Sylvia Sleigh: Invitation to a Voyage

June 3, 2017–January 14, 2018

The Museum presents Sylvia Sleigh’s masterwork Invitation to a Voyage, a 70-foot panorama painting of the Hudson River and its banks, composed of 14 panels (each 8 x 5 feet). The 14 paintings were gifted to the Museum when it was shown here on September 30, 2006.

Set along the banks of the Hudson River, the work depicts a summer gathering of friends and art-world figures. The painting has made famous this small stretch of the east bank of the Hudson near Fishkill, New York, about four miles north of West Point, in the southwest corner of Dutchess County. Across the river stands Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, built at the turn of the century to house part of the military surplus business of New Yorker Frank Bannerman.

A train trip to Albany in 1961 inspired Invitation to a Voyage. Sleigh, impressed by the beauty of the river and Bannerman’s Castle on Pollepel Island, began the work, which ultimately took her 20 years to complete. She divided the panorama into the “Riverside” panels, which she painted first, and then, the “Woodside” panels. On the Riverside panel, Sleigh and her husband, art critic Lawrence Alloway, stand alone and with other small groups, picnicking and posing, against the bright river and a distant Bannerman’s Castle—a grand vista. The Woodside panels show individuals grouped among trees—a story unfolding.

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The composition of Invitation to the Voyage is similar to scenes of pastoral gatherings by 18th-century painter Jean Antoine Watteau, and shows Sleigh’s desire to connect to grand-history painting, even as she rebelled against the constraints of Modernism.

The British-born Sleigh emigrated to the United States with Alloway in 1961. She became part of the feminist art movement in the 1970s and was well-known for her large-scale portraits of nude men in feminine poses, as she attempted to reverse the male gaze to create a new erotic perspective for women. Like Invitation, her portraits were grounded in traditional genre painting that recalled those of Ingres, Velásquez, and Titian. Invitation, though, also reflects themes that continually appear in Sleigh’s work, which art historian Annie Shaver-Crandell enumerates: The use of the self-portrait to explore different roles, the use of close associates as models, the placing of groups of figures in a landscape, interest in costume, and a running commentary on art history.

Invitation to a Voyage is accompanied by photographs taken during Sleigh’s trips to Fishkill as she worked for years to create an afternoon that became an episodic experience.

Sylvia Sleigh. Invitation to a Voyage: The Hudson River at Fishkill, 1979–99. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist, 2006 (2006.03.01d).