Painting as mythmaking

South Truro Post Office, 1930, Edward Hopper, courtesy Christies.

Whenever I sail into Bucks Harbor in Brooksville, ME, I tell my students about  Robert McCloskey‘s One Morning in Maine, which was set there. McCloskey has had an inordinate influence on me. As a kid, my husband looked and acted like the eponymous hero of Homer Price, my first and favorite chapter-book. It took me decades to realize I’d married my childhood crush.

I’ve pored over every detail of McCloskey’s books, because every object is a fascinating window into an America that was fading when I was a child and is largely gone today.

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935, Grant Wood, courtesy Williams College Museum of Art

I recently spent some time considering Edward Hopper‘s Truro, Massachusetts paintings. He and his wife Jo had a summer house there, and he spent at least four months a year in Truro from 1930 to his death in 1967. While I respect his urban scenes as revolutionary, challenging and dramatic, it’s the Truro paintings I gravitate to. They are prosaic country scenes-barn, church, farmhouse, post office-but with brilliant composition and elegiac light. They are so universal in design that they could have been painted in almost any part of the United States, but the overarching theme is early 20th century America.

Rooms for Tourists, 1945, Edward Hopper, courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

I have a similar response to Hopper’s Rooms for Tourists, above. It’s a quintessential Maine boarding house, except that it was really in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Not that it really matters; boarding houses were once common in New England and New York. In fact, I romanticize them. I think I might run one someday, until I remember that I don’t much like changing beds and I hate to cook.

I posited to my aforementioned husband that my love of the countryside and Maine in particular was probably shaped by paintings like these. “I think most of us were shaped by television,” he replied, and he’s probably right, except that I grew up without it. Anyways, I never see people seeking out Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch, but I sure know a lot of folks who are jazzed by old gas stations, tourist cabins, farms and lighthouses.

The Scout: Friends or Foes, 1902-1905, Frederic Remington, courtesy Clark Art Institute

Mythmaking is as old as art itself, but in America it can be laid at the feet of the Hudson River School painters, who used the Romantic idea of sublimity to say that the American landscape, with its patches of agriculture juxtaposed with nature was the very reflection of God himself. It’s at least one of the roots of the idea of American Exceptionalism.

They were, of course, painting a landscape that was fast disappearing. Artists have always been drawn to that which is either gone or going. That make sense when you think of how difficult we find the world in which we live. Perhaps in fifty years, people will find fields of solar panels or modern windmills beautiful, but right now they make us uncomfortable. That nostalgic kick is part of the enduring charm of the two older Wyeths, Frederic Remington and Norman Rockwell, among many others, but their work was actually nostalgic right from the start.

Thunder Over Shiprock, Maynard Dixon, courtesy Steven Stern Fine Arts

I think of the places I like the most, like the Great White North, and how I saw it first through the eyes of the Group of Seven and Rockwell Kent. I love farm country, especially the Midwest as seen by Grant Wood, and the West as seen by Edgar Payne or Maynard Dixon. Artists are above all mythmakers, and I am just beginning to understand how deeply they’ve influenced my goals, dreams and sense of place.

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Monday Morning Art School: what’s the point of a three-hour painting?

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Near the wonderful, loose Andrew Wyeth watercolors at the Farnsworth Art Museum is a small room dedicated to his painting practice. You are surrounded by his careful investigation of details, compositional sketches, and studies. “When I was painting Christina’s World I would sit there by the hours working on the grass, and I began to feel I was really out in the field. I got lost in the texture of the thing. I remember going down into the field and grabbing up a section of earth and setting it on the base of my easel. It wasn’t a painting I was working on. I was actually working on the ground itself,” he said.

Edward Hopper, who mined similar veins of alienation as Wyeth, was known for meticulously storyboarding his major paintings. He drew thousands of preparatory sketches. A comparison of one of his final sketches for Nighthawks with the final painting shows just how important his drawings were in cutting things down to the bone. He used drawing to shake off the burden of representational reality.

Failed attempt #1 at Chauncey Ryder trees. I’ll go back up the hill and try this again if it ever dries out. Dialing back the chroma will help.

Modern plein air painting

On the flip side, there’s contemporary plein air painting, dashed off in alla prima technique in a matter of a few hours. I love plein air painting myself, but a recent conversation with a student had me wondering about its lasting value. She is frustrated with her local painting group, which never works more than two or three hours. “What’s the point of rushing like that?” she asked me.

There are hundreds of plein air events in the United States every year, each of which has around thirty juried artists, each of whom in turn produces 5-10 works per event. That means the art market is flooded with tens of thousands of paintings from these events alone. Not all of them are good. I’ve produced more than my share of duds.

These events create a commodity that’s affordable to a middle-class audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s what drove the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, which gave us Vermeer, Frans Hals and Rembrandt.

Failed attempt #2 at Chauncey Ryder trees. Boring composition and I made a messed up stew of the buds on the branches.

But it’s equally true that mass movements give us our share of dreck. The paintings done at plein air events are often safe (read ‘boring’) and dashed off without a lot of thought. That’s because plein air events are a production grind.

Loose brushwork has become the norm of plein air painting. But there’s no law that says that plein air must be quick, or that loose brushwork is the apotheosis of outdoor painting. These are just tropes of our times. Leaning into them too heavily just makes you a copier of other people’s ideas.

This start I like. Luckily, it’s steps from my house, so I can revisit it the next time there’s a break in the rain.

Go outside and take your time

This spring in the northeast is miserably cold and wet. I’ve painted outdoors just twice. Out of the three things I did, the one I like is the least-finished (above). In the other two, I was tinkering, trying to feather trees like Chauncey Ryder. Everything else in my paintings suffered. I don’t care; I’ll wipe out the boards and try again.

I have my eye on another stand of trees, small spruces. I want to see if I can mimic the soft brushwork of Anders Zorn in them, since to me he’s the only person who ever painted baby evergreens convincingly.

“You’re going to confuse yourself with all this mimicry!” Eric Jacobsen chided me. Well, no, because I don’t really want to paint like Ryder or Zorn. I want to figure out how they did this specific soft-focus thing on trees. I could never do this if I was still rushing around churning out three-hour paintings at events. The cost of failure is too great.

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