My search for the motif for any 19th century painting of the Adirondacks opens questions – about the artist, the location and the culture at that time. Sometimes I can answer the questions. Consider, for example, David Johnson’s 1870 painting, Study of Nature, Dresden, Lake George.
The painting can be seen in Albany in the collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art. Johnson painted a strikingly similar painting, View of Dresden, Lake George, 1874, which can be seen in the catalogue for the 2005 exhibition at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, Painting Lake George, 1774-1900.
My familiarity with the Hudson River School of painting, the artist and the location in the title made me realize there would be some challenges to identifying the site from which Johnson painted. In many paintings in that era, artists such as Johnson were relatively truthful to topographical details in the distance, but manipulated or invented foreground details. The second half of the 19th century was a time of geological tourism and artists often catered to that interest by carefully portraying the masses and contours of the mountains, which can therefore easily be identified. Foreground landscape forms are harder to locate since artists often combined reality and invention in order to make an orderly horizontal composition that balances the rest of the painting.
Beyond the often misleading manipulations of the artist, the correct historical perspective at Lake George can be obscured by changes in vegetation, changes to lake levels and limited access to private lands. Vistas that were opened by logging in the nineteenth century are now blocked by trees. Turn of the century photographs yield some cleared views, but some confusion can arise with the tendency of artists to insert trees where needed for a pleasing scene. Johnson was recognized for his meticulous depiction of trees and he is known to have inserted the same tree in paintings of very different locations in order to frame the scene, as he did for the second Huletts Landing painting. The shoreline became more permanent and higher at the late date of 1957. (That’s when the State began controlling the lake level; previously the owners of the dam at the north end of the lake regularly raised and lowered the lake level, with the support of the Lake George Association).
Another complication in finding where Johnson stood is that he occasionally based his artworks on prints of other artists. Gwendolyn Owens, in Nature Transcribed: The Landscapes and Still Lifes of David Johnson (1827-1908), points out the minimal records and letters concerning Johnson’s life and travels. She describes a large Colorado scene he painted without traveling out west. Additionally he used the composition and details from a print of a William Havell painting in order to paint his first large painting of the view of the Hudson from Ft. Putnam at West Point.
While some of Johnson’s Lake George scenes may be based on the work of others, written sources and dated drawings confirm that he drew and painted at the lake periodically between 1857 and 1872; dated drawings from 1870 and 1871 confirm his presence in the northern part of Lake George around Dresden. Dresden is a town between Lake George and Lake Champlain includes the isolated hamlet of Huletts Landing on Lake George. In 1870 the landing was accessible by Lake George steamer, or by steamer and railroad to Chubbs Dock on Lake Champlain and then over a rough five-mile road.
Finding the Spot
Good friends took me and my canoe to Huletts Landing by motorboat and I paddled to a family vacation resort called Huletts-on-Lake-George. The knob of Five Mile Mountain looms over a point of land in both the painting and the landscape, with Brown Mountain to the right along the ridge and Deer Leap on the right edge. A shoreline rock promontory, (indicated by the red arrows in the photo), lines up with the top of Five Mile Mountain the distance. At a much lower lake level in 1870 it was sometimes on a wide beach, but now it juts into the water to serve as a place for vacationing selfie-takers. The steamship dock was built at the end of the point of land. Some of the footings can still be seen underwater.
The photo map shows the shore in Huletts Landing with an arrow indicating Johnson’s likely angle of vision. On the northeast side of that cove is the Huletts Landing Marina where you can rent a kayak to explore the shore and the nearby Harbor Islands where Johnson and Asher B. Durand painted. You can launch your own boat from the public access at Huletts Park a little further up the shore, off of Sunset Bay Road.
Once David Johnson picked his angle of view with an eye toward good composition, he filled in other details that would appeal to the public of pleasure seekers on the lake. He balanced the small white detail of the Minne-Ha- Ha as it steamed down the lake on the far shore with the small white detail of the woman seated on the shore under her umbrella.
The resting boat, a motif he has used in other lakeside paintings, dominates the shore. In contrast to the images of leisure, he placed a chopped off fallen log in the lower left corner, a reminder of the lumbering that has cleared the land. At the far left in the painting, at the edge of the beach is a fence from the local farm. In the second version he painted, he placed two figures next to the fence rather than on the beach and removed the stump.
Gwendolyn Owen’s 1988 working list of Johnson’s paintings include eleven paintings and numerous drawings from the Huletts Landing area, and eight paintings of the nearby Harbor Islands. They are dated from about 1857 (one shown in 1858 at the National Academy of Design) to 1874. Many were probably created in the studio from his sketches done on the spot. (The list may include some duplication).
Johnson was obviously inspired by the area and felt there would be a market for such views. His struggles to sell his work toward the end of his career are indicated by the large number of works in an 1890 auction, including five Dresden scenes and two of the Harbor Islands.
I created my own artwork that continues the Johnson’s tradition of an invented foreground. In order to show both Johnson’s view and my own, I painted a shoreline that curves from the current high level back to his wide beach. An image of part of his work has been printed on the canvas along with fragments of my photographs. I then painted the foreground and tree. The artwork, “Out of Place in Huletts Landing,” can be seen until February 24th at the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York City.
Images from above: David Johnson, “Study of Nature, Dresden, Lake George,” 1870, oil on canvas, 13 ¾ x 21 ¾ in., (Albany Institute of History and Art); David Johnson, “View of Dresden, Lake George,” 1874, oil on canvas, 14.5 x 24.25 in., (private
collection); Author’s annotated map of Huletts Landing; Author’s comparison of Johnson painting and current view; Johnson’s 1870 painting again; and Anne Diggory, “Out of Place in Huletts Landing,” 2018, hybrid on canvas, 21×31 in.