Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, Mass.

(413) 458-9545


The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature


The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute traces the emergence of the oil sketch from a simple article of preparation to a work of art worthy of exhibition and sale in The Painted Sketch. American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880, on view from February 14 through May 9, 1999.

As the first major exhibition on the subject, The Painted Sketch offers a fresh interpretation of how, in the middle of the 19th century, the smaller, more immediate oil sketch served both as a vivid record of the painter's direct response to nature and as a work of art worthy of appreciation in its own right. The exhibition features some 90 American landscape paintings drawn from public and private collections, representing nine leading American artists, including Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Asher B. Durand, John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. No fewer than 28 paintings by Church, arguably the greatest landscape painter of the period, will be on view. The exhibition is organized by the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA).

"It's instructive to look back over a century's divide to gauge the moment when the oil sketch changed from being simply an aid toward the completion of a finished painting to an independent work of art in its own right, worthy of appreciation and exhibition," notes Michael Conforti, director of the Clark. "Ironically, I believe that these small works on canvas, board, and paper--with their spontaneous and virtuosic brushwork--may appeal more to today's museum goers, who are accustomed to Impressionist and modernist forms, than would many of the original, finished studio paintings by these famous American artists."

Plein-airists (open-air painters) of the mid-19th century were so well rewarded for the freshness and verve of their works that in time more and more of them--working in or out of the studio--strove for the fashionable spontaneous effect. While many of the earlier works in the exhibition, such as Church's Horseshoe Falls (1856-57), were field sketches not intended for public display, a number of the later works, such as Bierstadt's The Trapper's Camp (1861), were painted with exhibition in mind. The Painted Sketch documents the 1880s art market which enjoyed a surge of collectors eager to acquire paintings exhibiting the vibrant handling of paint characteristic of the outdoor sketch.

The Painted Sketch also reminds viewers of the hazardous travels taken by 19th-century painters in order to sketch grand landscapes. Dr. Eleanor Jones Harvey, Consulting Curator of American Art at the DMA and organizer of the exhibition, says, "Armed with their sketch boxes, leading artists traveled to remote locations in North and South America and Europe to search out exotic landscape subjects. The public came to equate their adventurous spirits and fortitude with the American character, which gave added popularity to their small field sketches of natural wonders. And the enthusiastic press coverage of the artists' travels added to the painted sketches' values as works of art.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is Frederic Edwin Church's study for Under Niagra (1858). Sketched from the deck of the steamer Maid of the Mist, the novel vantage point captured the attention of the press; today, only the sketch exists, for the studio version of the painting has been lost. Also on view is Bierstadt's Cathedral Rocks (1872), a highly accomplished sketch that captures the snow-covered beauty and remote isolation of Yosemite Valley during the winter months.

Funding for the exhibition has been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.




Accompanying the exhibition is a 300-page catalogue with essays and descriptive text by Dr. Harvey, as well as color plates of the paintings and objects included in the exhibition.

From top to bottom: Frederic Edwin Church, Clouds Over Olana, August, 1872, Oil on paper, 8 11/16 x 12 1/8 in., Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation; Frederic Edwin Church, Study for Under Niagara, September, 1872, Oil on paper, 11 3/4 x 17 1/2 in., Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation; Asher B. Durand, Nature Study, Trees, Newburgh, NY, 1849, Oil on canvas, 22 1/8 x 18 in., The New-York Historical Society, New York, Gift of Nora Durand Woodman; Thomas Cole, Sketch box used by the artist, ca. 1840, Mahagony with brass fittings, 2 1/2 x 17 x 13 in., Bronck Museum, Greene County Historical Society, Coxsackie, NY, Gift of Edith Cole Silberstein; Thomas Cole, Study for Dream of Arcadia, 1838, Oil on panel, 8 3/4 x 14 1/2 in., The New-York Historical Society, New York; Frederic Edwin Church, Off lceburg, Newfoundland, June 1859, Oil and graphite on thin board, 4 15/16 x 11 1/8 in., Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York

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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