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The White Mountain Painters

A new exhibit at the Edwards Art Gallery at the Holderness School features 19th Century landscapes of the Lakes Region, Pemigewasset Valley, Franconia Notch, and the North Country.

Stepping into the Edwards Art Gallery is a bit like stepping back outside.   Massive blue skies and lightly ruffled lakes hang in gilt frames on the walls. As show curator Franz Nicolay said at the “West of Washington” exhibit opening, there’s a reason for the familiarity:

Franz:  I am just so thrilled that we have such a wonderful turnout in response to this wonderful gift of visual imagery of our back yard.  This is our back yard and it’s such a delight to be surrounded by it.

Our backyard as painted by some of America’s finest painters.

Jamie LaFleur, owner of the the Banks Gallery in Portsmouth, explains that it was a headline grabbing disaster in 1826 that first brought Hudson River painters Thomas Cole and Henry Cheever Pratt to the area:

LaFleur:  What started it all was the Willey Slide, which was a mudslide that occurred up in Crawford Notch, a slide that killed a family in the Willey House and that became an event that made news all over the United States and Europe and that began to draw folks up to the region to see this wilderness.

In his diary entry of October 6, 1828, Thomas Cole wrote, "The site of the Willey House, with its little patch of green in the gloomy desolation, very naturally recalled to mind the horrors of the night when the whole family perished beneath an avalanche of rocks and earth."

For fifty or years or so the landscapes of Cole and Champney and  others were much in demand.  But as tastes shifted from realism to impressionism at the turn of the century, many of the White Mountain artists were forgotten and died in relative obscurity as Andy McLane, who provided the works featured in the show, describes:

Andy:  So the Hudson River School style kind of went out of favor.  New painters weren’t learning to paint in that style, they were painting in the impressionist style.  But there are students now who are interested in the more traditional style of painting.  Learning to paint the way it was taught in Europe in the 1800’s…

Emilie Lee, a 1999 graduate of Holderness School, who assisted with the exhibition opening, is just such an artist:

Emilie: What most people don’t realize is that the education that these artists had is no longer taught in art schools today.  So I’ve had to search long and hard to find teachers who could teach me the kind of skills that I could paint like this.

Learning the traditional methods and painting in a bygone style might seem like a form of nostalgia, but really it’s just a way forward for artists like Emilie:

Emilie:  I was searching for a way to really give the viewer the experience of being in the place.  I can’t think of anything more powerful to make art about.

It’s this desire to convey the living landscape that connects Emilie to 19th Century artists like John Kensett and Benjamin Champney.

Emilie:  You know, sitting still for 4 or 5 hours in one spot studying a tree…is…I never thought it could be such an exciting experience.  And when I’m sitting there, I realize how alive the forest is around me and I think that one little painting that takes 4 or 5 hours of complete focus is filled with life because you’re sitting there experiencing the living forest around you.

And that’s what’s on display on the walls of the Edwards Art Gallery.  The living forests and mountains and lakes and rivers and fields of New Hampshire.  Our own backyard from 150 years ago, still alive today.

“West of Washington” will be on exhibit at Holderness School’s Edwards Art Gallery through May 27.

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