In Love with Snow
Frederic Church, A View of Olana in the Snow, 1870-75
Some years ago I visited Olana, the palace of a home the Hudson River School painter Frederic Church built for himself on the eastern side of the Hudson River. With a commanding view of the Catskill Mountains just to the west it seems a landscape painter's dream. Here's the view in winter. Pretty beautiful to my eyes.
Church builds a deep space through his understanding of color. His lightest whites and the warm dark colored shapes are all in the foreground and middle ground hills. Those highly contrasting forms relax as we ford the River and climb up the pale blue-grey slopes of the Catskills. It is a modest little painting, but I can't think if a more poetic celebration of the delight an artist finds in letting their eye sweep across the space of the earth.
Like Church, an American artist of the next generation, Walter Launt Palmer (1854 -1932) used color to carve out the spaces of his landscapes. Palmer is best known for his more intimate, closed in spaces of forests in the snow. In each of the two following Palmer oils, he selects an overall color to dominate the canvas.
The first is warmer in both the distance and the yellow-tinged foreground. The snow encrusted pine and its shadow stand away from the warm overall color, pushing cooler and darker notes for contrast. I think it's a portrait of the tree that Palmer felt to be like an almost surreal huge sculpture with its bending and outreaching long arms.
Palmer's second oil opts instead for an overall blue cast and let's just the small "key hole" openings between the branches show the warmer yellows in the far distance. There is a note of warmer color to the snow at the bottom in the immediate foreground, but even there the artist has toned down its yellowness.
Grant Wood (1891-1942, the famous American Regionalist painter hits a far different note with his oil January below. Where Church and Palmer seemed to have based their paintings on direct observation, Wood appears to have leaned on memory and invention. (I haven't much farming experience so I'm not sure what sort of plants these are that are bundled together). As their disciplined cone shapes march back into the distance they move into a darker space. Wood confines the bright snow to just the close up rows of plants. This could have looked too mechanical and too simple were it not for the multitude of plant "tepees." Also the sky gradates from a warmer yellow green at the left to an even darker and cooler twilight at the right.
I think a big plus in the Wood oil is the way he plays off the smoothly modulated tones in the snow against the almost scratchy looking rough plant stalks and leaves.
Note: My exhibit, The Artist's Compass: Drawings and Paintings by Philip Koch runs through this Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 at Friends School of Baltimore's Katz Gallery. For more information click here.