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Art Notes: White Mountains Majesty at the Currier

  • "Moat Mountain Intervale, New Hampshire," an 1862 painting by Albert Bierstadt, is one of many 19th century paintings of Mount Washington on display at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester.

  • Winslow Homer's "Artists Sketching in the White Mountains," from 1868, illustrates the gradual settling of New Hampshire's White Mountains and the role artists played in how the mountains were perceived.

  • "Mount Washington: The Crown of New England," on view at the Currier Museum of Art through Jan. 16, also features images from magazines, books, stereoscopes and other popular ways of reaching a mass audience.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2016

The last few times I’ve driven to or past Mount Washington, the highest, most famous mountain in the Northeast, I’ve gone through North Conway, which, as many travelers could tell you, is one of the retail outlet capitals in the state, if not Northern New England.

Once seen, the Settlers Green Outlet Village or the long string of inns, motels and fast food joints that serve the tourist industry cannot be unseen.

Even so, the majesty of the White Mountains transcends the tourism infrastructure that brings much-needed money into the region.

These aren’t the tallest mountains in the U.S., but their dominance on the horizon, the way they cluster together, and the deep clefts and flumes that water and time have worn through them, still evoke our sense of the sublime.

A stellar exhibition, “Mount Washington: The Crown of New England,” on view at the Currier Museum in Manchester through Jan. 16, explores the ways in which 19th-century artists and scientists responded to the White Mountains, and in particular Mount Washington.

If you go in expecting to see grand 19th-century landscape paintings, you get them in spades.

But, P. Andrew Spahr, the director of collections at the museum and curator of this show, has also introduced other popular depictions of Mount Washington, found in newspapers, books, maps and advertising, as well as on porcelain and in early photographs and stereoscopes, that open up the 19th-century mindset to a 21st-century viewer.

This was an era of breathtaking invention and scientific discovery, and the White Mountains offered a kind of laboratory for painters, botanists and geologists, as well as people experimenting with the new medium of photography.

What the show does exceedingly well is to give the viewer a pretty good idea of what it was like to traverse the White Mountains, whether in the 1820s, when it took a great deal of effort to make your way into the range, or the 1870s, when tourism had gained a substantial foothold and you could travel and lodge in comfort.

Imagine that it is the 1830s and you have traveled from Boston, New York or the seacoast and are seeing Mount Washington, and Mounts Adams and Jefferson for the first time.

The railroads haven’t yet extended as far as the Presidential Range and the famed cog railway that ascends Mount Washington hasn’t yet been built.

Even in summer there is still snow on the peaks and settlement in the area is sparse. Mount Washington is already known for its fierce, unpredictable climate and the singularity of its Arctic tundra near the peak.

Your approach to the mountains is on foot, or by horse and coach, up rough trails and roads hand-cut through the region’s notches and gores, a strenuous trek exemplified in the appealing painting Waiting for the Stage Coach by Alvan Fisher, where a man sits at the crest of a steep road while his dog drinks from a nearby stream, and a team of horses pulls a coach into view.

The U.S. is young: it has existed as a republic for close to 60 years. The peak that was called Agiochook by some indigenous peoples was named Mount Washington in 1784 by a party of geologists.

But the nation is already, in a sense, nostalgic for the Eastern landscape that existed before European settlers arrived and began reshaping it.

The White Mountains symbolize that wildness, and the lure and power of the unknown in a period that begins the mass movement of colonizing settlers westward.

And the White Mountain paintings tell audiences at the time that, for sheer magnificence, the American scene — and American painters — can rival any found in Europe.

In the earlier works in the show, humans, if they appear at all, are minuscule figures, or dots; as the century progresses humans begin to appear more frequently and they, and their settlements, assume greater roles within the paintings.

There are canvases in the show by Thomas Cole, the dean of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, as well as some of his followers: Asher B. Durand, Jasper Cropsey, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford and the German-born Albert Bierstadt.

If you want to see a masterful handling of light, look at two Cole paintings in the show: the softer, hazier tones of the 1827 View in the White Mountains and the 1828 canvas Storm Near Mount Washington in which thunderheads sweep over the mountains, casting a dramatic slash of white light over Mount Washington.

Cole’s images of the mountains were reproduced in both the U.S. and Europe, and spawned such collectables as porcelain plates and bowls. The images also turned up in books and in newsprint, and encouraged tourists to make their way to New Hampshire, which in turn brought more artists and photographers.

Cropsey and Bierstadt are great showmen, producing gasp-inducing theatrical spectacle in paint, as in Cropsey’s An Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains and Bierstadt’s enormous 1870 painting The Emerald Pool, which offers unabashed hokum, with crepuscular gloom, a cascading stream, lush autumnal foliage and a misty, looming Mount Washington.

My preference is for Bierstadt’s subtler 1862 painting Moat Mountain, which in the precision of its detail and pinpoint rendering of light (no loose brush strokes here) almost seems to anticipate Photo Realism; not a surprise given that Bierstadt and his brother Edward had made an albumen print of the same scene in the same year, and had taken other photographs of the White Mountains.

There is a gorgeous 1876 George Innes painting, Saco Ford: Conway Meadows, that has the soft luminous light and pearly hues of French Barbizon paintings by Camille Corot, but also echoes the washes of color of Impressionism, which had already caused a scandal in France with its rejection of academic painting and its rules of composition.

The paintings by other artists who are less known vary in quality, but they offer a range of views of the mountain, whether it is seen at a distance of many miles, atop the neighboring peaks, or from the vantage point of a woodland pool looking up.

Some of the most striking images in the show are not paintings but very early daguerreotypes, and sepia-tinted, salted paper and albumen prints from the 1830s and 1840s of some of the White Mountains’ most famous draws, among them Tuckerman’s Ravine and Glen Ellis Falls. The photographs emphasize the isolation and aloneness it was possible to experience in the peaks.

But by the time you get to a merry 1868 Winslow Homer canvas of Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, which shows three men in boaters lined up at their easels as if on a painting assembly line (the painter closest to the foreground is Homer himself), the mountains have been studied, painted and climbed again and again by botanists, geologists, artists and tourists.

By the late 19th century, it was possible to make a day trip to the summit of Mount Washington, while the wildly popular, mass-produced stereoscopes brought views of the White Mountains into three-dimensional perspective, almost as if you were there.

The virtue of this exhibition is that it acts on the viewer rather like the stereoscope, bringing an old subject — American landscape painting — into fresh and unexpected focus, as if we were seeing these sights for the first time.

“Mount Washington: The Crown of New England,” runs through Jan. 16 at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. For more information go to currier.org or call 603-669-6144.

Ongoing

Arabella, Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media, including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. The annual holiday exhibition and sale ends Saturday: its hours Saturday are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. “Figuration,” which features the works of Lucy Mink-Covello, Mark Goodwin and Fulvio Testa, runs through Feb. 25.

Center for the Arts, New London. The Center is sponsoring the 2016 Regional juried art show on exhibit at the New London Inn at 353 Main St. The show runs through Jan. 28

Converse Free Library, Lyme. “Paul Klee: The World Through My Lens,” work by the Lyme-based photographer ends Friday.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. The photography of Nicolas Doak; acrylics and pastels by Norman Rhodes; work by members of the Upper Valley Ship Modeler’s Guild; fiber art by Dianne Shullenberger; digital art by Gloria King Merritt and oils and acrylics by Prabhjot Kaur are on view throughout the hospital through Dec. 31. For information call the Dartmouth-Hitchcock arts program at 603-650-6187.

Hanover League Fine Craft Gallery. The autumn exhibition features work by ceramicists Robin Ascher and David Ernster, textile artists Rachel Kahn and Kathleen Litchfield, and photographer Rosamond Orford.

Howe Library, Hanover. “A Life in Watercolors,” a show of work by Marion Kummel, runs through Jan. 3.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. An exhibition of work by Enfield painter Penny Koburger continues through January.

Library Arts Center, Newport. LAC’s annual holiday Gallery of Gifts ends Friday.

Long River Galleries and Gifts, Lyme. “Of Transcendent Joy,” an exhibition of landscape paintings by the late Deborah Frankel Reese is on view through Jan. 8.

Osher at Dartmouth, Hanover. Photographer Thomas Urgo shows his work in “World Views” at the Osher offices at 7 Lebanon St., through Dec. 20. Also showing photography are Anne Baird, Janice Fischel, Nora Gould, John Lehet and Lilian Shen. Hours are Monday-Thursday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. A show of work by 20th century commercial artist Louis Chap is on view through Feb. 18.

SculptureFest, Woodstock. The annual celebration of three-dimensional art continues. While some works have been removed, 80 percent of the show is still on view. “Grounding,” a show of site-specific work curated by sculptors Jay Mead and Edythe Wright, is on view at the King Farm. For more information, go to sculpturefest.org.

Tunbridge Public Library. Anne and Mitch Beck, of Royalton, exhibit their mixed-media collages through Jan. 13.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. The Holiday Print Show, where prints by studio members are on sale as unique presents for the holidays, runs through Jan. 31.

Two Rivers member-artists are also exhibiting work related to Northern Stage’s productions of Macbeth and A Christmas Carol in the lobby of the Barrette Center for the Arts, through December.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

Correction

The exhibit "Mount Washington: The Crown of New England" exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, runs through Jan. 16. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect closing date.