Sunday, December 7, 2014

Adirondack Art History: Mystery Mountain Search

Tyler unknown scene 1280I have been making art inspired by the Adirondacks since the early 1980s, shortly after moving to just outside the park in Saratoga Springs. Initially my subject matter arose out of family camping and hiking trips, an invitation from a friend, or just wandering by car or canoe as I looked for a vista or close-up scene with an interesting set of juxtapositions and a compelling light.

More recently I have taken another approach on some painting trips as I look for the locations used by nineteenth century artists who depicted the Adirondacks. When I look at the actual motifs that inspired another generation of artists I have a better understanding of the choices they made to enhance or alter details. And when I paint at their locations I understand how my choices differ from theirs. The explorations are a stimulus to my own creativity in new settings.

For my latest sleuthing adventure I need input from readers who might have ideas about a mystery mountain painted by the 19th century painter, William Richardson Tyler (1825-1896), who painted the White Mountains of New Hampshire as well as the Adirondacks. Tyler moved to Troy when he was eighteen to paint scenes on the panels of coaches for carriages, horse cars and railroad parlor cars. He opened his own studio in 1858, specializing in ocean views and landscapes. In the 1860s and 1870s he painted in the Adirondacks. His established painting locations include Keene, Raquette Lake, Elizabethtown, Lake George and Paradox Lake.

The painting above, owned by Saratoga Fine Art, shows a settled area by a small river, underneath a scooped-out, isolated mountain that has nearby ridges on the left and distant mountains over both shoulders. Although many nineteenth century artists were known to invent foreground details to set a pleasant stage for the composition, the river and developed land probably have some basis in fact. While this painting could also have been inspired by New Hampshire, the appearance of the mountains evokes the Adirondacks. Many seasoned hikers, as well as myself, have noticed that the distant mountain in the painting evokes Marcy with Little Marcy on the left, but we can’t figure out it how it could be seen from the west with an isolated mountain and a settled area in the foreground.

Tyler shortened with ridgelines 1280To make the search easier, I vertically compressed the proportions of the painting in Photoshop, since in my research I have found that nineteenth century artists often exaggerated the heights of the mountains at least 30 percent. The image at right is a distortion of Tyler’s painting that decreases the heights by that percentage and adds red lines to indicate major ridge lines.

Moving past a consideration of the High Peaks area, my next guess was that Tyler painted the scene near the hamlet of Keene Valley where the Ausable River flows along a series of mountains with rounded peaks.

diggory autumn sunrise Keene Valley 650 pxWhen I examined a painting in my studio from many years ago, I had the idea that we had both painted Tripod Mountain from slightly different angles, just north of Keene Valley. The main characteristics of the mountain in relation to the Ausable appear to match, yet the distant mountain range is missing from my view. Tyler could have been painting from a low ridge on Blueberry Mountain to the west of the river and at first I surmised that maybe from that height more mountains would be visible.

I then shifted my sleuthing to using my computer and Google Earth, which allows me to move around the landscape like a drone with a camera, looking in any direction and from any height. I discovered that I couldn’t get mountains to appear behind Tripod Mountain by moving to a higher vantage point and I started looking around the nearby area for other mountains. By moving my viewpoint just slightly north from the perspective toward Tripod, I discovered an angle toward Baxter Mountain that Tyler may have used.

tyler approximate 850With distant mountains visible, the vista is a better match and the mountain has a steeper right hand slope than Tripod, more closely resembling the painting. The angle is from a lower slope of Blueberry Mountain, looking east toward Baxter with Hurricane Mountain in the far distance on the left. In order to confirm the identification, I would need to hike to the spot, since the Google Earth images don’t reveal the subtleties of the landscape. With the reforestation of that hillside since the late 1800s, the foreground details will have changed the most and the thick trees may make the vista hard to see. But the exploration may at least confirm or weaken my theory.

Before I finalize my determination, I invite the comments on either alternative perspectives or confirmations of my guesswork. If you have ideas about the location, let me know in the comments below.  I hope to hike to the location in the coming year, as well as to the top of Blueberry Mountain to find my own inspirations.

Illustrations, from above: William Richardson Tyler’s untitled painting (photo courtesy Saratoga Art Gallery; Tyler’s painting with ridgelines noted and the height reduced by 30 percent to remove artistic exaggeration that was common in the late 19th century; Anne Diggory, Autumn Sunrise (Tripod Mountain, Keene Valley); and a Google Earth image of the view from the slope of Blueberry Mountain toward Baxter Mountain, Keene Valley, NY (yellow pin is at 44°13’25.71″N , 73°47’24.51″W).

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Since moving to Saratoga Springs in 1977, Anne Diggory has been inspired by the natural world of the Adirondacks as well as mountain landscapes encountered in her travels. She uses her artistic perspective to identify the Adirondack painting locations of artists working in past centuries and has helped several museums correct their catalogues and rename their paintings. Her research concerning the painting location of John Frederick Kensett’s iconic “Lake George, 1869,” was recently published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal. Additional information and images are available at

17 Responses

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    I have looked at this painting quite carefully, but I can’t place it in Keene Valley or any other location that would have all those elements in the relation shown. The higher mountains to the left really look like Iroquois, Algonquin, and Wright when seen from the east, but one does not ever get that perspective of those peaks from any civilized valley location.

    Reversing the order to Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois, the mountain in the foreground could be Scarface from a location near Saranac Lake. And the hint of river in the painting looks more the size of the Saranac River than the Ausable.

    I’ll be interested to see what others come up with.

  2. Fascinating investigation! Hope to join you for a hiking/painting trip some time.

    • Anne Diggory says:

      Sandy – I’ll look through my Saranac Lake unidentified locations and see which could be winter adventures – maybe after the lakes freeze.

  3. Anne Diggory says:

    Thanks Tony for your speculations. What is always hard to judge is which elements have more “artistic license.” Probably the order of trustworthiness would be main mountain (at slightly exaggerated height, but general profile OK), distance, foreground. I’ll be up to look around, particularly from the north end of Marcy Field and will look for sources of old maps that would have indications of farms in the 1870s.
    I did look a bit at Google Earth with Scarface from a Saranac angle and can’t get the profile to match yet (too lumpy on the right shoulder). I’ll work at it some more as well as any other suggestions that come in.

    Thanks, Anne

  4. Pete Nelson says:

    I agree not Keene Valley. And not High Peaks from the south. I thought perhaps an elevated point just north of Clifford Brook, with the far western part of Cascade Pass to the left?

    • Anne Diggory says:

      Pete- I”m trying to figure out the location of your suggestion – what would be the main mountain? And I wonder if the size of the brook would be a problem…

  5. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Hoffman Mountain near Schroon Lake was sometimes a subject for Hudson School painters. Thomas Cole, for instance…

    • Anne Diggory says:

      Bill – indeed a lot of artists painted Hoffman Mt, but its very pointy peak (often exaggerated in their paintings) would not match this one at all. Maybe another mountain with the Schroon River, if it turns out to not be Baxter. What I find intriguing in Tyler’s painting is that he is not painting a major mountain with dramatic structure, but a gently curved one that is not easily placed. It is as if he were more interested in the river and the settlement with a less distinctive background.

  6. Jim Fox says:

    Very interesting, Anne! Isn’t it incredible how today’s tools can sleuth out an artist’s vista 150 years ago?!

    Have you used Peakfinder? It’s loaded in my iPod, and doesn;t need wifi or cellphone service to work. I have found it to magically identify peaks from different vantage points. A Swiss geek developed it for his Alps, and now thankfully has our Adirondacks in the software.

    • Anne Diggory says:

      Jim – I’ll try it out, but I bet it would be puzzled by “looking” at a painting. Have you ever aimed your ipod at a photo?

  7. Nature says:

    I think your mention of some of the artistic liberties known from the era may make this painting hard to truly pinpoint. Would it be out of the question for the scene to be “invented” by the painter? Perhaps a mix of several different landscapes? The overall scene does bear some resemblance to Scarface with Algonquin in the background. Maybe from some location in Ray Brook? Your description of a “scooped out” mountain while looking at the picture made me think of Scarface. If so, the artist definately embellished the scene a bit.

    Another possibility is Raven Mountain east of Elizabethtown. I have not been by there in a while but it seems to be of a size similar to what is portayed in the painting. If viewed from somewhere to east of the mountain Giant mountain may be visible as the high mountain to the left. I know from old photographs that many these areas had views in the 1800s that we couldn’t even imagine today due to the extensive land clearing of the time.

    Good luck!

  8. Tony Goodwin says:

    While I have no new insight about the location, I think that Anne is probably right that the intended focus in this painting is the tiny bit of civilization in the midst of the wilderness. The foreground shows a “hardscrabble” pasture with but one house in the distance. The mountain, whether it is Scarface or some other mountain may have been deliberatively “curved” so as to cast a slightly ominous dark shadow over this apparently lonely outpost of civilization in the stark wilderness. In the 1860s and 70s, much of the Adirondacks would have had that aspect of a few lonely outposts inhabited by individuals struggling mightily just the eke out an existence in a harsh environment.

  9. Anne Diggory says:

    Responding to a few comments:
    For “Nature” who wondered if the scene could have been invented: While some artists did invent picturesque scenes, Tyler appears in other paintings to be relatively descriptive of an actual place. Artists and the general public in the second half of the 19th century were very interested in geology and seemed to prefer recognizable places.
    As to whether it could be Scarface, I have been looking via Google Earth for a matching profile and a river setting, but can’t seem to find an good angle. And with the geological interest of the times, any sign of cliffs or scars would have been used, even if only hinted at in the shadows, and the mountain in Tyler’s painting is very softly treed throughout.
    I still have some expectation that a scene similar to the one in the painting will be located, and haven’t given up on Keene Valley and Baxter Mountain with the Ausable River.
    The Adventure continues.

  10. Merry says:

    My first thought was Camel’s Hump from the west. But nothing else in the painting matches. The profile, though, is very close.

  11. Mark Humpal says:

    Hi Anne, I just stumbled upon this nice article. What made me google Tripod and find you is that I have a painting which I believe is of Tripod, painted by Ray Strong in the early 1930s. Ray painted the murals in the Congregational Church in Keene Valley and painted landscapes for a number of years in the area. I’ll send an image to you once you respond. Cheers, Mark Humpal (author of upcoming Ray Strong book).

    • Mark — I’ll be curious to see the Ray Strong image. I should really update this blog with the full details about successfully finding the viewpoint for the Tyler painting that I wrote about in the article. As I had suspected, it was of Baxter Mountain, from private land above the northern end of Marcy field, where there is an old cemetery.