An ugly chapter in American history

If President Trump wants to buy something, he should buy back Rockwell Kent’s paintings from Russia.
Cloverfields, 1939-40, Rockwell Kent, courtesy Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.
In his mid-40s, Rockwell Kent moved to a working Adirondack dairy farm that he called Asgaard. He lived and painted there until his death in 1971. The name came from Nordic mythology. It roughly corresponds to Old Norse for “Garden of the Gods,” and is an apt description of the place. Ringed by the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, with fast-moving rivers and streams, this area has been a draw for outdoorsmen and artists for nearly two hundred years.
Asgaard is located in the small town of Au Sable Forks, New York. “And there, westward and heavenward, to the high ridge of Whiteface northward to the northern limit of the mountains, southward to their highest peaks, was spread the full half-circle panorama of the Adirondacks. It was as if we had never seen the mountains before,” wrote Kent.
Au Sable River, Winter: Adirondacks, 1960, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage.
In addition to being Kent’s home, Asgaard was also a working dairy farm.  It was acquired by David Brunner and Rhonda Butler in 1988 and brought back into production in 2003. Here in the Northeast, fallow land rapidly reverts to forest, so not only were Brunner and Butler saving an historic farm, they were saving a view.
Rockwell Kent’s reputation as a painter languished in the later 20th century. “Kent, if not a towering talent in American art, was a prolific man who made a good living not only as a painter but also as a commercial artist; muralist; designer of fabric, pottery and jewelry; architect, and Adirondack dairy farmer,” wrote Judith H. Dobrzynski in the New York Times in 1999.
Summer Day, Asgaard, 1950, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage.
His politics didn’t help. He was an outspoken socialist and Communist sympathizer. Called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953, Kent stubbornly pleaded the Fifth Amendment. He later said he’d never been a member of the Communist Party, but he’d effectively ruined his career. Suddenly, he was anathema to galleries and museums.
Kent had donated 80 paintings and 800 prints and drawings to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME. They backtracked and rejected the work. Stung, Kent donated the entire collection to the Soviet Union. Many of his works from the Adirondacks were in this gift, which made them unknown to two generations of American art critics.  It took the fall of the Soviet Union and the internet to make them visible again.
Road to Asgaard: Adirondacks, 1960, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage.
Kent was out of step artistically, too. He was a stubborn realist in the age when abstract expressionism was all the rage. He was an indefatigable plein air painter, traveling to remote places like Greenland, Tierra del Fuego, Alaska and Maine.  “Go before nature, use your eyes, and then paint what you see,” was his credo.
His work is ultimately spiritual. “His painting is a proclamation of the rights of man, of the dignity of man, of the dignity of creation. It is his belief in God,” wrote Robert Henri.

Monday Morning Art School: continuing education

We learn from studying our peers and the painters who’ve gone before us.
Victoria Street, oil on linen, 16×20, by Carol L. Douglas
Bruce McMillan emailed me last week. “Just in case you feel you’re painting a lot, in 1911, from early August to late September on Monhegan, Robert Henri painted 300 paintings, most of them on 12×15 wooden boards, his last major foray into marine art.”
I churned out fifteen largish canvases in thirteen days during my Parrsboro residency and wondered if I was sacrificing quality for quantity. But I’m familiar with Henri’s marine paintings; they’re simple, monumental and brilliant. Bruce’s reassurance came at exactly the right time.
Once we’re done with art classes, we learn mostly from observing other artists. When we see something that we admire, we want to incorporate the essence of that idea into our work. It’s not stealing; it’s how all art develops.
Miss Margaret, oil on canvasboard, 8×10, by Carol L. Douglas. Maggie was my roommate for two weeks.
Alison Hill is a painter I’ve known since before I moved to Maine. We were set up next to each other at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation last month, so I had time to study her brushwork. She lays it down once and leaves it.
A writer told me recently, “you can rewrite that ending eight times and it won’t necessarily be better; you’ll just have eight different endings.” At least with the written word, they’re separate. In alla prima painting, those previous iterations lie there in the murk and muddy up the top layers.
I’d never heard of Tom Forrestall before this current trip. He’s sometimes called the Canadian Andrew Wyeth because of the precision of his egg tempera technique. But beneath that is a light, quirky vision. It’s magical realism unencumbered with social commentary. Can this kind of ruthless observation be learned? I won’t know until I try.
Clearing to the west, oil on canvas, 12×16, by Carol L. Douglas
Tara Will is a pastel painter from Maryland. She has never met a compositional rule she’s not willing to bend, break or pummel into submission. I look at everything she posts because her paintings are always colorful, light, and energetic. She keeps pastel lean and fresh.  
Marc Granboisis a plein air painter from Quebec. His snow and ice are tremendous, but his skies are what I’m interested in these days. He can pull moody, brooding, and dramatic out of a leaden northern sky. There’s tremendous energy in his linework and patterning.
Every artist needs to know art history to understand where he or she fits into the great saga of art. A number of Nova Scotians commented that my painting style looked very Tom Thomson or Group of Seven. That’s partially because they’re familiar to Canadians, but it’s also because I have studied them for many years.
Recent landslide (Cape Sharp), oil on linen, 18×24, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting is the only one that’s going to get a studio revision–in this case, a crop, I think. I removed something at the last minute and it unbalanced the composition. 
More recently, I’ve been thinking about the Scottish Colourists, particularly Francis Cadell. Both the Canadians and Scottish groups are post-impressionist, but they’re as interested in a sense of place as they are in formal order and structure.
Most of the painters I’ve mentioned are not superstars; they’re my fellows in the trenches. Who do you admire right now? What can you learn from their painting?

Your list will be different from mine, but thinking about what you like in your peers’ work gives you an idea of what you might want to change in your own. It’s a moving target. In a year, we’ll be talking about entirely different artists.

The trouble with nocturnes

Modern nocturnes document only the contrast between bright lights and the void. There are so many other cool things that go bump in the night.

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, c. 1872-1875, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Yesterday, a student was describing a late-evening sky she had seen, with the objects bathed in an unusual warm light. “I’m sick of nocturnes always being done in Prussian blue fading to black,” she complained. Since she has an MA in art history and works in a gallery, she’s not talking through her hat.

“We always paint nocturnes wearing headlamps,” said another student. “The human eye takes about 25 minutes to fully adapt from bright sunlight to complete darkness, and the headlamp continuously interrupts that. Cameras lie, too, about what darkness looks like.”
The Polish Rider, 1655, Rembrandt van Rijn 
She had just explained the technical problem with painting nocturnes in a nutshell. They are driven by our current technology—headlamps and easel lights—just as the high contrast of Frederic Remington’s nocturnes were driven by camera technology of his day. Headlamps and easel lights exaggerate the contrast between dark and light because they’re constantly stimulating our eyes to stay in a photopic(daylight) state.
Winter, Midnight, 1894, Childe Hassam
Human night vision is limited to discriminating between different values of black and white, and the resolution and contrast are poorer. But there are many steps between light and true darkness, and most nocturnes are in fact painted using mesopicvision, which we use when we’re faced with a combination of lighting.
Moonlight, Ralph Albert Blakelock
When we transition from day to night, our eyes create photopigments in the cones and rods to increase sensitivity. The adaptation period is different for rod and cone cells. Cone cells can do this in about ten minutes of darkness, but rods require between 30-45 minutes. There are, of course, differences in how fast each of us can make the adaptation. Old age, as with so many other things, slows us down.
Snow in New York, 1902, Robert Henri
The transition from dark to light happens much more quickly. It takes about five minutes for the eyes to bleach out the photopigments they created to see in the dark.
The Call for Help, Frederic Remington
Humans are color-blind in true low-light situations. However, at twilight, when most nocturnes were painted, we suffer from something called the Purkinje shift. During the daytime, people are most sensitive to light that is greenish-yellow. At night, people are more sensitive to greenish-blue light.
The Tornado, 1835, Thomas Cole
The rods in our eyes (which are more light-sensitive and thus more important in low-light situations) respond best to green-blue light. The cones in the retina, which respond to colors, don’t work well in lower-light situations. As the light gets lower, our ability to see reds falls off.
Moonrise, 1894, David Davies
Scientists and tinkerers have long understood that red lights don’t trigger our eyes into photopic vision. That’s why they’re used in control rooms or the nocturnal animal displays at the zoo.  
Starry Night Over the Rhône, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh
Historically, nocturnes were about solitude, or sometimes, bad behavior. In our jazzed, electric world, they’re more likely to focus on lighting and energy. The modern nocturne is always a description of civilization overtaking nature. It is a brightly-lit subject set against an empty field of blackness. By definition, that’s urban, and it contrasts our desires against our fears. The best modern nocturnes create a place to go to escape encroaching darkness. I’d say there’s more to that than just how our eyes work, but our vision certainly plays a part.
Nocturnes are very popular right now, both with painters and with buyers. I don’t paint them often, because I’m not a night person, but several of my friends do, and do it well.
Hiawatha, 1870, Thomas Eakins
Today’s post is absurdly larded with illustrations, but I wanted to show you the many ways in which people painted nocturnes before we had headlamps.