Hood Museum of Art

Dartmouth College

Hanover, NH




Winter's Promise: Willard Metcalf in Cornish, New Hampshire, 1909-1920

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Willard Metcalf's lyrical paintings of the New England winter landscape evoke the tranquil beauty of the season's gentler side. One of this century's preeminent American Impressionists, Metcalf created many of his most admired works during visits to the vicinity of Cornish, New Hampshire, center of a renowned art colony. A selection of these harmonious and contemplative snowscapes, as well as several works depicting the warmer seasons, will be on view at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire, from January 9 through March 14, 1999. Comprising works drawn from museum and private collections nationwide, Winter's Promise: Willard Metcalf in Cornish, New Hampshire, 1909­1920 is the first exhibition to examine the appeal and meaning of the New England winter landscape to Metcalf and his patrons.

Born in 1858, Metcalf received his early artistic training in Boston and at the Académie Julian in Paris. Informal sketching trips brought him to Giverny, where he was among the first American painters to be influenced by Monet. Eventually settling in New York, he helped found the Ten American Painters, a group including some of the most successful American Impressionists of the early twentieth century.

In 1904, Metcalf rediscovered his love for painting the New England landscape during a visit to Maine. Thereafter, he took every opportunity to escape his city residence and paint throughout the region's countryside. Beginning in 1909, the flourishing Cornish colony founded by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens became a favorite painting destination, although Metcalf tended to visit during the calmer winter months, when few other artists were present.

The winter scenes he produced in Cornish brought Metcalf some of his greatest popular and critical acclaim. In an era of rapid social change, images of rural New England evoked a longed-for sense of stability and endurance and were in high demand. By veiling the region's topography under a mantle of snow, Metcalf gave his compositions a soft and generalized quality greatly admired for its poetic sentiment. Critics saw these works as highly successful both in their expression of Metcalf's personal vision and for the contemplative response they elicited from the viewers.

Rather than focusing on the region's majestic views of Mount Ascutney and its elegant homes and gardens, Metcalf preferred to paint more intimate scenes evoking the peaceful, timeless quality of winter's quiet charms. Such works as The White Veil and The Enveloping Mantle portray a mild country snowfall, one of his favorite subjects. In these paintings, delicate scrims of falling snow unify disparate elements into a vaporous whole and create a subtle tonal tapestry of balanced, soft-edged forms. Thin tree limbs, stretching up and fanning out, grow ever-more slender until leafless tips nearly melt into an overcast sky. Although appearing nearly monochromatic at first glance, such images reveal Metcalf's extraordinarily subtle yet inventive use of color. Among the vegetation, vibrant hints of aqua, pink, gold, and even burgundy invigorate the subdued palette and suggest the dormant vitality of the frozen flora. Blue-tinted shadows and underlying traces of violet and lavender remind us that snow, never purely white, admits to endless variation.

Several of the paintings in the exhibition pay homage to one of Metcalf's most emotive subjects--a snowbound stream. Raised by ardent spiritualists and an admirer of such transcendentalist authors as Thoreau and Emerson, he probably associated brooks with the regenerative, cleansing properties of water and saw them as a metaphor for a life course or spiritual journey. In Icebound, a screen of hemlocks impedes the view of an azure sky. This compositional structure directs the viewer's gaze along the sinuous curves of the brook's snowbound banks to a pool of dark, slow-moving water. Conveying a sense of nature's quiet mystery rather than its grandeur, this work invites introspection and contemplation. Thawing Brook, in contrast, presents an open view that renders the snow-covered terrain under brilliant sunlight. Thin, washlike applications of jade green and sky blue give the melting pool a rich opalescence, and brilliant white captures the sparkling reflection of sunlit snow.

These scenes of nature's thawing process reflect Metcalf's interest in seasonal change. As the works in this exhibition amply demonstrate, Metcalf had a decided preference for painting the cusp of the seasons--especially winter into spring--and for including evidence of burgeoning life in a season traditionally associated with dormancy and even death. The snowy Willows in March evokes the coming season through the golden tips of the branches, while Frozen Pool, March exhibits every stage of the thawing process--from the pure white snow along its banks through various densities of sodden, blue-gray ice. Such tranquil late-winter views remind us that the frozen land is not dead but dormant and the seasons of rebirth and growth will inevitably follow.

In almost startling contrast to the other paintings in the exhibition, the sweeping vision and large scale of Cornish Hills give the work a majestic quality. This unusually panoramic view depicts Dingleton Hill, a distinctive Cornish landmark, as viewed near the junction of Platt Road and present-day Route 12A. Convincingly capturing the moderately rugged topography and invigorating weather for which the region is known, this work evokes fond memories of the Cornish colony for those familiar with the community.

While his winter scenes provided him with great success, Metcalf was also well known for his work throughout the seasons. Included in this exhibition are such paintings as Green Idleness, which has a fresh and vivid palette indicating the transition from spring to summer, and Trout Brook, which depicts a likely spot for fly fishing. The Village--September Morning, Metcalf's only surviving painting of Plainfield, New Hampshire, presents a romanticized, archetypal New England village nestled among sheltering hills and steeped in nostalgic sentiment.

Evoking a seemingly purer and simpler era, Metcalf's images were particularly appealing to the increasingly urban and industrial society of the early twentieth century. In their restrained palettes and refined compositions, as well as their focus on the regenerative qualities of nature's cyclical rhythms, these paintings served as quieting antidotes to the press of modern life and continue to do so today.

Winter's Promise: Willard Metcalf in Cornish, New Hampshire, 1909­1920 is accompanied by an 84-page, fully illustrated catalogue authored by Barbara J. MacAdam. Catalogues are available at the Hood Museum Shop or by calling (603) 646-2808. A shipping chargewill be added for telephone orders.

This exhibition has been made possible through the generous support of the Bernard R. Siskind 1955 Fund and the Hansen Family Fund.

Images from top to bottom: Willard Metcalf painting The Thawing Brook in Plainfield, New Hampshire, 1917. Courtesy of the de Veer research papers, Metcalf Catalogue raisonne; Willard Metcalf, Hush of Winter, 1911, oil on canvas, Jamee and Marshall Field; Willard Metcalf, Red Oak (no. 1), c. 1911, oil on canvas, Private collection, courtesy of Spanierman Gallery, New York; Willard Metcalf, The Winter's Festival, 1913, oil on canvas, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Gift of Mrs. Herbert Fleishhacker, 47.5.3; Willard Metcalf, The White Veil (no. 1), 1909, oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Gift of Mrs. Gusta Radeke; Willard Metcalf, Icebound, 1909, oil on canvas, 29 x 26 1/ inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, Walter H. Schulze Memorial Collection, 1910.311; Willard Metcalf, Cornish Hills, 1911, oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 40 inches, Ann M. and Thomas W. Barwick; Willard Metcalf, Green Idleness, 1911, oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 29 1/4 inches, The Manoogian Collection; Willard Metcalf, The First Thaw, 1913, (Brook in Winter), oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 29 inches, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Purchased through the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W'18 Fund, the Miriam and Sidney Stoneman Acquisition Fund, and the Julia L. Whittier Fund, gifts from the Lathrop Fellows, and gifts by exchange, P.992.14

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 9/20/10

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