A Personal Ode to the White Mountain School of Art
More than 400 artists are known to have painted in the White Mountains during the 19th century.
My own relationship with the paintings of the White Mountain School of Art dates back to my college years, when — as a forestry student at the University of New Hampshire’s former Forestry Camp at Passaconaway out on the Kancamagus Highway — I was introduced to the region’s local lore by a retired UNH professor, Dr. Clark Stevens.
I remember listening to Doc Stevens one early evening in July 1964, during the first week of Forestry Camp, in what would prove to be the last UNH session ever to be held there at the old, now no-longer-standing hotel.
The thickly-northern New Hampshire-, Colebrook-accented Doc was, at the time, a professor emeritus of the forestry program, and had been introduced for this post dinner-time musing, held on the building’s screened side-porch, to discuss the colorful legends and lore of the Albany Intervale — where the old hotel still stood.
Doc related several tales, and then began speaking of an offshoot of the Hudson River School of landscape art, those famous American painters who had emphasized the sublime, and always attracted my attention as a naturalist.
As I heard the names of Asher Durand and Thomas Cole, I recognized them as prominent artists in that period, like Frederic Church was.
I loved their paintings whenever I saw them in coffee table books, wondering how anyone could catch such luminosity. Their dramatic works on nature were grand and imposing, magnificent in their earthiness.
However, Doc was stating that these three great men of that time had visited this region of New Hampshire themselves and painted here!
Dr. Stevens was now saying that a particular local painter was pretty good, and even had some nearby waterfalls named after him:
He said that Benjamin Champney (1817-1907) had studied in Europe, and painted elsewhere. He had known some of the great masters of the Hudson River School, and then returned back to the White Mountains to paint their scenic beauty here.
I was hearing that he brought several others with him here, too, and while many were not quite as good, there were quite a few of these local artists around for a while. This was getting interesting!
They collectively became known as the White Mountain School of Art, and hung out on the lawns of the great hotels of this period. Long-bearded, and in frock coats, they cast quite a spell themselves.
Apparently, it was prestigious to have any of these artists in residence on the grounds, or at least appearing there enough times to be significant. They painted the same scenes repeatedly, and their welcomed easels and white umbrellas would be placed in mountain meadows for the guests to watch as they produced small works to be brought home for mementos of a summer vacation in these mountains.
(Today, tourists would buy postcards, place mats, computer pads or laser-enhanced photos for the same reasons.)
Many of the old artists’ oil paintings wound up eventually in Massachusetts attics.
Obviously, some were not much better than tourist mementos, and would not stay on the walls of a family home longer than a generation. They would only serve as a memory of a good time for the family in the New Hampshire hills.
But in addition to these, there were many great works done during that era, before the turn of the century in this region, that were significant and now reside in major art museums across the nation — some as far away as San Francisco.
I WOULD NOT FORGET DOC'S LECTURE OVER TIME, and wondered when some of these works might surface, after creating such a legend.
It seemed that much of the White Mountains’ history was destined to remain oral, perhaps even fading away once colorful characters like Dr. Clark Stevens had passed on.
This was an anxiety for some time, but now many authors and authorities have come forth to celebrate this period of time, and the artistic works that evolved with it.
One of the first chances I had to witness some of these oils was in the showroom of the late Bob Goldberg, an antiques dealer and Old Town canoe salesman and renter in North Conway.
Whitewater rentals had made him the “Canoe King of New England,” by his own description. On the walls overlooking the canoes were genuine, and very antique, oil paintings showing life in the local environs of the Conways.
I mentioned to him that I knew something of the old artists of the White Mountain School, and he quickly came back with, in his always grumbling voice, “I know, and that’s them!”
I was aghast that they had come to this end, but he had collected them consistently as a hobby, not willing to ever pass one up ever, no matter what it’s quality.
I recalled the name of Benjamin Champney, and he called out, “That’s one of his right there!”
I moved over and peered at it, and while it was no great piece of work, it certainly was better than anything else in the store. So, these old local artworks were being saved after all, even in this rudimentary form of a collection!
YEARS WOULD PASS, AND OTHER ENTHUSIASTS WOULD APPEAR, and small paintings began resurfacing from old Massachusetts homes and families.
It was hard at times to get excited about some of these amateurish oils, but there they were, and there were a lot more to surface over time.
In time, several academics became interested in the subject and this lent credibility to the whole enterprise.
Exhibitions began occurring and experts developed knowledge of the works and their place in the art history of the region.
Newspaper articles and showcasings of the old works helped to spread the image of these finds, and those people enthusiastic about the White Mountain School.
These old guys who had painted for a living in these northern Appalachian valleys were finally getting credit for their artistic creativity, when there was no other medium around to capture the forested summits, and riverine meadows with bucolic cows lapping the Saco’s water.
Leading the charge was Robert L. McGrath, Dartmouth College professor of art history.
McGrath wrote a wonderful foreword to Catherine Crawford’s book, “New Hampshire Scenery,” published in 1985. Written for the N.H. Historical Society, Crawford collected the titles of all the known works and their present location. (She admitted there was probably a lot more out there than ever could be cataloged.)
McGrath published his own book in 2001, “Gods in Granite: The Art of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.”
McGrath used Albert Bierstadt’s famous painting of North Moat Mountain for the jacket illustration, and this oil measuring 19-1/4 inches by 25-7/8 inches can be seen at the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester.
Bierstadt’s wonderful painting tipped me off that the greatest artists of the Hudson River School not only visited here, chumming with the local artists that we know about, but that they also produced some prestigious works of their own while in what is known today as the Mt. Washington Valley.
Crawford’s and McGrath’s books tell of these paintings and where they can be found across the country.
I must say that it at once saddens me and gladdens me to know that so many of these works have left the area and that to see them, one would have to travel a considerable distance across the United States, visiting the best museums in the country in the process. But more on this later ...
AS MCGRATH AND OTHER ART HISTORIANS NOTE, painting the great American wilderness coincided with also simultaneously losing the fear of it. The cultural geography of the country changed from hostility to worship of the natural environs itself.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains just happened to be the closest and accessible, terrifying wild lands for urbanite painters to capture — during the moment when they thought they could see God’s works in nature.
The national character had defined itself by its embracing relationship with an untamed land precisely at the period where artists thought they could express the beautiful forests and viewpoints well on canvas.
There was a physical and cultural repertoire to be played out, in the most Romantic tradition of the times.
Countless essays and poems appropriately gushed out, as learned, cultured men looked out over the beauty of these northern Appalachian hills and exclaimed with creative gusto, showing off educated development in their personal lives as they did.
It was seen as the mark of an intellectually arrived being, and was definitely in vogue.
Thus marched in the first era of tourism in the White Mountains, and huge hotels would spring up and summer vacationers were to be welcomed to the old farmhouses throughout the area during the mid- to late-1800s.
Thomas Cole first checked out the mountains during the summer and fall seasons in 1827 and 1828 to begin this time of religious, artistic affection in northern New Hampshire.
Alluring motifs of angst were considerably available for this landscape painting, and fit well with the developing Romantic tradition that was contemporary for New Yorkers and Bostonians.
New Hampshire became a magnetic pole for these themes, and science followed in a related manner, also seeing the works of the Creator in the White Mountains’ alpine flora and geology.
Science and theology merged nicely in revering the finds of academics in the high mountain range, and imbued fact and reverence to institute much of the recreational ethic we find ourselves involved with today.
The popular perception of the White Mountains owes much to these early artists and scientists who have so many of the peaks and features named for them in the Appalachian Mountain Club guidebook.
Agassiz, Tuckerman, Boot, Bigelow, and Oakes are all saluted in McGrath’s testimony to these New England academics who addressed their findings and sentiments in the period before the Civil War.
The area sustained much intense, influential and visual glossing for a few decades, even following the War between the States, drawing tourists to the same natural features we wonder at today in New Hampshire’s state parks and within the national forest.
However, these landmarks and oddities were then regarded with Christianized awe at God’s works upon his earth, to be contemplated and mythologized over.
The artists painted their works for Protestant America, even if today we do not recognize such overtures of religious sensibility.
AT THE CLOSE OF THE CENTURY, wider appreciation of nature in western North America had left the White Mountains in its wake. Zealous sublimity had been replaced by a commonplace accord for the same Eastern scenery so complexly regarded in the 1840s and 1850s.
The heyday of this special art culture was replaced by French Impressionism and the Barbizon school as a style.
Other areas of the globe were to be artistically discovered, too, as exploration expanded, while the advent of photography spelled doom for the tourist trade of painted mementos.
Some of the most renowned painters of this time actually died in bankruptcy, as the public moved on to other art. Their magnificent works were often disposed of by museums, and even derided.
For many decades, their remarkable canvasses were all but forgotten as the stimulus for discovering the unfolding New World receded by its own success. A landscape school of painting that had matured in one generation was hardly in anyone’s mind by the turn of the modern century, and little appreciated again until very recently.
Mr. Goldberg’s collection went to Dartmouth College following his death. But there is hope that a permanent home for the White Mountain School of Art paintings may come to fruition in the Valley some time in the future — a goal that is shared by groups such as the Jackson Historical Society, the Mt. Washington Valley Arts Association, and the Conway Historical Society’s Salyards Museum.
As they did in the 19th century in the first wave of tourism, the paintings would be a draw for the region, as this weekend’s show will no doubt well illustrate.
Somehow, I just know that Doc Stevens would be proud to see the reception these works of art are now receiving ... s
Editor’s note: For more on the White Mountain School of Art, go to www.whitemountainart.com/History