Early in the nineteenth century, American artists, exploring the wonders of nature in the eastern United States, began to travel to the White Mountains in the northern part of New Hampshire. Those ‘pioneer’ painters, founders of one of the first artist colonies in the United States, viewed their paintings as representative of that which was truly American - the unique landscape. And for many of those men taking their easels into relatively untamed territory, their artwork expressed a religious conviction that the landscape was God’s expression on earth and that spending time in the outdoors drew one closer to God. In other words, nature was divine. Unlike their European contemporaries, these American painters did not include crosses or overt symbols in their landscapes; nature itself without religious symbolism provided a spiritual experience.
The earliest White Mountain painters were associated with the Hudson River School, which developed the first uniquely American approach to landscape painting. The focus was American landscape, a departure by American artists heretofore tied to the classicism of European schools where only history, religion and mythology were considered appropriate themes.
Hudson River School painting began in 1825 with Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and his followers who first took their easels to the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Of this group, art historian James Flexner wrote: “Indefatigably exploring that complex of peaks and forests and inhabited valleys---those watercourses, first turbulent, then lazy, then mingling at last with the lake-like Hudson; the turning seasons there; the times of day; storm, mist, and sunlight---the landscapes established their way of seeing and their basic artistic idiom.” (Flexner 221)
White Mountain painters were also working during a period of nationalist fervor. Inspired by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, meaning that white men and women were destined to settle ‘their’ land from east to west, the American public was hungry for national emblems and patriotic expressions. And pictures of beautiful landscape such as the White Mountains satisfied those demands.
Using traditional European principles of the picturesque, artists of the White Mountains created paintings filled with images suggestive of an optimistic and expanding nation: the orderly village with a church spire gleaming, farmers gathering produce, and boys fishing. Mount Kearsage, a prominent mountain near North Conway, New Hampshire, was a popular painting location, and Mount Washington has been the region’s most famous landmark, often painted from easels set up on Sunset Hill. By the late 20th century, trees and commercial development obscured that vantage point, which became the site of the Red Jacket Inn, a tourist-stopping place. However, the nearby 8,000,000-acre White Mountain National Forest provides opportunities for hiking, camping and plein-aire painting in an area that has become a popular tourist attraction with scenic railroad excursions, river trips, and reconstructed 19th-century towns. Communities include Bartlett, Franconia Notch, Crawford Notch, North Woodstock and Conway.
Thomas Cole was one of the first recorded persons to paint in the White Mountains, having explored Crawford Notch in 1828. Another name early associated with the White Mountains is Hudson River-School painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), although he made his reputation later when he headed west to Colorado and California and did dramatic mountain vistas associated with the Rocky Mountain School of painting. Bierstadt was born in Germany, near Dusseldorf, and came to America at age two, settling with his family at New Bedford, Massachusetts. He studied art at Dusseldorf, and then returned to America where in 1857 “he took a postgraduate course from the White Mountains, recording the scenery not only in sketches but with a non-manual tool, the camera.” (Flexner 243) Using the camera was shocking to many of the Hudson River and early White Mountain School painters, but it was a method that future artists would use extensively.
In the 1850s New-Hampshire born Benjamin Champney (1817-1907), then living in Boston, gave retrospective definition for art historians to the group later known as White-Mountain Painters. Indeed, it was not a formal name they gave themselves. The Boston painters, led by Champney, began meeting regularly with artists from New York headed by John Frederick Kensett (1818-1872), then one of the most prominent 19th-Century landscapists. He, along with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, had been spreading the word that the White Mountains were a special destination. Kensett profited financially from his White Mountain paintings because they were popular with city dwellers attracted to images of nature that contrasted with their noise-ridden daily lives.
Champney is credited as the leader of the White Mountain School of painting, and his autobiography, Sixty Years’ Memories of Art and Artists, became a valuable reference for art historians documenting that period in American art. The ideas that formed his early art had their roots in the Hudson River School philosophy and methods and in his travels in the 1840s in the countryside of France and Italy. In New Hampshire, Champney did many of his oil paintings directly from nature, en plein aire, and they were usually bucolic, serene views that pleased many collectors who wanted pleasant subject matter on their walls.
Art historian Peter Falk wrote that because of Champney’s “strong association with the White Mountains and his influence in bringing other artists to the region, he is recognized as the ‘dean’ of the White Mountain School.” (611) After traveling in Europe in the 1840s and then living near Boston but spending his summers in New Hampshire, Champney established full-time residency in North Conway on the Saco River and actively promoted himself as a White-Mountain painter. At local hotels, he advertised his studio, which became a popular tourist-stopping place.
The community of artists in the North Conway area attracted many visitors, especially from Boston. In the 1850s, grand hotels and railroads grew simultaneously, and a cog railroad, regarded as a marvel of technology, made it possible to ascend Mt. Washington without climbing. The next decade brought increasing numbers of tourists and artists, and the pleasure-seeking atmosphere gave little hint of the Civil War taking place to the south.
That more modern era with its advertising and promotion also brought women painters to the White Mountains. Maine artist Maria A’Becket (Beckett) (1840-1904) began painting there in 1865 as a summer-school student of Homer Dodge Martin (1836-1897). Her painting, Woods at the White Mountains, was exhibited at The National Academy of Design in 1888. From childhood, she was familiar with The White Mountains because her father, landscape painter Charles Beckett (1814-1867), illustrated travel books of the region. Later she did White Mountain travel-guide illustrations for her uncle Samuel E. Beckett, who was hired as a promoter of the area.
Other 19th-century female White-Mountain painters were Ellen Maria Carpenter (1831-1909), Elizabeth Coffin (1850-1930), Virginia Granbery (1831-1921), and Ann Darrah (1819-1881).
Including Champney, Bierstadt, and Kensett, the list of prominent male landscape painters working in the White Mountains reads like a 'who's who' of names that remain associated with leading 19th-century American landscape painting: Alfred Bricher (1837-1908); George Loring Brown (1814-1889), Harrison Bird Brown (1831-1915) John William Casilear (1811-1893), Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900); Samuel Colman (1832-1920); Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900), Asher Durand (1796-1886), John Joseph Enneking (1841-1916), Winckworth Allan Gay (1821-1910), Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), William M. Hart (1823-1894), Edward Hill (1843-1923, George Inness (1825-1894), William Trost Richards (1833-1905), George Smillie (1840-1921), and James Suydam (1819-1865).
White Mountain School artists had varied distinctions in their work. Some painted particular vistas depicted in each of the four seasons of the year. Champney was a master at painting water, and is known for often favoring dark autumn colors. William Paskell, in his later style, used broad brushstrokes to create an impressionist feeling. Maine artist George McConnell (1852-1929) was known for the velvety pastel look of his paintings. Thomas Hill often created a canopy-like depiction of trees to frame and accentuate the focus of a painting, a technique that gave many of his works a feeling of intimacy and solitude. Many of the paintings by Samuel Lancaster Gerry (1813-1891) included dogs and people on horseback. Francis Seth Frost (1825-1902) was known to use small figures, wispy clouds, and an oval format, and Alfred Bricher liked to portray calm water.
In the 1870s, the White Mountain School of Painting came to an end as a definable entity. Following the Civil War, many factors, including artists' discoveries of the West and the development of photography, helped shift the aesthetic focus away from the idealism of the Hudson River School. Essentially, the entire American art world underwent an extensive transformation. Prior to the 1860s there had existed a hierarchy of subjects, some deemed more worthy than others. Most important had been subjects with significant historical references or sublime characteristics, such as Niagara Falls, and of course Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, because of its association with the country's first president. With a newly developing aesthetic, this hierarchy of subjects was replaced, and every subject began to take on equal value. All of nature, from the most humble to the loftiest, became worthy in itself as a subject.
By the 1870s, the public began to find oft-repeated images, such as Mt. Washington, monotonous. Other 'new' images, such as the Rocky Mountains, were outweighing interest in the White Mountains. Also, hand-colored pictorial landscape photographs by photographers such as Wallace Nutting and Charles Henry Sawyer usurped the interest that had been given to original, on-site paintings. By the end of the 19th century, general interest declined in White Mountain landscape painting, and the period labeled White Mountain Landscape Painters came to a close.
Written February 2006 by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier and Teta Collins. Updated 2012.
Sources: Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art; James Thomas Flexner, History of American Painting-Volume Three: That Wilder Image; John J. Henderson, researcher of the White Mountain School of Painting who shared his information with AskART and whose information is on the website WhiteMountainArt.com; Frances MacIntyre, Women Artists in the White Mountains, 1840-1940, Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College. Courtesy Sue Sellars Rice; Paul Sternberg, Paintings by American Women
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