Awe-inspiring snow

At times, the Great White North reaches down and touches us with its living whiteness and its freakish cold.

Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris, courtesy McMichael Collection of Canadian Art. He is describing exactly what we’re experiencing today, where arctic airmasses have flowed into the northern US.

We got more snow than expected; there’s something like 15” of it in my driveway. That’s nothing compared to the Newark Valley of New York; my friend Marjean trenched a path to her barn through 45” of new powder. Animals must be tended regardless of the weather.

Long before there were cell phones, I routinely painted outside in winter. One year, I committed to plein air painting six days a week regardless of weather. In western New York that can be wicked indeed. That year made me into a painter. It is also how I moved from being an amateur to a professional. I had so many paintings lying around, I was forced to sell them.

The Artist in Greenland, 1935, Rockwell Kent, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art

Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.”  In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit, a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.

Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting an iceberg, above.

 The Sea of Ice, 1823–24, Caspar David Friedrich, courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle. The only sign of human activity is the shipwreck.

As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self. (Friedrich was a city-dweller; otherwise he’d have felt differently.)

Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”

The only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, which is a parade of everything medieval man did in the wintertime.

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum

While the overwhelming sense is one of order and industry, the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and they’ve bagged only one measly red fox. This painting was done during the Little Ice Age, when the threat of famine was real.

Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most elastic of them. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in two decades. His final break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.

Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.” His painting at top is a narration of what happens when that power spills into the northern US and Canada.

Four different painters from different places and times, but they’re all telling stories of winter in very inventive ways. Could we do half as well?

My favorite painter?

The Procession to Calvary, 1564, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“Who are your favorite painters?” a reader asked. That’s an impossible question. Instead, here are some painters who I profoundly admire and you should too.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the most significant of the Dutch/Flemish Renaissance painters. Among the first generation to paint other than religious scenes, he was a great landscape artist. His paintings, especially genre paintings, are a whirl of human activity. But what I admire the most is his ability to hide the focal point, or multiple focal points, in insignificant corners of his paintings. His figures are as fresh and realistic as when they were painted.

Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer was a great painter, but I admire his engravings, woodcuts and drawings most. He was a superlative draftsman, particularly in perspective. It’s his simple, profound understanding of the Passion that moves me most. He did at least three versions, and they’re the visual equivalent of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

The Fall of the Damned, c. 1620, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens may have been intellectual, classically trained, and the favorite painter of the Counter-Reformation, but to me, he’s the progenitor of comic-book art. I draw a direct line between his dynamic canvases and the work of the late Steve Ditko. Both dealt with cosmic issues in a restless, complex way.

Weymouth Bay, c. 1816, John Constable

John Constable is best known for his great set-pieces like The Hay Wain, but he is also the (largely uncredited) inventor of modern plein air painting. In place of a classical education, he spent his youth wandering the fields of his native Essex. This “made me a painter, and I am grateful,” he said. By the time he convinced his father to let him study art, the damage was done—he was a fresh, observational painter in an age when classicism was king.

The Railway Station, 1873, Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet is known as a pivotal painter in the transition between Realism to Impressionism., but his importance to me is his surface treatment. He was the first painter to eschew sparking bright lights and a superlative finish in favor of his own, raw, handwriting. He is, in this sense, the father of Modernism.

The Red Vineyard, 1888, Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh hardly needs any introduction, being one of the most influential painters in art history. His importance to landscape painters can’t be overstated. He was the precursor to Fauvism, and that, far more than Impressionism, is what speaks to our own times.

Algoma Sketch 48, 1919-20, by Lawren Harris (member of the Group of Seven)

Tom Thomson and the Group of Sevencame into being across Lake Ontario from my hometown of Buffalo, but I didn’t really learn about them until adulthood, since realism was so out of favor in my youth. Still, these painters did more than any others to apply the principles of Impressionism to the North American landscape. They vary greatly in style, but they were united by their love of the Great White North and the wilderness. They were intrepid extreme plein air painters.

Resurrection Bay, Alaska, 1965, by Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent was eulogized as “a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man” by the New York Times. That’s all true, but he was also terrific painter, aggressively simplifying his subjects to their essence. His subjects—concentrating on the Adirondacks, Alaska and Monhegan—are all about the ever-changing light of the north.

Red Shirt and Window,2013, Lois Dodd (courtesy Alexandre Galley, New York.

Lois Dodd could be admired just for her tenacious success in the male-dominated New York art scene. Her credentials are as sterling as any of her male peers, but she had her first career museum retrospective in 2013, when she was already in her eighties. That would mean nothing if she weren’t also a superlative, self-directed painter. She ignored Abstract-Expressionism and Pop Art to forge her own, realistic way.

My 2024 workshops:

What’s in a name?

How dare anyone lecture Emily Carr—even posthumously—on relations with her indigenous neighbors?
The Indian Church, 1929, Emily Carr, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario. Lawren Harris once owned this painting.

Canadians are a mythically polite people. That reputation has at least some basis in fact. Why else would they rename Emily Carr’s iconic 1929 painting Indian Church as Church at Yuquot Village?

Georgiana Uhlyarik, of the Art Gallery of Ontario, told CBC Radio that the former title contained “a word that causes pain.” (Uhlyarik is not indigenous herself.) I’m not certain why it should be a painful word. If anything, ‘Indian’ is an indictment of our ancestors, not the people it was applied to. Emily Carr named her painting in the common parlance of her day.
Carr was always sympathetic and knowledgeable about the native people she painted. In her lowest days she made pottery for sale to tourists. “I ornamented my pottery with Indian designs — that was why the tourists bought it. I hated myself for prostituting Indian Art; our Indians did not ‘pot,’ their designs were not intended to ornament clay — but I did keep the Indian design pure.
Blunden Harbour, 1930, Emily Carr, courtesy National Gallery of Canada
“Because my stuff sold, other potters followed my lead and, knowing nothing of Indian Art, falsified it. This made me very angry. I loved handling the smooth cool clay. I loved the beautiful Indian designs, but I was not happy about using Indian designs on material for which it was not intended and I hated seeing them distorted, cheapened by those who did not understand or care as long as their pots sold,” she wrote.
Carr was born in Victoria, BC, in 1871 to English parents. She studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute and in London. By the turn of the century she was already focusing on her subject: the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. But it was not until she visited France in 1912 that she would marry that subject to post-impressionism.
Kitwancool, 1928, Emily Carr, courtesy Glenbow Museum
Her personality was too uncouth to be a good teacher, and her work was too distinctive to sell easily. She struggled to find a business model that worked. Failing, she traveled north to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii) and the Skeena River, to document life among the HaidaGitxsan and Tsimshianpeople.
Carr documented the art of the Pacific Northwest with anthropological precision. “These things should be to us Canadians what the ancient Briton’s relics are to the English. Only a few more years and they will be gone forever into silent nothingness and I would gather my collection together before they are forever past,” she said.
Public response remained dismal. Carr returned to Victoria to run a boarding house, doing almost no painting. She grew fruit and vegetables in her backyard and raised chickens, rabbits and bobtail sheepdogs for sale.
She was middle-aged when she was finally ‘discovered’. After a visit to her studio in 1926, anthropologist Marius Barbeau wrote to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, suggesting that the Gallery purchase her entire collection. Brown was cool to the idea until he visited her studio during planning for a show entitled Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art – Native and Modern.
Odds and Ends, 1939, Emily Carr, courtesy Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. In later life, Carr began to focus on pure landscape and environmental issues.
Brown selected twenty-six paintings and hooked rugs and pottery for the exhibition. He suggested that Carr read Frederick Housser’s A Canadian Art Movement, introducing her to the Group of Seven. He also gave her a complimentary rail pass to get to Ottawa for the opening. 
On the way, she visited A. Y. Jackson’s studio in Toronto. “I felt a little as if beaten at my own game. His Indian pictures have something mine lack — rhythm, poetry. Mine are so downright. But perhaps his haven’t quite the love in them of the people and the country that mine have. How could they? He is not a Westerner and I took no liberties. I worked for history and cold fact. Next time I paint Indians I’m going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don’t-like-it, the eternal big spaceness of it. Oh the West! I’m of it and I love it,” she wrote.

Painting the Great White North

“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas

“Hayfields, Niagara County,” Carol L. Douglas
My bedroom is unheated. On a -3F morning like this I am not anxious to jump out of bed. Yes, I’ve painted outdoors on days like this and, no, I’m not not in any hurry to repeat the experience.
Among my painting fraternity, the two people out there painting last week are both watercolorists: Poppy Balser, who’s up in Nova Scotia using vodka in her wash cup to keep the paints moving, and Russel Whitten in Ocean Park, who just worked fast until his paint crystallized.
Oil paint will eventually stop moving in this weather as well, although it takes this kind of extreme cold to get there. The painting of hayfields, above, was done on a similarly frigid morning. It was so cold that my car battery died while I was painting. I trekked to a farmhouse to call for help. “I couldn’t figure out what you were doing out there on a day like this,” the woman answering the door said. “I thought you were watching coyotes.”
That year, I had committed to a plein air painting every day, six days a week, regardless of the weather, which in Rochester, NY can be wicked. I painted in gales along the Lake Ontario shore, blasting snow in a vineyard, lashing rain, and occasional electrical storms. That year made me into a painter, and it is also how I finally moved from being an amateur to a professional. I had so many paintings lying around, I had to sell them. It also proved to me that I could paint in any conditions, and that I didn’t need to ever again—unless I wanted to.
“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent

“Iceberg: Sledge Dogs, Greenland,” 1935-7 and 1952, Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.”  In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit (then called “Igdlorssuit”), a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.
Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting this iceberg, surrounded by his sled dogs, here.
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Casper David Freidrich
“The Sea of Ice,” 1823–24, Caspar David Friedrich
As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could, I suppose, be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self.
Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”
“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Hunters in the Snow,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Friedrich recognized winter as a still and dead time, and the only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ““The Hunters in the Snow,” which is a panoply of everything we do in the wintertime. While the overwhelming sense is one of order and human industry, there are precursors of Friedrich’s wrecked ship in this painting: the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and their bag is one measly red fox.
This painting was done during the Little Ice Age, when the threat of famine was real. It is both a medieval Labours of the Month painting and a Renaissance narrative painting.
“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris

“Winter Comes From The Arctic To The Temperate Zone,” 1935, Lawren Harris
Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most plastic of those painters. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in a matter of two decades. His break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.
Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “”We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.”

How’d that happen?

Underpainting (incomplete) of river snags, 48X36, by little ol’ me
My friend Sandy Sibley told me that my underpainting of northern lights reminded her of the Canadian painter Emily Carr. That’s quite flattering, but I don’t quite see it myself.
Yesterday’s underpainting went a little bit slower—in part because it’s complicated, in part because I’m working the color organization from my psyche, and in part because working from a chair is giving me terrific upper arm pain. (This too shall pass.)
Cedar Sanctuary, 1942, by Emily Carr
But it struck me as funny and strange that today’s painting reminds me of Emily Carr. It could be the subaquatic coloration of the distant trees, it could be the massive, simplified shapes, or it could be the vague menace of the foreground tree itself.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Emily Carr attended San Francisco Art Institute for two years before traveling to London to study at the now-defunct Westminster School of Art. A short-lived teaching gig in Vancouver ended due to Carr’s unladylike behavior—she smoked and swore. Once more she traveled abroad—this time to France, where she came in contact with Fauvism and post-Impressionism.
Blue Sky, 1932, by Emily Carr
Until 1927, Carr labored in obscurity, often quitting painting entirely. At an exhibition of West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Carr met members of the Group of Seven. “You are one of us,” Lawren Harris told her, and her role as a significant modern Canadian painter was assured.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Snow Day!

Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, 1935, Lawren Harris
One snow day is perfect: a surprise, a gift from nature, a moment out of time. More than that, and it gets tiresome, the kids start squabbling, and everyone feels housebound. 
Our visit from the so-called Polar Vortex this week was perfectly timed. This is an old friend gussied up with a new name. In my youth, we just said the arctic air was dipping down from Canada. In Winter comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone, above, Lawren Harris painted exactly that phenomenon. As a native of Brantford, Ontario he would have been very familiar with it.
Winter Landscape with Pink House, 1918, Lawren Harris
Lawren Harris was the scion of a family of wealthy industrialists—after mergers and acquisitions, his family business comes down to us as part of the Massey Ferguson Company. Because of this, he could be the silent supporter of his other Group of Seven painters. With Dr. James MacCallum, he financed the group’s studio building in Toronto.
Pine Tree and Red house, Winter City, 1924, Lawren Harris
But Harris was no wealthy dilettante. Of the Group of Seven, he traveled the farthest in his search to represent the Great White North, from an Art Nouveau-inspired realism in the teens and twenties to complete abstraction at the end of his career.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Seven Days of the Group of Seven—Lawren Harris (1882-1974)

I’m off to Maine and Rye! I’m leaving some of my favorite landscape paintings for you—works by Canada’s mighty Group of Seven painters. I love them because they combine the freshness of impressionism with a love for the northern landscape.


Winter Landscape with Pink House, 1918, Lawren Harris
If Tom Thomson was the artistic godfather of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris was its beating heart. I adore the man, and not just for his absurd hair.
He was born into a wealthy industrialist family, and had the excellent education of a coming man of his time, including foreign study in Berlin. After the requisite dabbling in Theosophy and marriage and children, he became interested in art. Being wealthy, he was able to travel across Canada to paint; being generous, he sponsored trips for other Group of Seven painters.
From the North Shore, Lake Superior, 1927, by Lawren Harris
Harris’ was an artistically-restless soul; he evolved constantly, from the heavy-impasto paintings of Algoma and Georgian Bay to his simple, silent, ethereal depictions of the Great White North. By the late 1930s, he was painting pure abstraction.
  
Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Top ten seascapes of all time!!!

A recent Guardian columnsought to identify the ten best sea pictures of all time. I propose an alternative list, not the “best”—because the idea of “top ten paintings” is in itself ridiculous—but ten equally brilliant and perhaps less famous seascapes, here presented in no particular order. (My apologies to Turner and Monet; I only omitted them because everyone knows they’re brilliant.)

Have you any to add to this list?

Fitz Hugh Lane, Becalmed Off Halfway Rock (Casco, ME), 1860
Fitz Hugh Lane painted a narrow repertoire—ships and the ocean—but he perfectly captured the atmospherics of the sea. Long after the fact, he and his contemporaries would be lumped together as “luminists.” It’s a good description of Lane’s aerial perspective on tranquil, hazy days.
Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861
Frederic Edwin Church is also called a luminist, but he’s very different from Lane in that his compositions are never tranquil. He was one of the first artists who actually traveled to see what he was painting. The Icebergs was done in studio from sketches he made during a one-month schooner cruise through the North Atlantic. (A painting which mines the same material but is stylistically different is Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice. Note that both include broken boats, symbolising the reaches of man’s endeavors.)

Richard Diebenkorn, Seawall, 1957

A first-generation Bay Area Figurative painter, Richard Diebenkorn moved from abstract expressionism to figurative painting back to abstract expressionism.  His ability to simplify his paintings into brilliant, recognizable parts simply amazes me.

Jamie Wyeth, Smashing Pumpkins, Monhegan, 2007
Like the writer Haruki Murakami, Jamie Wyeth can make you simultaneously marvel at his technique and laugh out loud. When I saw this painting in person, I boggled at how convincing the water is; that is somewhat lost in this rendering.
Joaquín Sorolla, Bulls in the Sea, 1903
There is another version of Joaquin Sorolla’s Bulls in the Sea at the Hispanic Society in New York that I actually like better for its composition. But I can’t find a well-lighted version online. (No surprise there; the Hispanic Society gallery isn’t well lighted, either.)
Sorolla painted countless paintings of the sea, and it’s tough to choose a favorite. Work, play, child, adult, misery, fun—he catalogued it all. But I think I love these paintings as much for the sails as for the bulls.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder,  Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Icarus” has to be the seascape about which the most poetry has been written. “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams is here, and W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” is here. Both are wonderful.
The painting employs Bruegel’s signature move: the most important part of the painting takes place in a relatively inconspicuous corner of the canvas.
Frank Carmichael, The Bay of Islands, 1931
Canada has more coastline than any other nation in the world (265,523 km) so it stands to reason that their Group of Seven painters made a lot of pictures of it. The Great White North is inseparable from the sea. I adore the Group of Seven, so I’ll give you two of them, including Frank Carmichael, above.
Lawren Harris, Off Greenland, Arctic Sketch XIX, 1930
Lawren Harris’ plein air field sketch, above, sold in 2011 for a whopping $1.77 million Canadian. (Gotta love that!) Like Rockwell Kent, Harris’ seascapes are deceptively simple.
John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778
John Singleton Copley never visited Havana and probably never met a shark (seeing as this one has lips). But this commemorative painting—commissioned by Brook Watson, the shark attack victim—is compelling in its sheer liveliness. The young Watson was not rescued until the third try. He lost his leg in the attack. I bet he dined out on that story for the rest of his life.
Édouard Manet, Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne, 1869
Édouard Manet is another artist who frequently painted the sea. Would the stars indeed have been this bright in a port city in 1869? Does it matter?
I’m off to the sea myself in the morning, to teach the second of my Maine workshops. If you’re signed up for my July workshop in mid-coast Maine, you can find the supply lists here. There’s one more residential slot left; I’m dying to know who is going to fill it. August and September are sold out , but there are openings in October! Check here for more information.