Roofs and Skies
This is a photo I took at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts out in Hagerstown, Maryland this morning. Here the workers who constructed the new roof over the Museum's enclosed courtyard are painting the beams that hold the large sheets of glass in place. It will be a couple more months before the courtyard project is completed but you can see it's going to be a great addition to the Museum.
Below is an oil that's hanging in an exhibit now of the WCMFA's galleries of 19th century work from the Museum's Collection curated by Elizabeth Johns. The Museum has an amazingly good collection of American painting from this period, especially so when you think of what a modest sized city Hagerstown is. This one is Pool in the Meadow by Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927) who I'm proud to say studied at the art school where I teach, the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Some years ago I got to talking to a professional gardener. He was an aging hippie but seemed a very thoughtful guy. We had fallen into talking about world's religions. He brought the conversation to a beautiful conclusion by gesturing up to the sky and saying " It doesn't matter what you call it, we're all here living under the great dome." I've always remembered his phrase- in my mind's eye I picture a giant glass lid from a cooking pot being placed out top of the world. It's a very useful visualization for us landscape painters to study the color and qualites of the air itself as it sails over our heads. What the sky is doing colors everything. I think Hugh Bolton Jones' painting show him delighting in exactly that..
Jones has painted an oil where you can feel the hot summer haze on your skin. It seems to have descended from the sky and pushed the warm earthy colors of the cows and the pasture into a palette of cooler hues. You can tell Jones had a ball painting the cows, especially varying the colors of their hides. I love the two who face each other with the white spots on their backs. Maybe their talking as they have so much in common. Jones connects the dots of his forms to draw a diagonal path moving up from the lower left hand corner of the canvas and into the middle distance, hopping across the backs of some of his willing beasts along the way.
Above is a terrific little oil by Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. It's a preparatory study for the first canvas of his cycle of four marvelous and slightly wacky paintings, The Voyage of Life, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It depicts a newborn child in a small craft issuing out of a mountainside cave. The atmosphere couldn't be more different than in the Jones pasture painting. Certainly Cole was fascinated by the idea of emerging from the fertile darkness of the womb into the light of the living world. He fashions a Rembrandt-like brooding dark atmosphere to give weight to the unfolding drama of birth. It's not so much a roof of the sky overhead as the darkness of night surrounding us. Who wouldn't want to be guided out of such darkness by a glimmering angel like the one steering the vulnerable little boat.
And here's a final oil, Nahant Rocks, New England, by William Stanley Haseltine (1835 - 1900), painted in 1864. Here a painter comes back closer to Hugh Bolton Jone's bowl-like roof of atmosphere coming down over the earth. Haseltine makes his atmsphere a green grey and lets it etch away the darks and the details from the ships on the horizon. There's a hint of sun trying to glow through the clouds, but mostly the land and sea are middle tones without bright highlights. The real drama in the painting happens right along the shore itself where Haseltine contrasts the one whitecapped wave against his largest and darkest rocks. I could look at that one spot where the pointed rock juts out into the sea forever it's so perfectly imagined by the painter.
Big skylights are difficult to build and are tricky to maintain. They can develop leaks in the rain. No wonder so few builders bother with them anymore. But there's something magical about being inside and still having the natural light play over you from above. If a cloud goes by, you feel its passing shadow. How fitting that a museum like WCMFA would try to bring some of the spirit of the outdoors inside. It's doing with its architecture what the painters of the landscapes hanging on its gallery walls did so well.