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Friday, May 5, 2017

Alvan Fisher

The Young Hunter, ca. 1815, Alvan Fisher's earliest known work--a self-portrait. He was certainly a well-dressed hunter.
George Washington,
Alvan Fisher
Those writing about artists love accom-plishments ending in "est" or just "st." Words such as first, last, best, worst, finest, earliest, latest, most, least, and dozens more are all seem exciting. Those are all what we learned in high school English as superlatives (regardless of whether they are positive or negative). Sometimes we have to dig pretty deep into an artist's past, or study his or her work in some depth to come up with either type. Moreover, not all superlatives are created equal. We're especially fond of two in particular--first and best. And even with those two, one is a matter of history, the other a matter of taste (or opinion). Moreover the more defining adjectives associated with such pronouncements, the less important they becomes.
Fisher's work encompassed a broad range of content.
For instance, Alvan Fisher was the first and best professional American landscape painter of the early 19th-century. That's high praise, but it's also loaded down with limitations, not to the point of making such an accolade meaningless, but certainly narrowing down his circumstances. Being the first to create some type of art in this country, certainly goes a long way towards his success. Being the best at that time doesn't hurt either. And, in Fisher's case, he was also a shrewd businessman, one who not only knew the rules of the early American art game, but made up some new ones, then played the game with great expertise. In short, he knew how to sell himself and his art at a time when what few professional artists understood either.

Alvan Fisher, ca. 1855
Alvan Fisher celebrated America from the days of James Madison to Abraham Lincoln. Born in Needham Massachusetts in 1792, he was raised in nearby Dedham, the fourth of six brothers. As a teenager, he worked as a clerk in his older brother's store before becoming an apprentice to Boston artist, John Ritto Pen-niman, whose one claim to fame seems to have been that he had once been an assistant to Gilbert Stuart. Fisher supposedly learned to paint portraits from him, though Penniman was primarily noted for decorating carriages and painting signs. The Young Hunter is Fisher's ear-liest known work, executed near the beginning of his ap-prenticeship. Even though it is a student piece, the painting demonstrates the young artist's competent handling of the oil medium.

A Still Life with Watermelon and Peaches, Alvan Fisher.
As a successful artist, Fisher could (and did) paint just
about anything he, or anyone else, wanted.
Fisher was about twenty-two when he began his professional career as a full-time painter. His winter pieces, rural subjects, and barnyard scenes proved to be a lucrative source of income. In just his first two years, Fisher sold fifty-four paintings, totaling more than $2,600. Fisher's first pure landscape is The Watering Place, from 1816, painted in a style reminiscent of the 17th-century French landscape painter, Claude Lorrain. With its soft lighting, framing trees, and winding river receding toward distant hills, the painting is something of a preview of the major compositional components of the Hudson River School.

If he'd chosen to, Fisher could probably have made a decent
living just painting and selling Niagara Falls.
During the summer of 1820, Fisher went to Niagara Falls, at the time, the country's most celebrated natural wonder. He completed numerous drawings, which served as the basis for studio paintings completed in later years. Fisher's Niagara Falls paintings admirably display the monumentality of the scene, from his general view, but also the dark foreground framing of the American and Canadian Falls, seen in a more intimate view from within the gorge. The small-scale gentlemen in top hats and tailcoats add anecdotal interest, as they observe the falls magnetic appeal for both painters and tourists.

Eclipse with Race Track, Alvan Fisher. He may have
been one of the first portrait artists to realize how
broad the definition of portraiture could be. The
number of legs of the subject is meaningless.
He did six different versions of this work.
Portrait of J G Spurzheim,
(a phrenologist), 1832,
Alvan Fisher, considered
one of his best.
Maintaining a studio in Boston, during his first ten years as a painter, Fisher set the tone of his entire career. He traveled extensively painting landscapes, rural scenes, portraits of animals, and portraits of people. He was the right artist at the right place at the right time. The growing popularity of landscape and genre painting came with the growing population of the United States and an economically viable middle class. As the first American painter to specialize in genre subjects he enjoyed a wide aud-ience. Unlike the genre landscape of The Watering Place, Providence from Across the Cove (below), dating from 1818, is a topographical view highlighting urban development. An artist sketching in the foreground provides an autobiographic detail to reinforce the authenticity of this panoramic scene, also one of the earliest landscapes of Rhode Island. Fisher care-fully delineates the major architectural landmarks of the cityscape. He uses the low horizon as a means to emphasize the bright sky, giving his subject a romantic sensibility rather than just a mere depiction of the manmade world.

Providence From Across The Cove, 1818, Alvan Fisher.
Fisher's interest in depicting topographical subjects was fully realized in an ambitious commercial enterprise. This project involved his depicting views of Harvard College (below) and was something of a plum commission, giving him considerable publicity. These paintings were executed expressly for the purpose of issuing engravings for wide distribution to the public. This was the artist's first opportunity to design for publication.

A View of Harvard, 1823, Alvan Fisher
In April, 1825, Fisher decided to do what all outstanding artists in later years felt they had to do. He sailed for Europe on a "grand tour" of the continent's great art centers, becoming the first American landscape painter to make such a tour. He began in England, then two weeks later moved on to include France, Italy, and Switzerland, all considered important for any artist's professional stature and artistic maturation. In London he visited private collections and was inspired by Claude Lorrain and J.M.W. Turner. In Paris he studied drawing and made copies of works in the Louvre. Also while in Paris, Fisher landed a project similar to his views of Harvard College. in 1824 he had met General Lafayette when the French Revolutionary War hero stopped at Dedham during his triumphal tour of the United States. Fisher was granted permission to produce paintings of Chateau La Grange, Lafayette's estate outside Paris. His four views of La Grange (below) were then drawn on lithographic stones in France by the noted lithographer, Isadore Deroy. They were subsequently brought back for printing on one of the first lithographic presses used in the United States. Portfolios of these prints were sold as souvenirs both here and in Paris.

Whenever there was a chance to "turn a buck,"
Fischer managed to latch onto it.
By September 1826, Fisher was back in Boston, becoming one of the city's leading artists. His circle of friends included Chester Harding, Francis Alexander, and Thomas Doughty. Fisher demonstrated an ability to paint a variety of subjects, quickly moving from one type to another. Though portraits enabled Fisher to paint full-time, nature was undoubtedly his favorite subject matter. The years following his return from Europe were the most productive, financially rewarding, and critically successful of his career.

A Study From Swiss Scenery, ca, 1826-27, Alvan Fisher
Saturday Afternoon, Alvan
Fisher's American genre,
Throughout his career Fisher marketed his works in a variety of ways. He org-anized auctions to dispose of surplus stock, encouraged clients to buy on installment plans, and placed works on consignment as far away as Mississippi. Fisher used his business acumen to plan four solo auctions in Boston be-tween 1843 and 1857. Each sale offered a substantial number of canvases, which brought him several thousand dollars of income. However, by the late 1850s, a new generation of artists were exhibiting paintings of magnificently grand landscapes. These mural-size images of remote places made Fisher's small, New England scenes seem charmingly old-fashioned. About the same time, New York took center stage, overshadowing Boston to dom-inate the national art scene. Fisher removed himself to the sidelines at Dedham. Although he had enjoyed considerable popularity for most of his life, Fisher was fast becoming a forgotten artist soon after his death in 1863.

Artist’s Son, Alvan Josiah,
Flying A Kite, Alvan Fisher


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