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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Famous Fall Foliage

Copyright, Jim Lane                                                 
Hyde Park Ride, 1978, Jim Lane                                      
Tis the season to be...raking leaves...the jolly season comes later once they're all piled up and composted. I was about to start on ours, then looked up into our still pretty heavily green oak trees and realized less than half of their annual autumn attributes are still firmly attached to their arboreal anchorage. I guess I'll wait and get them all later. I hate raking leaves anyway. I mean, why bother, they'll all be covered up with snow soon enough anyway. Or, maybe I'll just take my paints, set up my easel in the front yard, and make the most of them. I'd venture to say there's few painters alive today who have not, at one time or another, done just that...or maybe in the back yard. Of course, the urge is not at all hard to understand. Never is nature more glorious than when she gets dressed up for Halloween. With the possible exception of snowy winters, I'd rather paint fall foliage, preferably not on the ground, than any other. Summer is monotonously green. Spring is delicate and fragile. Winter is brutal. Autumn seems warm and cozy.
The Studio Boat, 1876, Claude Monet
Landscape with Trees, 1881, Vincent van Gogh
I suppose it would surprise no one that some of our greatest artists down through the centuries, even those who are not well known for painting landscapes, have succumbed to the temptation to try and capture the fleeting frills of fall foliage. I tend to fall into that category. I've always prided myself in being able to paint almost literally anything...and I have. Though portraits and modern-day genre have long been my preferences, I've painted more than my share of landscapes (top) for one simple reason--they sell. I'm assuming that's why so many other artist paint them too. The impressionist loved landscapes, starting with Monet (above), Renoir (below, left), van Gogh (left), Gauguin (below, right), even Picasso (below) have done some pretty heavy dipping into their red oxides, ochers, sienas, yellows, and cadmiums in an effort to avoid raking leaves.
Breton Landscape David's Mill,
1894,Paul Gauguin
The Duck Pond, 1873,
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Landscape of Gosol, Catalonia, 1906 (Rose Period), Pablo Picasso

Sweet Memories, Norman Rockwell
Even artists whom you wouldn't normally expect to find painting landscapes count at least a few such paintings tucked away in their museum-owned portfolios--Norman Rockwell (left) and David Hockney (below), for instance. In other cases, artists you'd fully expect to paint the prettily pigmented panoply, have done so with surprising rarity--Anna Mary Robertson Moses, for example. I finally found one, but I had to look long and hard among the works of Thomas Hart Benton to come up with a fall scene, his Sorghum Mill from 1968. The famous American landscape artist Thomas Moran's Autumn Landscape, (below, left) however, practically jumped out into my lap. Rembrandt painted fall scenes (bottom). Yet English artist, J.M.W. Turner, apparently didn't.
Woldgate Woods, 2008, David Hockney
Of course, among those artists not so rich and famous, the avalanche of colored leaves assaulting the web surfer's tired eyes is very nearly overwhelming, from childlike hen scratches to stunning realism so astounding you almost forget what you came looking for. I've looked at fall scenes from virtually every country on earth, and (I'm trying not to show bias here), but I think I can safely say, the very best such paintings seem to come from the United States. Part of that has to do with geography and climate, of course. Over most of this broad patch of woods from Maine to Monterey there tends to be four very distinctive seasons of the year. Thus the landscape reflected in the eyes of artists changes predictably over the months offering endless, if repetitive, source material, whether, in plein air, photographic, or imaginary.
Autumn Landscape, 1876
Thomas B. Moran
I'll Catch, 1955-56,
Anna Mary Robertson Moses
But there's more to it than that. Influenced, no doubt, by the rich tradition of landscape painting flowing across the sea from northern Europe, once the landscape in this country ceased to be threatening, it became glorified. Starting with the earliest days of our republic in the Hudson River Valley and moving westward with the frontier, American artist have always striven to get a handle upon its wild and wondrous beauty. I mentioned Moran (above, left), but there's also the Bierstadt, Innes, Homer, Avery, Church, Sloan, Wood, Hassam, Moses (above, right)--a nearly endless embarrassment of riches nearly beyond belief--and that doesn't even count the huge congregation of Impressionist worshippers from the early 20th century (so many I've gotten tired of writing about them).
Sorghum Mill, 1968, Thomas Hart Benton
I think I'd be safe in saying the entire category of landscape painting, at least in the U.S., is the largest single content area in painting (photography too), even outstripping portraiture, the usual leader in most other countries. One reason for that is, in fact, photography. In Europe and elsewhere, they painted people's faces for hundreds of years before they began photographing them. On this side of the Atlantic, painted portraits dominated the art market for less than a century before photography nudged it aside. However, photography, until the time of Ansel Adams at least, was seen as woefully inadequate in capturing the colorful, expansive, magnificence of the American landscape, with or without its autumn leaves. Of course, advancements in color film and today's digital color have changed all that; but for some unknown reason, it doesn't seem to have changed our love of the painted landscape...or my hatred of fallen leaves.

Landscape with Castle, 1643, Rembrandt van Rijn. Notice, the castle gets top billing, not the colorful season of the years.


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