The Hushed Note

Among all the paintings representing American Barbizon and Tonalism paintings in the ongoing “Path to Impressionism” exhibition at Newark Art Museum, Bruce Crane‘s “A November Scene” is the one which speaks to me the most.

Everything in the picture is subdued: color, form and subject. The scene is not beautiful itself, but evocative, with a smell of decaying leaves over the chilled water. It is a scene of the last days of New England autumn, which although I have never experienced, I feel associated with the spare air in the Western Pennsylvania where I had been living for the past 6 years.

It was not barbaric as some depicted by Enneking, since there are human traces such as wood piles, deserted and almost ineligible, in the middle ground or a stone wall, which visually and possibly physically blend into the brownish yellowish surrounding. Nature, once gain, took over where once habituated by early New England settlers.

The hushed scenery is less idyllic than what it looks like on the surface. The painting was painted in 1895, at the height of the Gilded Age. Between 1865 to 1905, while the population in rural area increased little, the population in metro areas increased 20 times. In particular, New England was proved to be too rugged to be farmed and thus became uninhabited in its rural area. In fact, New England, for a while, became the factory for clothing and shoes manufacturing. Gone with the rural habitation was the simple and self-reliant Protestant life style and moral virtues.

Ironically, if Bruce Crane intended to use the solitude of the nature itself to prove it was the industrialization that deprived human to get embraced by the natural beauty, the robber Barons, who praised and advocated his works, didn’t think so. Among them, George Hearn made a fortune from dry good retails. William Evans was the president for the Mills & Gibb firm. while Henry Chapman was the prominent banker and stockbroker from Brooklyn. For them, the economic brushwork by Crane recalls repose and tranquility that they would associated before industrialization. The suggestive mood and ethereal atmosphere were perfect for recollection and recount of the past.

A close examination shows that Crane used impasto and glazing to great extent. Crane first placed a thin layer of paint for the background (the remote trees are almost formless). Then he built up the painting by brushed or dotted thick layers of paints within limited range and hues. The surface of the canvas at the foreground is as rugged as the landscape itself. The brown glazing, seemingly randomly disposed, gives a harmonious yet subtle veil to the scenery. It is true that not painting from the plein-air but from the memory gave Crane freedom to manipulate the painting based on his will, but it is his determination and imaginative power that gave a could-be-depressive scene romantic and poetic rendering.

I stood there long and felt I was dissolved in the field. The soil is infertile, the field rocky, the weather freezing. Yet the sentimental pastoral beauty arouse strong heartbeats for those who had lived it and lost it. Almost, I think, everyone has it in his heart: somber yet bitter-sweet, a spiritual New England forgone.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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