Friday, December 12, 2008

A brilliant sunset: art and the atmosphere

The first time I saw the paintings of Frederic Church I was struck by the brilliant, almost garish colors in such compositions as his Twilight in the Wilderness from 1860. I had always assumed Church, along with the other Hudson River School painters, were exaggerating for effect, much like the German Expressionists had.

But when my wife and I moved from Brooklyn to Catskill, a small town in New York's Hudson Valley, I realized I was wrong. One day, just after we had moved up, I was driving from the east side of the Hudson River, just outside of the city of Hudson, heading back across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Catskill when I nearly drove off the road. The sky looked like it was on fire. It was an explosion of alizarin crimson, eggplant purple, lemon yellow and a hundred shades of orange, with a deep electric blue peaking through in places. The usually brown Hudson River reflected the sky, mellowing the colors and complimenting the scene.

A few months later, my wife and a I were eating at a riverfront restaurant in Athens, on the west side of the Hudson, when we witnessed a similar scene. Just across the river in Columbia County, the tree-covered hills suddenly turned from a dull green to a riot of reds and oranges just as the sun began to set. The shift was so sudden it didn't seem real.

The quality of light and atmospheric fireworks of the Hudson Valley drew a loose affiliation of 19th century landscape painters that would become known as the Hudson River School to the area and ushered in the (arguably) most important contribution to world culture by 19th century America. The attraction to the the land was so great that the two leading painters of the school—Church and Thomas Cole—permanently settled in the area.

The connection between the atmospheric peculiarities of a place in relation to the output of a painter working there is vital to understanding any given piece of art.

One can't look at the paintings of Henri Matisse that were produced in the south of France without understanding that he went there specifically for the light. His time spent there transformed his canvases, altering his palette for the rest of his life. In 1917 he permanently settled near Nice.

The relationship between palette and place extends beyond figurative painting. The later work of Willem De Kooning—one of the great 20th century masters—is a good example. When he left Manhattan in 1963 and moved out to East Hampton, at the end of Long Island, his colors lightened. The forms, as if bathed in light, lost the hard linear quality of his earlier work.

I was recently discussing this subject with an attorney I know, who said he wished that his art professors in college would have explained this to him, since it seems to be a large part of the picture (literally).