The 19th century American Art collection at the Philbrook Museum of Art is on the second floor of its Italian Renaissance Mansion. Upon entering the first room slightly on the leftside of the staircase, one is greeted by a large winter scene painting by Bruce Crane, donated by Laura A. Clubb in 1947.
New England Winter was painted in 1926, 17 years after his work November Hills won a bronze medal at the Carnegie International Exhibition in 1909 and was subsequent bought by the museum. (The painting was completed in 1908.) But the two canvases, separated near two decades in time span, share some of the most intriguing aspects of Crane’s style.
Both paintings depict hillside from a low viewpoint pointing up, lending strength and dominance to the otherwise genteel hills. The slopes loom large in a confronting manner without any content of its scope and breadth. Viewers are thus forced to take the painter’s unique perspective to focus on lines and forms.
In the catalog of a retrospective exhibition Bruce Crane: American Tonalist in 1984, Charles Clark said “much of the inherent sweep of the mountainous terrain has been preempted by the use of an elevated horizon and a square format, which forces the image into a narrow perspective.” The tilted or elevated plane, which was widely adopted in Whistler’s night paintings and subsequently introduced to America, by 1909, had firmly rooted in the American style. Birge Harrison, in his painting Sunset from Quebec, romanticizes an eerie gritty urban scene by flattening the space with tilted perspective. In Crane’s November Hills, the rhythms of forms delineated by diagonal lines of stone walls or stumps have the tendency to dissolve the aerial and spatial sense, which is only saved by the vertical trees which quietly disappear in the far end.
Furthermore, both paintings have adopted a square format. Charles Clark wrote:
The square format appeared in American paintings in the late nineteenth century. While Crane may have been introduced to square canvases by Cazin, he surely became familiar with them as employed by his American friends John H. Twachtman, Emil Carlsen, Willard Metcalf , and Childe Hassam. While not all artists were aware of, or concerned with, its decorative possibilities, Crane did recognize that a square canvas tends to deemphasize spatial relationships and a sense of distance, while underscoring the patterns of forms and figures represented. William Gerdt’s description of Emil Carlsen’s square hillside landscapes as “static and serene” with the surface decoration being emphasized by an “even intensity of color and light in the near, middle and far distance,” applies almost as well to Crane’s November Hills., The Templed Hills and similar landscapes from this period. The view is aware of the painting’s two-dimensional surface, an observation that is reinforced not only by the large section of hillside forests that dissolve into smooth washes of opaque pigment, but also by the lively pattern of intersecting diagonals crated by the stone walls and snow-filled fulleys.
Yet, while November Hills won a bronze medal in the Carnegie International Exhibition in 1909, such praise would not have been possible from the same exhibition by the time he painted New England Winter in 1926.
Carnegie, determined to build a collection by “masters of tomorrow,” used the competition as the testing ground for most up-to-date styles. Such a tradition persists and is evident in the current permanent collection of Carnegie Museum of Art. When the first Carnegie International exhibition was held in 1896, Pittsburghers for the first time were exposed to more sophisticated work by European and American painters. Based on the information from the Carnegie Museum of Art, the most celebrated local artist, George Hetzel, was rejected from all but one of the Internationals. Hetzel painted the rural Johnstown forest interiors with a miraculous precision with the skills learned from his Düsseldorf academy training. Yet it was artists like Crane, with his “modern” November Hills, who were at the front of the wave. Yet this is still Pittsburgh: While the impressionism was the vanguard of the steel town by then, the rebellious show by The Eight had happened one year ago in Macbeth Gallery of New York City.
Seventeen years later, what we call modernism today had fully rooted in America. Even the annual Carnegie International Exhibition, which some New York criticized as provincial and had resisted the vanguard long, finally gave a full embrace to modernism by choosing Henri Mattisse’s work the first place in its 1927 exhibition. Crane’s participation with the Carnegie International during these 17 years could not be found, except in 1915, he served in the jury for American art in the 19th annual exhibition.
Another tonalism painter, sometimes also called American quietism painter, Dwight William Tryon had his second or his last solo exhibition at Montross Gallery in January 1913 right before the Armory Show. In an art world that was dominated by bold execution of hard-hitting urban realism, Tryon found “no solace in the idea of popularity” and was “willing to leave work for the future to settle”.
Like Tryon, Crane had changed little when the storm of ashcan school instilled the center of American art stage with a high spirit of social reform. His late works are monotonously late autumn and winter scenes. Only in some of his last few canvases did I see certain degree of form deconstruction that almost freed him from being inheriting from the tradition of George Inness and then Alexander Wyant, but then it is just almost. If anything had changed through 17 year’s artistic expression, he became more terse and succinct and the feeble colors in November Hills gave in to a lasting brownish gray with infinite degree of tonality.
In fact, although named November Hills, the early painting is vivacious and aspiring: The limits of forms lies largely where one color ends and another begins. The unified hill slopes are partially disguised in individual fresh color patches, which calls for viewer’s mind to solve the spatial relationship with curiosity. However, in New English winter, it is the lack of colors that awaken our memory of loss, the loss of those vivacious feelings and moods. The rhythms of snow-covered stone walls are stronger, like a stanza, yet only remains silent because of its loss of music notes.
Geo regards Crane’s November Hills as truly impressionistic. (It was not a painting that impressed him until he has seen more of his later works.) The paint layers are thin and the texture relatively smooth, leaving the composition standing out. On the other hand, New England Winter has much thicker texture. Layers of built up impasto indicate that Crane had absorbed some modern techniques, yet he never left the boat of being representational.
A close look of impasto of New England Winter shows that Crane used a narrow band of colors of similar tonality and color temperature. Even shrouded in golden rays of sunset, Crane’s late pictures always emanates a New England chill, like those sensational shiver that suddenly clear our minds. His true interest is in depicting the intangible moist in New England air and how the moisture harmonizes the view, the feeling and the mood. In New England Winter, the minutia changes in lavender, yellow and blue enliven the air with density and gravity that rise and fall slowly.
I have never felt invited into Crane’s late wintry landscape, as it is decaying or forlorn. It is the quiet mood that speaks to me, as I have walked the muddy trails and inhaled the cold air and suddenly felt mountains looming bigger and closer through barren branches. The rolling fogs and mists are ephemeral, yet the winter memory is long-lasting.