Enter the Hyde Collection’s Charles R. Wood Gallery, where the stunning new exhibition, “An Enduring Legacy: American Impressionist Paintings from the Thomas Clark Collection,” is displayed, and among the first things you’ll notice is that the paintings are grouped roughly by geography, or according to the regions depicted by these early 20th century artists: the New England coast, Vermont, the Hudson Valley, California.
Far from being arbitrary or eccentric, that curatorial choice cleverly elucidates an intention shared by almost every artist represented in the show.
These American Impressionists, explains curator Erin Coe, “were deeply committed to making art that reflected the spirit of America and its distinctive scenery.”
Or, as Coe writes in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, “the landscape painters of the first third of the twentieth century were overtly nationalistic in their outlook, seeking to create a more authentic American variant of Impressionism…”
To realize that ambition, those artists were compelled to train their eyes on a particular region, if only because the American landscape is defined by its diversity and lack of uniformity. An American landscape is necessarily a local landscape.
“The works in the Clark Collection offer a comprehensive treatment of these regional schools of Impressionist activity in America,” says Coe.
For instance, the show includes three paintings by Arthur James Emery Powell (1864-1956) of the long-settled, deeply cultivated valleys of Dutchess County.
All three portray winter landscapes, for reasons at least partially explained by Coe in a lecture she delivered at The Hyde on January 17.
Winter landscapes, she said, are “the visual equivalent of a poem by Robert Frost,” that most self-consciously regional of American poets.
Approximately one quarter of the paintings collected by Thomas Clark are winter landscapes, Coe noted, in part because winter is the quintessential American season.
Perhaps it’s co-incidental that Dutchess county was a hotbed of anti-federalism in the 18th century, and that places like Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have shown separatist tendencies at different times in our history. It’s no co-incidence, though, that the artists included in this exhibition chose to paint in places with strong regional identities. The landscapes these artists selected for their subject matter were chosen in part because they exemplified a region’s characteristic and recognizable qualities.
But of equal, if not greater importance, Coe said, those landscapes were the locations of artists’ colonies that flourished in the early part of the 20th century in places like Old Lyme, Connecticut; Cape Ann, Massachusetts; New Hope, Pennsylvania; and Woodstock, New York, as well as in Vermont and California.
The traditions of European and American painting were transmitted through those colonies and schools, producing the unique vision that is embodied in Clark’s collection.
“These artists were the students and sketching partners of the seminal figures in the development of Impressionism in America, such as William Merritt Chase, Willard L. Metcalf, John Henry Twachtman, and Robert Henri,” Coe said.
Thomas Clark, who lives in Saratoga County, has promised to donate this collection of paintings to The Hyde, and this exhibition is to some extent a celebration of that gift.
“An Enduring Legacy: American Impressionist Landscape Paintings from the Thomas Clark Collection,” will remain on view at The Hyde through March 18.
The Hyde Collection is located at 161 Warren Street in downtown Glens Falls. For more information, call The Hyde at 792-1761.
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Illustration: Arthur James E. Powell, American (1864-1956), Mid-Winter, Dutchess County, ca. 1920s, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in., Promised Gift of Thomas Clark. Courtesy of The Hyde Collection