Invitation to a Voyage: The Hudson River at Fishkill
In 1979, Sylvia Sleigh began work on Invitation to a Voyage, this 70-foot panorama of a picnic party on the east bank of the Hudson River. The title references a poem by Charles Baudelaire (French, 1821–1867), and the subject reflects idealistic paintings of figures outdoors dating back to the Renaissance. Specific art historical sources include the Pilgrimage to Cythera by Rococo painter Antoine Watteau (French, 1684–1721) and Luncheon in the Grass by Realist Edouard Manet (French, 1832–1883).
Sleigh had moved to the United States from England in 1961 and became an active member of New York feminist cooperative galleries, such as Soho 20 and A.I.R. Gallery. In the 1970s she became well known for her portraits of male nudes, based on traditional paintings of women bathers. Her deliberate role-reversal of the “male gaze” helped pave the way for the Feminist Art movement.
With Invitation to a Voyage, Sleigh challenged herself to work in the scale of grand history paintings and panoramas of the nineteenth century, as well as the enormous canvases of the Abstract Expressionists. She believed women artists—in the past typecast as painters of miniatures and flowers—should make a statement with monumental works of art. The actual location where Sleigh posed her models is Beacon, New York, by the Hudson Line’s Breakneck Ridge train stop. The panorama includes portraits of herself, her husband (art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway) and friends from the New York art world. She completed the painting over a period of 20 years.