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Rivers, Sea and Shore: Reflections on Water

August 14 - October 28, 2007

 

The R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana, will open a major exhibition of paintings about the role of water in America on Tuesday, August 14, 2007. "Waterscapes" might best describe the 50 paintings in the exhibition, Rivers, Sea and Shore: Reflections on Water, which are traveling under the auspices of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington, D.C. The exhibit will remain at the Norton Art Gallery through October 28, 2007.

It has been said that America -- a continent between two oceans -- has had a love affair with the sea since its earliest beginnings. This exhibition clearly shows the changing emphasis of this love affair as the represented artists explore more than a century of American life on the water, a history reflected in ships and boats, seascapes and river scenes, as well as images of life along the shore. It also offers rare examples of water scenes west of the Appalachians.

The exhibition begins chronologically with the earliest form of American maritime painting -- ship portraits -- as represented by John S. Blunt's 1828 homage to the U.S.S. Constitution. It concludes with paintings of depression-era industrial waterfronts (as in Reginald Marsh's cathedral-like Lift Bridge, Jersey Marshes) and an update of the ancient genre of naval warfare art (Anton O. Fisher's World War II Convoy).

Within this continuum, the exhibition explores the post Civil War era, when ships became more a part of the artist's story than the whole story itself. As steamboats came to dominate water transportation, we see a steamboat making a night landing on the Mississippi, by Charles M. McIlhenny, from an era best described by Mark Twain. In other romantic 19th century art, we see the challenges for realistic painters in depicting the power and motion of waves, as in William Trost Richards' Reflection in the Surf (c. 1895).

A large group of works in the exhibition focuses on the stunning paintings that came out of the artist colonies established on the Northeast Coast once Impressionism crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century. Many notable artists working near Old Lyme, Connecticut, are represented, including Robert Vonnoh, Guy Wiggins and Gregory Smith. Other New England artists painted seaside towns long associated with whaling or commerce, reflecting nostalgia for a pre-industrial time. As Impressionism spread the idea that art should show the common man's lifestyle, people were increasingly depicted enjoying the beach, such as in paintings by Edmund Graecen and E. Percy Moran; engaging in sport, suggested in Frank Benson's Afternoon Ducks; and yacht racing (Summer Seas by Anton O. Fischer).

By the 1930s, artistic subjects began to turn to industrialization. Concerns about joblessness created greater interest in industry as depicted in Fayerweather Babcock's Industrial Waterfront -- Great Lakes, and in transportation, such as iron ships (Anton O. Fisher), bridges (Reginald Marsh), and even trains (Preston Dickinson's Locomotive).

Collected over 40 years by Arthur J. Phelan of Chevy Chase, Maryland, these paintings express his own passion for paintings about water that can be traced to summers spent in Connecticut where he raced sailboats and watched large commercial sailing ships pass through Long Island Sound.

 

Wall panel texts from the exhibition

 
The Arthur J. Phelan Collection
 
 
I have built a number of collections that started with the chance acquisition of an artwork that reminded me of something in my past.
 
This group of maritime and coastal scenes arises from the time I spent at my family's summer home in eastern Connecticut. Our house, half way between New London and the Connecticut River, was on the water. During World War II, I sailed small sloops at the point where Long Island Sound empties into the Atlantic and where large commercial sailing ships occasionally still passed by. Later, while at Yale, I was never far from the Sound.
In the early 1960s I bought my first sailing ship painting, the Great Lakes Marine Disaster. My collection started with ship portraits, the earliest form of American maritime painting. In 1980 a major exhibition of Connecticut Impressionists expanded my interest in the sea to the towns that were once centers for whaling and shipbuilding. My collection had always focused on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the emergence of the industrial waterfront as a subject for painting, and the contrast between Impressionism and the Precisionism found in industrial subjects, eventually brought my collection of waterscapes up to the Second World War.
 
­ Arthur J. Phelan
 

Ships and Seascapes, Rivers and Boats

 
Ship Portraits
 
Ship portraits were the earliest form of American maritime painting. Beginning in the nineteenth century, American captains commissioned paintings of their ships. Ship portraits in this collection include a close rendering of the U.S.S. Constitution by John S. Blunt, painted in 1828 after the Constitution returned from an extended tour in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
 
The foremost painter of steamboats on the Hudson River was James Bard. The painting of the James A. Stevens represents the only known case in which Bard painted the ship for three separate owners, once in pencil, once in oil, and the one presented here in gouache.
 
After the Civil War, as the era of sailing ships declined, ships in paintings became more a part of the story than the whole story. For example, the steamboat making a night landing on the Mississippi, by Charles M. McIlhenny, reflects the era best described by Mark Twain.
 
By the twentieth century most sailing ship subjects were yachts, as in Anton Otto Fischer's Summer Seas.
 
 
Painting the Sea Itself
 
In nineteenth-century painting, before the influence of Impressionism, the highest test of an artist's proficiency was the realistic depiction of a scene. The power and motion of waves was a challenge to realists. The artists in this exhibition were considered exceptionally able. They include Alfred T. Bricher and William Trost Richards.
 
Other artists, following the romantic tradition, combined water views with the adjoining landscape, as in Sunset by Louis Rémy Mignot, who in 1857 had gone to Ecuador accompanied by Frederic Church, with whom he shared a fascination for flaming sunsets. Almost all artists of this era were influenced by the tenets of the Hudson River School, which included Ruskinian attention to realism and tight brushwork.
 
 
Beyond the Sea
 
As the center of population moved westward, local artists seeking water views turned to the rivers along which settlement had developed. As early as the 1860s George Harvey was painting Iowa views such as Bluffs on the Mississippi River near Burlington. In the Far West, where lakes are fed by mountain snows, the majesty of the mountains, as seen in Paul Lauritz's California Mountains and Lake, overwhelms their role in providing sustenance for the arid land.
 

Seaside Towns

 
After Impressionism made its way across the Atlantic, promoted by such teachers as William Merritt Chase, artist colonies grew up on the Northeast Coast. Particularly fine work was done in and around Old Lyme, Connecticut, from which area there are a number of works in the exhibition. These include paintings by Charles H. Davis, Will Howe Foote, Edmund W. Greacen, E. Gregory Smith, Guy C. Wiggins, and Robert Vonnoh. A number of Connecticut artists painted towns that had long been associated with whaling or commerce, reflecting nostalgia for a pre-industrial time. They include View of Noank Harbor by Eliot C. Clark, views of Mystic by Walter Clark and George A. Thompson, a view of the Mianus River near Greenwich by Elmer L. MacRae, and Stonington, Connecticut by Oliver Hazard Perry III.
 

Life by the Water

 
As Impressionism spread the idea that art should show the common man's lifestyle, genre painting was affected. People were increasingly shown enjoying the beach, such as in paintings by Edmund W. Greacen and E. Percy Moran, and engaging in sport, such as in Duck Shooting, Chesapeake Bay by James Brade Sword, an early example, and Afternoon Ducks by Frank W. Benson, who was an avid duck hunter and major Boston Impressionist.
 
 
Shifting Emphasis in the Early Twentieth Century
 
After the First World War, modernist artists used new techniques and styles to move art away from idyllic scenes of the life of the affluent classes toward industrial scenes and landmarks. Accordingly, images began to appear of bridges, trains, factories, and industrial buildings.
 
This new view of the waterfront emerges in the 1922 portrait, Locomotive, by Preston Dickinson, one of the foremost modernists of the period. By the 1930s, as a result of the Great Depression, as well as the economic boom of the 1920s, there was widespread appreciation of America's industrial might and its contribution to better lives for all.
 
Following the Depression, many paintings involving rivers and the sea included iron ships and industrial waterfronts. Chappaquiddick Ferry, Martha's Vineyard by Julius M. Delbos includes automobiles in its subject matter. The Lift Bridge of Reginald Marsh resembles the soaring profile of a medieval cathedral. The waterfront view of The Hudson at Newburgh, New York by Bruce H. Mitchell focuses on water towers, aging warehouses, and a lonely railroad spur.


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