I did remember that the calendar of National Academy Museum (NA) of last year showed that an exhibition highlighting its permanent collection would open in early 2009. Perhaps permanent collection is such a sensitive word for NA that the museum decided to embrace the opportunity of celebrating the 400th anniversary of Hudson, Fulton and Champlian instead. “American Waters”, an exhibition based on NA’s permanent collection, shows the expansiveness and variety of marine paintings by generations of American artists.
The title is somewhat misleading because not only Hudson River but also Niagara Falls, Bash-Bish Falls in Massachusetts and Sweetwater River in Wyoming were celebrated in the exhibition. In fact, the pure American identity of the waters in the exhibition could be dubious because the locale in the painting by Charles Temple Dix could be Cornwall, England.
Nevertheless, the exhibition does show the depth of the collection at NA. In particular, one school – Pennsylvania Impressionists and one artist – William Trost Richards are presented with more weights.
Geo’s favorite is “Source of the Susquehanna” by Louis Remy Mignot, probably because he is familiar with the wide open water space of Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, Penna. The exclusiveness and wildness of the Susquehanna River near its source was painted with a palette of jewel-colors by Mignot: emerald green, topaz yellow, and turquoise blue. Even the cascading water was rendered in a surreal deep blue as if the burning sunset in the background could never touch the virginity of the “mirror” in the forest.
My favorite is “On the Sweetwater, Near Devil’s Gate“, a painting on a millboard by Albert Bierstadt. Even on a small scale, Bierstadt’s talent of transforming lakes and mountains into miracles of light and air can be felt as much as his 8-foot canvas. The clouds and sunlight play an unpretentious role in this magical painting. The light has just broken through the clouds and illuminates sides of the tree trunks of the middle ground. Three deers are wandering nearby. In a moment they will be bathing in the sunlight too. Viewers who are placed in the shadowed grass foreground would anticipate a change in color and warmth as what they have seen in the thematic transition depicted in the picture.
There are eight works by William Trost Richards. It is unusual to see an artist of that period with such a caliber of mastering colors (as shown in his painting “Coastal Scene” in 1862) with an almost puritanical restrain. In his marvelous watercolor works such as crushing waves or white masts under stormy clouds, nothing would be associated with romanticism like those done by Thomas Moran. The simplicity and clarity in his marine works has a factual tendency, which I found is very enchanting. If Charles Temple Dix found the beauty of seas from the excitement of traveling, then Richards praised rocks and waves that he owned and lived with with unassuming sincerity.
The urban scenes are presented by Guy Carleton Wiggins and Ernest Lawson. Wiggins’ night scene of New York City with bold slahses of dash lines is eerie in my mind since the sharp edged skyscrapers lit at night contradict to his signature vagueness in the snow scenes. Lawson’s choice of urban scenes (with his rivers, bridges and cliffs devoid of crowd) are always bordering suburban. Perhaps that is why he chose to live in Washington Heights. It is funny that National Academy now exhibits the works of “The Eight” who rose against the institution in the early 20th century.
American Waters: Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Hudson, Fulton and Champlain is now on exhibition at National Academy Museum from Feb 4 to April 5. For those who could not squeeze into the jammed door of Guggenheim Museum next door, NA, in the Huntington mansion, is much more cozy and relaxing.