Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent: Painting Blackhead


In 2006 I first visited Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. The small island has earned a special place in American art history from  the steady stream of artists who followed the advice of their charismatic teacher Robert Henri to go there and paint. Two of the best to take the advice were Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent. Both spent important time early in the 20th century painting on the island. The commanding promontory Blackhead that stretches eastward out into the Atlantic inspired both of them make repeated paintings of it.


The first four images are all small oil studies Hopper made of Blackhead. The final four paintings are by Hopper's art school classmate Rockwell Kent. Though the temperament of their paintings differ, what the two shared was an almost obsessive willingness to create painting after painting of a motif that obviously fascinated them. There's a sort of driving youthful energy to their engagement with Blackhead. 


By their actions they seem to be saying that if you look long enough and hard enough important discoveries others have overlooked will reveal themselves to you.


When the art historian Eva J. Allen, PhD was organizing the eight venue traveling exhibition of my own paintings Unbroken Thread, she urged me to go to Monhegan and see the place that had inspired the artists from previous generations I so admired. So along with my wife Alice and my trusty French easel, I took the long ferry ride out to the island for a week of painting.



The first thing I did was to ask directions to Blackhead. It turns out to reach the overlook where Hopper and Kent painted one has to carry one's equipment over a long muddy and root-filled path through Monhegan's amazingly dense forest. At its end you climb over steep rocks before reaching the bluff from which they painted.
I made a note to myself that while I was 58, Hopper and Kent had dragged their heavy load of painting materials to the spot when they were young artists.



It turns out the view of Blackhead from this ledge is a tough view to paint. I was there midday and found the direction the sun was shining on the rocks generated few shadows and was poor for painting. Probably Hopper made the same discovery, as all four of his sunlight filled panels show he returned to paint there later in the afternoon.

Kent solved the problem another way, turning his focus more on the sea's white spray to add drama to his compositions. And his skies play a bigger role as well. All his paintings are enveloped in a foggy atmosphere.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Ghosts in the Closet

Charles Burchfield, Salem Bedroom Studio Feb. 21, 1917
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield Penney Art Center posted this Charles Burchfield watercolor on their Facebook page.

Who doesn't remember worrying as a young child about supposed ghosts or monsters waiting to creep out of your bedroom closet in the middle of the night. (Under my bed was full of them too). Leave it to Charles Burchfield to take this normal childhood terror and turn it into serious art. He took his childhood sensations with him into his adult life. Using his profound knowledge of painting and his good eye he gave these emotions permanent visual form. 

His painting above takes a cloth draped over a chair and seems to turn it into a ghost. In his hands the clothes hanging in the closet become creepy spectral accomplices. 

In August my wife Alice and I traveled from Baltimore to the Salem, OH family home where Burchfield grew up and began doing some of his most important early work. It is now the Burchfield Homestead Museum. Here below is a photo I took of the curved ceiling and the closet door depicted in Burchfield's watercolor. Fortunately the closet door was shut tight so we didn't have to worry about the ghosts.

Here's the door to the second floor bedroom again showing the curved ceiling.

What struck me most about the visit to the home where Burchfield did his early works was its very ordinariness. Yet at the many reproductions of Burchfield paintings hanging on the walls you find Burchfield put specific features of his home and the neighboring houses into many of his most fantastical paintings of his early period. His very local roots nourished his otherworldly visions.

In many ways his early works from this commonplace house remind all of us that there is magic right under our noses.

The staircase looking down to the first floor.

The back of the house. It is painted the same colors as it was in Burchfield's day. It the late afternoon sun it reminded me ever so much of a paiting by Burchfield's friend Edward Hopper.

As Burchfield is probably the only recognized American artist who did repeated images of decorated Christmas trees in his work, there is appropriately a tree on display. Here I am keeping the holiday tree company with the drawing I was making looking out a second floor window. 

My wife Alice taking in the display in one of the second floor bedrooms.