Water everywhere

What is the dominant theme that threads through your work?

La Dordogne, c. 1902, Frits Thaulow

I stopped in the western Berkshires to collect eggs for my daughter. (She has pullets who are just learning to lay and she is out of town.) The leading edge of Tropical Storm Isaias had arrived. There was water everywhere, making a river of her driveway, washing the birds’ run clean. After a few moments, it didn’t much matter to me if I was running in the rain or swimming in nearby Kinderhook Creek. I loved every second.

Western New York (where I’m from) gets so much precipitation that it would be a temperate rain forest if it weren’t domesticated. It has a filtered light that has much in common with northern Europe. That can be tough to translate onto canvas. This is part of the reason I moved to Maine. I needed to escape the 200-or-so days a year when the eastern Great Lakes sit under a fat, wet cloud.

A River, c. 1883, Frits Thaulow, courtesy the Hermitage

Low light is difficult to paint and difficult to sell. Every time I suggest we go out and paint on a misty day, Ken DeWaard tells me, “I already have a closet full of paintings done on grey days.” That has an element of truth to it, but it’s not a universal rule. My own Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog was painted on a very dull day in Camden, and it was just purchased by a collector who likes the indirect light.

I think that light is in part what has denied Scandinavian Impressionists, in particular the Skagen Painters, their due prominence in art history. (The other reason is regional bias, which is why the Heidelberg Painters, the Group of Seven, and the Peredvizhnikiare not as famous as the French Impressionists.)

Norsk vinterlandskap, 1890, pastel, Frits Thaulow

Frits Thaulow was among the earliest painters to go to Skagen (Denmark’s northernmost town). At age 32, he sailed from Norway with his friend and fellow painter Christian Krohg. They spent the summer months painting the fishermen and boats of Jutland before returning home.

Thaulow was from an affluent family and had the advantages of a good art education. He studied with C.F. Sorensenand Hans Gude. With Sorensen as his mentor, it’s no wonder he could paint water.

Winter at the River Simoa, 1883, Frits Thaulow, courtesy National Gallery of Norway

He then spent four years living and working in Paris. His return to Norway coincided with a general rise in interest in Impressionism in Scandinavia. He rapidly established his reputation as one of Norway’s best young painters, turning out beautiful canvases that combine the low light of winter with beautifully-reflective water. But being a big fish in a small pond was not enough. In middle age, Thaulow moved himself and his family back to France.

There, he quickly discovered that he had no taste for life in Paris. While it may have been the center of the painting world, it was too urban. Thaulow packed his family to the small town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, in the north of France. It is not, despite its name, on the sea; it’s located on the Canche River. From there, he relocated to Dieppe in Normandy, and then to Brittany, and then in central France.

The Smoke, 1898, Frits Thaulow

I don’t know what drove his restlessness, but through all of his moves, his paintings were grounded in his primary interest: the play of light on water. Wherever he painted, the foreshortened path created by rivers and creeks was his main design element, and the water itself is what elevates the work.

In many cases, the backdrops to his rivers and creeks are, in fact, mundane. But Thaulow excelled in low-light situations where the power of water overshadows the sky, the landscape, and human activity. One could learn everything one needs to know about painting water by studying these canvases. In fact, the only painter who measures up to him in his ability to capture the reflectivity of water is his fellow Scandinavian, Anders Zorn.

In many ways, man has formed his landscape; the vast majority of us live, after all, in a highly-artificial, built environment. But it’s every bit as true that the landscape forms the man. Thaulow abandoned the maritime painting of his youth, but rushing water stayed with him all of his life.

What is the dominant motif that threads through your work? It may not be as tangible as a stream of water; it may be an idea like solitude. I don’t find it an easy question to answer, especially as I’m not much like the person I was when I started painting. However, I do think it’s a worthwhile question, and I think I find echoes of an answer in the same rushing water that drove Frits Thaulow.