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The beginnings of "White Mountain School" of American Art

December 09, 2010
By the 1850s, growing numbers of American and European artists toured the area to sketch and paint the granite scenes of the White Mountains. They had heard tales about them, stories that explained the strange (to their ears) names of the mountains. Many of the tales and histories of the area were collected in Thomas Starr King's, "The White Hills: Their Legends, Landscape and Poetry," which was first published in 1859 (recently republished in 2010). The best-known aspects of White Mountain Art, however, were first expressed through the related Hudson River School. Thomas Cole, who painted scenes, which 'elevated' and inspired the viewer, led this. An English born artist, and considered the founder of the Hudson River School of American painting, Cole's paintings are known for their detailed and romantic depictions—they included realistic portraits of natural elements such as gnarled trees, erratic boulders, and dramatic mountain climates.

Work that developed out of the White Mountains began in the early nineteenth century as romantic scenes evoking the lessons of nature for mankind. Thomas Cole's paintings reminded viewers of biblical and mythical scenes that taught lessons about human life and the foibles of its civilization, especially of man to dominate nature. By mid-century, artists crafted more realistic scenes that included scenes of granite peaks, streams, rivers and pools of the area. Unlike Thomas Cole's paintings, in these one could 'find the view' in an exploration of the area.

Cole's paintings reminded viewers of the futility of man against nature. Ironically, the new nation's pioneers were doing the opposite: they were conquering the wilderness while they built factories and settled the west. As part of the movement that painted the dramatic scenes in the United States, the most influential artist of the White Mountains, and considered the leader of the White Mountain 'School' itself, was Benjamin Champney.

Champney was native New Hampshire born, making his first trip to the White Mountains in 1838. In 1853, he bought a home in North Conway where he launched his productive career documenting the scenes around him. He attracted other artists to come to North Conway, where they perched in scenic vistas as they painted "en plein air" under their umbrellas.

Those who also painted in the White Mountains include Boston area artists Thomas Hill, Edward Hill, William F. Paskell, Alfred T. Ordway, Sylvester Phelps Hodgdon, John White Allen Scott, Francis Seth Frost, and Samuel Lancaster Gerry. Maine artists who crossed the border include George McConnell, Delbert Dana Coombs, Harrison Bird Brown, and Fredrick A. Butman, while artists more far flung include William Trost Richards, Charles Wilson Knapp, Russell Smith, and Edmund Darch Lewis.

Most of these artists traveled to the White Mountains during the summer and returned to their urban studios in the winter. A few artists did live in the area through the winter, painting the more uncommon winter scenes. One who did so was Frank Shapleigh, who had a home in Jackson and painted nearby locales in both summer and winter. Others might be familiar with Edward Hill, who spent most of his life in New Hampshire and painted winter scenes.

Many White Mountain artists produced works of favorite scenes that suggested popular ideas about the country's Manifest Destiny, creating paintings symbolic of the expanding nation. These scenes included orderly villages complete with church spires, neat farmers' fields with ample harvests, and boys fishing in streams teeming with fish. Occasionally these scenes included the distant train with its streaming coal plume, a reminder of the innovative and industrial that powered the expanding nation east to west. Nature was divine and symbolic of the forward-looking, fertile nation. It also possibly evoked a romantic desire to capture on canvas the disappearing rural landscape.

Yet the industrializing north symbolized by church spires, neat villages and distant trains spewing coal clouds also produced city dwellers—people who wanted the fresh air of the mountains. The holiday visitors flocked to the resort hotels that mushroomed in the valley. Armed with guidebooks produced by the hotels, and inspired by the in-house artists who often resided there, tourists looked for familiar scenes. The artists' paintings fostered demand for hotels, guidebooks, and yet more paintings which they then sold to the visitors. Railroads themselves promoted art and its elevating characteristics, for middle class patrons always desired to appear 'cultured' to their social circle.

In the Mount Washington Valley, local patrons came to know and love various White Mountain artists who distinguished themselves through such things brush strokes, autumn or spring colors, and subjects such as tree canopies, streams, dogs or people on horseback. Collectors began recognizing and demanding certain styles, subjects and scenes of the White Mountains, creating a market demand for White Mountain Art. The resulting body of work created hundreds of paintings that the public wished to collect. The result was the now familiar "White Mountain School" of American Art.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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