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Not always lush: Lake George by Martin Johnson Heade.

Deep Waters
By David Brickman

Painting Lake George

The Hyde Collection, through Sept. 11

It’s not unusual for those of us who’ve summered at Lake George to look back nostalgically at the pristine paradise of our youth and decry the twin blots of tourism and development on the lake today. Less usual, perhaps, is the knowledge that these same conflicting sentiments could be traced in paintings of the lake from as far back as the middle 1800s, providing a surprisingly current rendering of the ongoing battle over preservation vs. progress (a la Frankenpine).

With the Hyde Collection’s meticulously researched and organized exhibition Painting Lake George 1774-1900, curator Erin Budis Coe has taken what could easily have been dismissed as a bunch of stuffy old paintings and made them relevant. The show’s 40 or so works come from a diversity of museum and private collections, offering a unique opportunity to compare and contrast them, with informative and insightful text panels to guide visitors through the exhibition’s four thematic sections. It’s a fresh look at some very classic work, accompanied by a nice catalog with good color plates of every picture, and two solid essays.

It is interesting to note that the exhibition was created in relationship to an overall census of 19th-century paintings of Lake George that the Hyde initiated in the 1980s and stepped up as this show took shape. Excluding Sunday painters, the list identifies more than 750 works with a record of having been exhibited and/or sold, representing a tremendous degree of activity and interest in art at Lake George. It is from this vast selection that the curator chose the show.

As could be expected, a lot of the work is by Hudson River school painters: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Jasper F. Cropsey, Sanford R. Gifford and John F. Kensett are the big names among them (Frederic Church’s sole image of Lake George is absent). Other, lesser-known figures in the school are also included, most notably David Johnson, who specialized in the subject and has three excellent examples in the show.

Rightly, a very large Kensett has pride of place at the start of the exhibition. Not only did he virtually make a career of painting the lake (the census lists more than 90 paintings by him alone), he is arguably the most skilled artist represented, and his 1869 Lake George, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is impressive indeed. But even the quite small Landing at Sabbath Day Point, Lake George, c. 1853, is so well painted as to reach out across the gallery and command attention.

This brings to mind a game I found myself playing as I viewed the (frankly) repetitive works in the show. Could I pick the ringers without checking the labels first? Or, in other words, had the art historians gotten it right? Others might tally it differently, but I found that, with few exceptions, the best paintings were by the best-known painters, and the stuff that just didn’t cut it—whether because of insufficient skill, kitschy composition or cloying color—was by names known mainly to art dealers, collectors and scholars.

That said, there are still some surprises. I found the Cole, for example, much weaker than the work of his peers, though this could be explained by the earlier period in which he was working (Cole’s painting predates most of the others by several decades). Conversely, two of the show’s most sublime works are by the lesser-known Franklin Anderson and Homer Dodge Martin; the former vividly renders a commanding private View From Tongue Mountain in mist-shrouded shadow and light, while the latter’s serene study of an orange-tinted bank of low clouds verges on the minimalist.

A favorite subject: Harbor Island, Lake George by David Johnson.

Another game can also be played at the show, by those who know the lake and its mountains and islands particularly well, because the artists often changed the features of the landscapes they painted. A volunteer docent in the gallery took great delight in pointing out to me examples where islands had been added, or where a mountain had been moved to a more picturesque location.

Some of the later work in the show could be classified as American impressionism. Pleasant Day, Lake George, dated 1883, by William Bliss Baker is an outstanding example, with its picnic party of boaters sporting fancy gowns and parasols, and pretty reflections in the rippled water. In a fun modern note, a golden retriever accompanies the group.

Other artists stand out by taking a more unique approach to the standard subject matter, such as Martin Johnson Heade, whose beautifully painted 1862 view shimmers with warm light on a curiously parched landscape—in sharp contrast to the lush verdancy of most of the other paintings in the show.

Atmospherics are a hallmark of Gifford’s work; here, two fine examples represent his particular compositional bravura in capturing the drama of approaching storms. One is identified as a study, though it features nice, crisp details of fleeing boaters. The other is truly a masterpiece, as evidenced not only by its scale and degree of polish, but also by its fantastic, almost sculptural, geometric frame. Not surprisingly, A Coming Storm has been borrowed from a major museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Additional material augments the paintings, including illustrated books; watercolors, etchings and a diary by John Henry Hill, an amateur artist who lived an isolated existence by the lake for many years; and guidebooks and tourists’ collectibles. The finest additions to the show, however, are photographs by the legendary Seneca Ray Stoddard. His albumen prints and stereographs from 1880 to 1890 are good enough to stand with any painting in the show, and they play smartly off the best ones by affirming the almost otherworldly beauty of the lake as captured in the paintings.


-no peripheral vision this week

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