Benjamin Champney: A Mount Washington Valley Legacy
January 13, 2011
Champney had many artist mentors and friends that helped throughout his career. He believed in doing the same for others. If you went to Champney's studio, you would meet a number of well-known White Mountain artists.
Benjamin Champney was born Nov. 17, 1817 in New Ipswich. After his father died, he was sent to Lebanon, where he attended school twelve weeks a year and worked at a cotton mill owned by an uncle. From an early age, he enjoyed drawing and sketching. He went to Boston at age 16 to work for a shoe dealer. He became interested in the work at the adjacent Pendleton Lithograph Company. There he did his first formal training working as a commercial draftsman under celebrated marine artist Fitz Henry Lane.
Soon he began to experiment with color landscapes and showed his work to prominent Boston artist Washington Allston. "No American artist has equaled Allston in all the qualities that go to make a great painter," Champney noted in his autobiography. Allston praised his work and encouraged him to go to Paris to study. In 1841 he and fellow artist Robert Cooke set sail to Europe.
Champney remained in Europe until 1846. Although he had previously explored the White Mountains, when he returned his new artistic eye found them "something more than terrestrial." Champney spent a short time in Boston in 1846, but then returned to Europe almost at once to paint a panorama of the Rhine River. In December of 1848 he exhibited the panorama in Boston, throughout New England and New York. The panorama was destroyed by fire in New York City in October 1857.
He traveled to the Mount Washington Valley with his artist friends John F. Kensett, and William Willard. For six weeks the three captured as much of the scenery as they could on canvas. His autobiography relates colorful tales of his adventures with his friends as they developed as artists, sharing newly discovered landscapes and artistic techniques. Champney admired Kensett's canvasses and their "lovely feeling of color and crispy touch they possess." Champney's technique was to paint directly onto canvas rather than from sketches in his studios like many artists. He preferred to paint directly from nature, which gave his work freshness and spontaneity.
In his biography, he looked back on those years:
"We were delighted with the surrounding scenery, the wild stretch of the intervales, broken with well-tilled farms, the fields just ripening for the harvest, with the noble elms dotted about in pretty groups…We had seen grander, higher mountains in Switzerland, but not often so much beauty and artistic picturesqueness brought together in one valley."
The following summer he met other artists in the Mount Washington Valley at the Thompson family's Kearsarge House in North Conway. The practice of artists was to board at a hotel or family home where they attracted tourist business. Hotels promoted themselves by promoting artists' residence. That summer, the Thompson family members guided artists to scenic areas. One scene of note was what became known as Thompson Falls, and the artists returned to it time and again to paint it.
Champney contributed to the allure of the Mount Washington Valley. He loved painting there. The scenery in the Mount Washington Valley became a premier destination for many artists who relished the discovery of the once rugged landscape now tamed by skillful, frugal farmers. Artists loved the waterfalls, intervales and mountains of the Mount Washington Valley and returned again and again to Thompson Falls during the summer of 1851.
In 1853 he married Mary Caroline Brooks. After their honeymoon, he purchased a home just south of North Conway village. There he transformed a carpenter's shop into a studio, and for the next fifty years he was the center of the Mount Washington Valley art scene. With his charismatic personality, artists and patrons alike were drawn to him. His studio became a magnet for the aspiring artists whom he mentored. The North Conway Idler wrote: "His studio is always open to visitors, who will carry away with them recollections of one of the most enjoyable places in North Conway."
Champney was also known as a master of painting water, as well as for his use of autumnal colors. A good example is "Intervale, North Conway," which captures the view from North Conway that looks toward Whitehorse and Cathedral Ledges. Champney's most favorite spot in North Conway was Sunset Hill, which looked down at his own house and out across North Conway's intervale. Many of his canvases reflect prosperous farming in harmony with nature and portray America as a nation of small landowners, farmers and tradesmen as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.
Benjamin Champney believed that "Art in this country should become American…[we should] study our own beautiful scenery, our manners, our customs, our history…we could have a national gallery in time, such as would add dignity and renown to our country, and give us honor in the eyes of the older nations…Congress might in time be liberal enough to vote money to begin such a work, and once well begun, such a scheme could not fail of success…Before many years our wise legislators will see that for the glory and honor of their own great republic such a thing must be done."
While Champney's idea did not materialize, he led a long and prosperous career. On Dec. 11, 1907, Champney died in his ornate mansion in Woburn, Mass, His vision of America is one we carry with us in our minds, and reproduce in our present-day landscape.