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Monday, July 7, 2014

Edward Lamson Henry

Coming Home, (date unknown), Edward Lamson Henry
Very often modern-day art critics take a dim view of genre painting. They consider it sweet, nostalgic, even cute. Of course the term itself is something of a relic, having passed into disuse insofar as modern art is concerned in that since the days after Norman Rockwell, it has been blended into the mainstream amalgamation that has become Postmodern art. It's not that such art is no longer produced, it's simply that the designation is no longer appropriate to that type of art as painted today. Today, we go in search of movies or photos for such vignettes of daily life. But in the past, such painted "snapshots" of the pains and joys of a more primitive life could only be preserved by genre painters and their art.
The First Railroad Train on the Mohawk and Hudson road, 1892-93,
Edward Lamson Henry--American History painting on a local level.
Edward Lamson Henry, 1867
Edward Lamson Henry was a (mostly) 19th-century genre painter, born in 1841. He died in 1919. Though from the deep South (Charleston), he grew up an orphan in Yankee country (New York City) where he studied art, first in Philadelphia, and later in Paris, borrowing paint and brushes from the likes of Charles Gleyre and Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. Had he stayed in Paris, he might have becomg the first American Impressionist. Instead, he returned to the U.S. in time to serve as a clerk aboard a Union transport ship during the Civil War.
A Visit to the Plantation, Edward Lamson Henry
After the war, Henry moved back to New York, establishing a studio in Greenwich Village, next door to that of Winslow Homer. Although American Art has never had much in the way of history painting in its pedigree, Henry's scenes of Colonial and early American life are considered today to be so authentic in detail as to qualify in that regard. Most of his efforts in recording history at that time centered on transportation--canal boats and trains. Otherwise, he simply painted what he saw, people, places, and things. His work seldom descended into the realm of "cute" but was very often quite nostalgic and sentimental, especially where mothers were concerned. His scenes of ante-bellum southern life in particular are intriguing in that he seems to have been remarkably indifferent to race and class, painting all levels of southern society with equal honesty and empathy (below). Henry was never an influential artist, but as genre painters go, he was better and more prolific than most.

Kept In, Edward Lamson Henry

Parlor on Brooklyn Heights of Mr. and Mrs.
John Ballard, Edward Lamson Henry.
Although Edward Lamson Henry may not have influenced other painters to any noticeable degree, I get the impression he did influence at least one other artist, not a painter, but a "production designer" what we'd call today a motion picture art director--William Cameron Menzies. Margaret Mitchell would have scoffed at the thought of anyone illustrating Gone with the Wind. But, that was not the case with producer, David O. Selznick. Menzies was absolutely essential in the early stages of the movie's production planning. Menzies literally drew and painted GWTW for Selznick, his storyboard illustrations dictating later set designs, special effects, costuming, lighting--the overall look and feel of the movie masterpiece.

A Moment of Peril, Edward Lamson Henry,
The Old Clock on the Stairs,
Edward Lamson Henry--a little
less grand than Scarlett's staircase.
Although there were undoubtedly other sources and influences, Menzies likely knew of Henry's work. Again and again, in pouring over Henry's paintings, I see Gone with the Wind. I see glimpses of Twelve Oaks in Henry's (A Visit to the Plantation), of Scarlett's red velvet stairway (right) and magnificent dining room in Atlanta (above, left), of Aunt Pittypat's Atlanta residential neighborhood (top), even a painting titled, A Moment of Peril (above), surprisingly similar to Scarlett's frightening encounter at the bridge on the road to her sawmill (Henry's "perilous" railroad tracks became a bridge). The influence was subtle. You won't see in any of Henry's southern genre paintings anything resembling Tara. You won't see the Atlanta train terminal, battlefields, or burned-out plantations. Henry painted what the South was. Menzies painted what it became.

The Latest Village Scandal, 1865, Edward Lamson Henry. The road home to Tara?


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