- Autumnal Inspiration from Cole to Wyeth
- The Modern Naturalist
- The Paintbox Leaf
- The Psychology of Autumn
There is one season when the American forest surpasses all the world in gorgeousness—that is the autumnal… every hue is there...from the most golden yellow to the intensest crimson….
In 1835, Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole penned these words in his Essay on American Scenery, and for the past 175 years, Americans have continued to extol and paint the attractions of their fall season. Paintbox Leaves explores this cultural phenomenon beginning with Cole’s vivid scenes and continuing as a narrative to today in paintings ranging from landscape panoramas to detailed leaf studies. Cole bemoaned one recurring artistic dilemma: the more painters highlighted colorful trees as a distinctly American terrain, the more likely they would learn that, “…in the old world his truest imitations of the American forest, at this season, are called falsely bright, and scenes in Fairy Land.”
At its heart, Paintbox Leaves is a meditation on how we and 81 artists have mingled appreciation of fall’s luscious beauty with visceral connections to its seasonal symbolism. In 1859, Henry David Thoreau gave impassioned voice to these painted and poetic sentiments in his lecture “Autumnal Tints,” which forecast the contemporary devotion to “leaf-peeping,”
October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world.
The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue have been made possible by a generous grant from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc.
What School of Design can vie with this? Think how much the eyes of painters of all kinds…are to be educated by these autumnal colors…. If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look farther within or without the tree... —Thoreau
Modernism and the advent of abstraction transformed rather than subsumed the American artist’s relationship with nature and autumn. Arthur Dove, often cited as America’s first painter of pure abstraction, remained deeply tied to the landscape in his subject matter and philosophy. The energy and colors of seasonal change and life cycles inspired him and the other artists in this gallery. Fall leaves, with their bright colors, relative two-dimensionality and strong, sinuous lines are perfect subjects for focused experimentation.
Landscape painting in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has, to some extent, been defined by anxiety about the divorce of the modern world from the rhythms and cycles of nature. Many artists schooled in mid-twentieth-century Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism adapted those new ways of looking and painting to re-embrace representational art. These impulses were often entwined with an increasing awareness of a return to connection with the land.
…it would be worth the while to get a specimen leaf from each changing tree…outline it, and copy its color exactly, with paint, in a book…. Or if I could preserve the leaves themselves, unfaded, it would be better still. —Thoreau
Leaves, on canvas and in real life, have been admired for their colors, studied by natural scientists, lauded and lamented by poets, compared (in their life cycle) to the human condition, and collected by leaf peepers for albums and crafts. In the mid-nineteenth century, painters, writers, their patrons, and other nature lovers romanticized the connections between picturesque scenery and art. They admired outdoor views that reminded them of paintings and paintings that reminded them of being outdoors. Either reverie could conjure interrelated associations, trees and their leaves with aesthetics, science, literature, spirituality, popular culture and tourism.
Like every season, autumn is a moving cycle, never a fixed moment in time. This is the tension inherent in the loveliest part of fall and in many of these paintings. Where a canvas resides in that seasonal cycle, early or late—the brilliant red bower of Frederic Church, or the bleak browns and grays of Andrew Wyeth—shifts the meaning signaled to the viewer.
The nostalgic idea of the Northeast as a model for the rest of the country has roots in nineteenth-century anxieties about the regional divisions leading to the Civil War, and, later, the stream of immigrants who transformed the nation during the Gilded Age. Whether the Hudson Valley, Catskills, Berkshires, or Green Mountains, the most distinctive visual identity to this emblematic place was the autumn landscape, which brought memories of harvest celebrations, the satisfaction of reaping what has been sown, but also wistful regret for the fading summer and dread of winter.
Although the crowd may look for a blaze of color for two weeks in October, the connoisseur, like Thoreau, will find beauty at the edges of autumn, in its first leaf and its last as the days slowly grow short.
Let your walks now be a little more adventurous…. If, about the last of October, you ascend any hill in the outskirts of our town, and probably of yours, and look over the forest, you may see—well, what I have endeavored to describe.
Autumnal Inspiration from Cole to Wyeth