Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 17, 2008 with permission of the author and the Westmoreland Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Westmoreland Museum of Art directly at 221 N. Main St., Greensburg, PA 15601 or through either this phone number or web address:
SCENIC VIEWS: Painters from the Scalp Level School Revisited
by Judith Hansen O'Toole
Throughout the nineteenth century, America witnessed a flowering of landscape painting sustained by three generations of talented artists who explored many valleys and mountainsides of this country and even traveled beyond its borders. A new century brought the excitement of industrialization, bursting with innovation and the birth of modernism. There occurred a steep decline of interest in landscape painting, first by collectors and then by artists. By mid-twentieth century, great landscape paintings by leading proponents of the previous era were substantially ignored, even dismissed under the shadow of new American schools of painting -- first regionalism and urban realism, then abstract expressionism, color field and other non-objective modes.
By the twentieth century's close, tides of taste turned yet again, perhaps spurred on by exhibitions of American art mounted during our bicentennial year and a renewed interest in the nineteenth century landscape tradition took on an international scale. Then by the first decade of the twenty-first century, a strong American art market fueled keen interest not only in known masters of American landscape painting, namely Hudson River School painters, but, drilling deeper into the genre, the work of artists belonging to what have been dubbed "regional" schools. The use of this descriptor, whether intended or not, connotes to many some element of condescension.
The Hudson River School, after all, began as a loosely knit, regional association of artists. Until recently they were largely misunderstood as a group attached to a particular geographic region rather than to a shared philosophy of landscape painting with articulated tenets applicable to any landscape in any region, as indeed it was by many of the School. As art historians turn their attention to the field of American art, neglected until recently with the exception of a devout few, such misnomers are being dispelled through scholarship.
If the Hudson River School painters constitute one "regional" school, there were others throughout the country including South Carolina, Indiana and California, to name a few. In southwestern Pennsylvania there was the Scalp Level School named by convenience of reference, as were other such groups, for the locale where they were best known for congregating to paint. As these regional schools are placed into proper perspective, it is clear that "regional" should not be confused with "provincial," as often the case, or even with "self-contained," as has been assumed, but rather as geographically localized components of a truly national movement, closely connected to one another through multiple exhibitions, a common philosophy and a rich, literary heritage including frequent visits among artists and other similar communications and contacts.
George Hetzel (1826-1899), acknowledged leader of the Scalp Level School, is a case in point, an outstanding example and model. He was well aware of artists working in other parts of the country and in Europe, having been schooled there, as were many American artists of this period. In fact, many Americans from all parts of the country first met in European schools, continuing their associations long after returning home, whether to the same city or not. Hetzel was inspired especially by the "individuality" of Jean-Baptiste Corot (1796-1875), leading proponent of the Barbizon School of landscape painters in France (again named for the region they favored) as Hetzel believed this quality of individuality made the Frenchman notable and outstanding; Hetzel observed, "Once you saw his [Corot's] dull sky you would not forget it." When looking at Hetzel's own rendering of "dull" skies, Corot's influence is readily apparent, indeed unmistakable.
Hetzel also admired the leading American landscape movement designated the Hudson River School founded by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), an artist revered by painters and collectors alike. Hetzel owned a painting by Hudson River School artist Thomas Moran (1837-1926), In the Forest,1868 (oil on canvas, 44 x 38 3/8 inches, private collection), possibly acquired while Hetzel resided in Philadelphia where Moran kept a studio.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the content of discussions held at Pittsburgh's J. J. Gillespie Gallery, where Hetzel and his colleagues gathered regularly to share information, discuss their work, plan their collegial painting outings and exhibit. Almost certainly they would have talked about Asher B. Durand's "Letters to a Landscape Painter" published in serial form in the popular artists' journal The Crayon in 1855 (coincidentally the same year Hetzel sent his first painting to the Pennsylvania Academy of Design). After Thomas Cole's death in 1848, Durand emerged as the leader of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. Durand was stimulated to write these letters in response to the numerous requests he had received from younger artists wishing to study with him. Because he could not take on all these students, Durand instead published his teachings in eight "letters" to a hypothetical student, thereby broadly disseminating his thoughts to a national audience.
Evidence of Hetzel's awareness of Durand and his philosophy came in visual, rather than verbal, form when Hetzel painted Rocky Gorge (1869), first exhibited as A Glimpse of the Ravine at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It could not have been accidental that Hetzel painted this seminal canvas in Philadelphia where he had moved his family to better position himself for a national market (he would later move, briefly, to New York City for the same reason). He left Pittsburgh because he believed the city's collectors were engaged in one-upping each other with purchases of European artists for the sake of name recognition to the neglect of native-born, and especially, Pittsburgh-based painters. Ironically, it would be a Pittsburgh collector, William Thaw, who purchased A Glimpse of the Ravine, although he had been transplanted there from the east coast. Thaw was the son of a Philadelphia banker who moved to Pittsburgh to establish a branch of the United States Bank of Philadelphia. A banker turned owner of transportation industries from canal boats to railroads, Thaw was also an art collector and philanthropist who became a prominent resident of his adopted city.
The significance cannot be overestimated of Hetzel creating this image at the very moment in his career when he was attempting to increase exposure to his work and, perhaps, to align himself with nationally known painters. Rocky Gorge replicates the setting of Durand's memorial portrait, Kindred Spirits, commissioned in 1849, a year after Cole's untimely death, showing Cole and his good friend and colleague, American native poet William Cullen Bryant, on a rocky precipice overlooking a wild gorge in the mountains. Although the scene's replication is not exact, there is no doubt that Hetzel intended his viewers to recognize this reference immediately.
Painted in 1869, twenty years after Durand's canvas, Hetzel's interpretation of the same scene eliminated the two figures but retained the prominent rock outcropping upon which they stood. By doing so, Hetzel actually enhanced the symbolism of his homage, leaving it to the viewer to conjure the original composition, yet permitting the landscape, clearly the Catskill home of Thomas Cole, to speak more directly of nature's inspiration, which was shared by Cole, Durand, and Hetzel himself. Elimination of the two human figures could have another source -- that of Hetzel's own preference. In an interview, Hetzel was asked why he avoided figures in his landscapes. The artist replied "I don't believe in putting figures in a landscape, they are far-fetched and unnecessary."
By 1870 Hetzel returned to Pittsburgh, continuing his interest in landscape painting and revisiting that summer a location he had first seen four years earlier. In 1866, Hetzel had accompanied John Hampton, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and fellow artist Charles Linford (1846-1897) on a fishing and sketching expedition to an area near Johnstown designated Scalp Level. The trip would prove of much greater consequence than simply an outing among friends. Hetzel would return, with other painters in tow, nearly every summer thereafter until 1898 when he moved to a farmhouse in Somerset County purchased by his son, James.
An insightful description of Scalp Level, published in The Johnstown Daily Democrat Souvenir Edition, 1894, is worth quoting at length here.
In short, the distinct appeal of Scalp Level to painters was that it provided in a small area all the landscape elements a painter might desire: rugged bits of nature populated by streams, waterfalls, forests with trees of every description, rocks, all types of wild flowers and vegetation, deer and other wild creatures; and signs of man's encroachment into nature including small farms, country lanes rutted by wagons, neatly planted orchards, and meadows with cattle and sheep.
Within Scalp Level a painter could find all the defining themes important to the nineteenth century landscape aesthetic. These included man versus nature, the cyclic quality of days and seasons, the awesome power of nature in changing weather and seasons, and the simpler, beautiful aspects of flora and fauna.
According to a remembrance penned by Clarence Johns (1843-1925) titled An Art Pilgrimage to Shade Furnace, "Hetzel was so much struck by the beauty of the scenery on Clear Shade, Dark Shade and Shade Creeks [all located in the area of Scalp Level] that he influenced almost every member of the School of Design, together with a number of their relatives and friends [to go there]." "Shade," in these three instances, refers to the quality of being shaded from the sun, but as the locale became a retreat for painters the double entendre seems almost a premonition of the region's visual appeal. The painters accompanying Hetzel in 1867 during his second summer at Scalp Level included Jasper Lawman (1825-1906), Alfred S.Wall (1825-1896), Hugh Newell (1830-1915), Trevor McClurg (1816-1893) and Johns himself. Among the seven students from the School of Design for Women, led by instructor Miss Mayhurst and chaperoned by two women including Andrew Carnegie's mother, were Olive Turney (1847-1939) and Agnes Way (1842-1943). Little could this intrepid band of artists have imagined the long tradition upon which they were embarking, one which would take Hetzel and others to Scalp Level for at least three more decades.
Many years ago, a cartoon in the New Yorker depicted an imaginary roll call of Hudson River School painters stationed all across a mountainous landscape responding "Ye!" to Thomas Cole, whose easel was set up in the valley below them. The cartoonist was poking fun at the notion of a national school, making the point instead that the group was associated by communal painting trips and a unifying philosophy concerning nature and landscape painting communicated not in a formal classroom setting, but through other means.
Similarly, it is possible to name the artists most consistently associated with Hetzel and the specific geographical locale of Scalp Level, but we must also take into consideration other landscape subjects they chose for their brush. Just as paintings from different parts of the United States, South America and Europe by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) and others are still considered works by "Hudson River School" painters, scenes outside of western Pennsylvania by Hetzel and his associates must be considered when describing artistic productions by the Scalp Level School. Also, what must be thought of artists who came to Scalp Level on one or two occasions for the camaraderie and scenery? James Brade Sword (1839-1915), Julius Beck (1831-1915), and Louis J. Heitmuller (1863-?), are among these. Then, there are artists known to have visited the site, but for whom few, if any, paintings are extant: George Laying (1867-1931), Fred Bussman (1842-1897), and Albert Lauck Dalbey (1828-1910). Heitmuller exhibited several scenes of Paint Creek in the Carnegie Annuals. George Elphinstone (dates unknown) and J.W. Fiske (1832-?) exhibited paintings in the Pittsburgh Art Gallery's exhibition of 1870 with titles placing them at Scalp Level, but whose works are now for the most part lost. The Johnstown Daily Democrat Souvenir Edition, 1894 mentions two "New York artists whose work has brought them fame and fortune. C. S. Rinehart (1844-1896) and August Will (1834-1910) "are hopelessly in love with the place [Scalp Level]."
Still life subjects also interested the Scalp Level painters and appear regularly in the checklists of exhibitions from the period. A natural outgrowth of landscape, this genre features everything from "kitchen pictures" replete with vegetables and dead game arranged with pots ready for cooking to table top fruit arrangements to dead game on the forest floor still showing a polite drop of crimson from their recent demise. Although Albert F. King (1854-1945) was the one who gravitated most often to the still life theme, Hetzel also frequently painted these subjects. Most of the others dabbled in still life on occasion. It is not known whether these compositions were reserved for the winter months after the artists returned to their city studios or if perhaps they were done concurrently to the landscape studies. In either case, it is known that the artists would make both pencil and oil sketches during their summer forays into nature and complete the larger canvases once back in Pittsburgh.
The oldest artist to paint at Scalp Level with Hetzel was William Coventry Wall (1810-1886), born in England. He was a quiet, family man who came to establish an art supplies and frame shop in Pittsburgh but later became a successful painter himself. His popular historical scenes of Pittsburgh include several views of the Great Fire of 1845, which he exhibited at J. J. Gillespie Gallery.
Like many self-trained artists, Wall developed a highly stylized technique. He used a small brush to capture every detail of his landscape views, including individual leaves and blades of grass. Although his canvases sometimes lack atmospheric perspective due to this process, they more than make up for it with an incredibly sensitive evocation of natural light. Working in small format, Wall would then enlarge his panoramic views faithfully following the details of the finished study.
Among the artists who painted frequently at Scalp Level was Joseph Woodwell (1842-1911) who studied informally with Hetzel and was encouraged by the older artist. Woodwell traveled extensively, including a four-year stay in France where he associated with Frenchmen Camille Pisaaro, Alfred Sisley and Auguste Renoir among others. He came to be highly regarded by the Barbizon School, a group of painters whose influence on the Pittsburgh group can be appreciated through their shared preference for contemplative, interior forest scenes rather than panoramic landscape views. Woodwell's sketching trips to Scalp Level foreshadowed his work in France. Upon returning he supported his fellow painters and continued to travel, this time throughout the United States and to his beloved Massachusetts shore where he had a cottage in the small village of Magnolia. He summarized his philosophy of landscape painting in a speech delivered in 1893 at the Bohemian Club: "To understand painting you must understand nature, and to understand nature you must have a love for her...."
Two other important figures in the Pittsburgh art world at the time, Martin B. Leisser (1845-1940) and John Wesley Beatty (1850-1924), are linked to Scalp Level, both through several painting trips there and through support of their contemporary artists.
Leisser, dubbed the "Dean of Pittsburgh Artists" primarily due to his influencing Andrew Carnegie to add a department of art at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), had studied in Munich at the same time as Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916).When Leisser was only twenty-two and still self taught, Leisser made a wood engraving of Hudson River School master Frederic Church's portrait illustrated in Harper's Weekly, June 8, 1867. Harper's was an important source of information and images for artists working in different areas of the country. Although he became best known for portraits whose commissions sustained his family, Leisser would later recall: "When portraits were in demand, I became a portrait painter but I am mostly interested in the many phases of nature." An exhibition of eighty paintings at Pittsburgh's Wunderly Galleries in June 1924 bore witness to this statement with landscape subjects from all his travels including those to the Pacific Coast, Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon, Florida, New Mexico, and even closer to home in Pittsburgh. Leisser marked his ninetieth birthday in 1935 on a sketching trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the east coast mecca for landscape painters.
Beatty also studied in Munich. He became the first Director of the Carnegie Institute (now Carnegie Museum of Art), joining the circle of older artists who met at J. J. Gillespie's and accompanied Hetzel and the others to Scalp Level where he became enamored of farm scenes. Once he joined the Carnegie Institute, Beatty virtually suspended his own work and only exhibited anonymously yet remained undying in vigorous support of regional artists. His vision included the birth of the Carnegie Internationals in 1896, staged to fulfill Carnegie's directive to find the "great masters of tomorrow" among living artists.
The artists of the Scalp Level School, like other regional groups around the nation, ventured into America's vast rural scenery to study and capture nature's marvels on canvas. Art historians and curators will continue to delve deeper into nineteenth century landscape painting, rediscovering artists whose names and works have been forgotten or set aside but who deserve a place in the pantheon of American artists. This, and exhibitions like it, will help restore their splendid legacy.
The preceding will serve as the basis for an introduction to a book on the Scalp Level School to be published by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in 2009-10.
About Judith Hansen O'Toole
Since 1993, Judith Hansen O'Toole has been director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her expertise in nineteenth-and twentieth-century American art is reflected in the museum's collections and exhibitions. She was director of the Sordoni Art Gallery and an associate professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, from 1982-1993. She has organized exhibitions on artists and artist groups including the early twentieth century artists George Luks and Carl Sprinchorn, American still-life painting, the Ash Can School and the Hudson River School. She is widely consulted as the authority on works by Severin Roesen and Luks.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 17, 2008, with permission of the author and the Westmoreland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on November 14, 2008. Ms. O'Toole's text is the gallery guide introduction for a special exhibition, SCENIC VIEWS: Painters of the Scalp Level School Revisited, on view at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, from November 09, 2008 through February 01, 2009.
To read more about the exhibition SCENIC VIEWS: Painters of the Scalp Level School Revisited please click here.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Judy Linsz Ross of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Resource Library.
rev. 12/12/08 and 12/15//08 at request of Kim Kiser of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art
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