her husband, I see the treacherous seducer of young women,

I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be hid, I see these sights on the earth,

I see the working battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and prisoners,

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill'd to preserve the lives of the rest,

I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;

Wm. Sidney Mount, The Verdict of the People, 1854-55

All these -- all the meanness and agony without end I sit looking out upon,

See, hear, and am silent.

-Walt Whitman

John Frederick Kensett, Sunset at Sea, ca. 1873

Friday, June 27, 2014

Mystery, infinity

Dwight Tryon, Evening, September, c. 1890

Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) was a dedicated Tonalist of the fields, sea, and shores of Massachusetts. He was passionate about Emerson and Thoreau, devoted to "the raw New England countryside and its Transcendentalist interpreters," resulting in a landscape art steeped in both mysticism and materiality, atmosphere and mood, "one of the consummate embodiments of the New England mind in the Tonalist canon."(1) 

Dwight Tryon, Moonlight in November, c. 1887
Tryon's work is well described by one of he best definitions of Tonalism I've encountered: "a generation of artists using tone as a distinct means of expression in its own right. Having jettisoned narrative content, tone became a new language, a signifier of mood, of mystery and uncertainty, and stood for the searching spirit of the age." (2)

Dwight Tryon, Sunrise: April, 1897-1899

"The less imitation the more suggestion and hence more poetry," the artist noted. For Tryon, of course, it wasn't about style - just as it was for Inness and his "unseen," painting was about communicating the "mood or special phase of nature," by which he actually meant: Eternity. As Tryon elaborated:

Dwight Tryon, Dawn, c. 1890

"Mystery, infinity. A painter who feels these truths in nature is humble. He frankly acknowledges there is something that cannot be painted. But this draws him on, and the highest and most lasting things are these suggestions. In this striving for the spiritual, the higher the whole, so insensibly but surely parts come to belong to the whole."(3)

Dwight Tryon, Evening

It was a vision of the spiritual embodied in the material, the concrete as symbol "of what we do not know, but may believe in." (4) "And his timeless meditations on nature would inspire modernists like Milton Avery and postmodern Tonalists like Wolf Kahn, as well as the floating dreamscapes of Mark Rothko." (5)

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1955

It turns out that Tryon painted what he considered "the nearest to a masterpiece of any I have produced" in none other than Ogunquit, Maine, where I am currently teaching a plein air workshop every Tuesday morning (email me if you would like to join us). 

Tryon received a commission in 1906 to produce a moonlit seascape. At that time in history, Ogunquit was home to a thriving art colony producing seascapes of national renown. Also a passionate fisherman, Tryon apparently came for the pollock to be had as much as for the views. 

The resulting painting, The Sea: Evening is indeed a masterpiece of Tonalism. As described by the curators of the Freer Gallery where the painting resides:

"Tryon's use of color reflects a cold austerity not expressed in his other seascapes. The subtle gradations of dark blues and greys in the sky, accented by the faded golds of the setting sun, elegantly complement the violet and lavender pigments of the ocean. The work's horizontal orientation and smooth, wavy brushstrokes suggest the movement of the waves; the delicately layered palette combined with the painting's large scale evokes an overwhelming feeling of calm."

Dwight Tryon, The Sea, Evening, 1907

The low-chroma colors and restricted palette leave the emotive work to the tonalities. It's almost a blueprint for future color field painting (such as Rothko's), what with its scale and its flowing, loosely handled horizontal bands of melting tonal color harmonies free from disruptive verticals. 

Tryon's magical week in Ogunquit (he was so visually enchanted by it that he proclaimed all other exotic locales "nowhere to this wonderful place") also inspired a gorgeous pastel. I love the moody tonalism in these paintings that express " the power and vastness of the sea and sky as elemental forces." 

Dwight Tryon, The Sea, Night, 1915

The Freer-Sackler has a nice web gallery with write-ups on each painting and a slide show showcasing its collection of Tryon's work here:

1. Cleveland, David A., A History of American Tonalism, 1880-1920, Hudson Hills Press, 2010, p. 273
2. Ibid., p. 278
3. bid., p. 277
4. bid., p. 281
5. bid., p. 281
6. Freer Gallery:
7. Ibid.:

Upcoming Workshops:

Cape Cod

"Beyond Plein Air" at Castle Hill Art Center, Truro, Mass.

July 7 - July 11, 2014

Contact them at 508-349-7511

Christopher Volpe,  Truro Dunes

Crawford Notch (New Hampshire's White Mountains)

Three-day workshop in the Whites. This is a pilot for a new Artist in Residence program I am helping to develop at the Appalachian Mountain Club's cozy Highland Center Lodge.

September 28-30, 2014
Contact me about this.


Cinque Terre (Italian Coast) 

A possible 2015 or 2016 workshop.

Contact me about this.


Those interested in my ongoing weekly class in Lowell, MA should Contact me  as well.