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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
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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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