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Nut Gathering

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Nut Gathering

Artist: Willard Leroy Metcalf (American, 1858 - 1925)

Date: 1922
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 24 x 24 1/4in. (61 x 61.6cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase with Funds from the Charles E. Merrill Trust
Object number: 73.160
Text Entries

Metcalf painted Nut Gathering of c. 1922 from a vantage point high above the little village of Chester, Vermont. The landscape of New England had been his chosen subject for many years, but the tranquility that dwells in this painting and in all his other work masked a despair at the inroads being made, bit by bit, on the countryside by industrial civilization. He continued, however, to give the beauty of New England some permanence by relocating it in his consciousness, that is, in his craft, in his art.

As with many artists of his generation, he found the impressionist aesthetic compatible for it confirmed his bias toward depicting the pleasant in life and conveniently abjured the dramatic, sordid, shocking, or even the too inventive. But even without Impressionism’s implied permission, he would have gone about his pursuit of the landscape, serene and undeterred.

He also shared with many of his colleagues an unsorted out, tossed-around-in-conversation leaning toward pantheism and transcendentalism. But spiritualism was his received and firm faith. He accepted only certain aspects of this widely practiced religion of the nineteenth century, chief among these being a belief in the afterlife called “Summerland,” in which correspondences with this world were to be found, a spinoff of the more esoteric tenets of Sweden-borgianism. Metcalf habitually transformed bright scenes of nature into spiritualistic metaphors of death, which, incidentally, according to his wife Henriette, he contemplated with equanimity. The perfect days and nights on his canvases were a reflection of a journey toward a spiritualist “home” far removed from the imprisoned spiritual calm of the early American Luminists who knew the immanent presence of God.

Despite the painting’s title, the townsfolk gathering nuts receive short shrift and are relegated by Metcalf to a few suggestive, enlivening brushstrokes. His real interest is the tree, or trees. These were unquestionably the artist’s loving obsession. (1) His early sketchbooks, even prior to his apprenticeship under George Loring Brown in the 1870s, reveal drawings of trees consummately “understood,” with no suspicion of textbook formulas? They must have contributed to his reluctance to embrace fully the division-ist technique of the Impressionists for, once committed, it would wrest from him his devotion to closely approximating bark and limb and foliage on canvas. Nonetheless, the tree in Nut Gathering is identifiable as a hickory, despite the nondiscriminated leaves. (At about this time in his life his depiction of foliage was becoming broader, not so picked out and stitched, and would soon relax even further into somewhat blurred effects characteristic of his pictures painted before 1903.)

The recognition of the familiar in this landscape tends to work against an appreciation of Metcalf’s compositional challenges. It is, after all, basically a depiction of two objects, a single, tall tree and its shadow on one side of the canvas, and the branches and shadow of a second on the other. They are potentially adversarial. Why did he not impose three, rather than one, gladiators on the hilltop? (Three objects are more readily composed.) He had chosen his scene after scrutinizing it carefully. Just how did he achieve the strength, clarity, and breadth of effect evident in this unassuming statement of natural beauty?

The intruding branches and their shadows on right canvas are painted in hues of burnt umber, russet, and violet that occur on the color wheel directly across from the warm orange-golds seen in the autumnal hickory tree. They are muted sufficiently to sound no discordant note, but offer a mild challenge to the dominance of the hilltop. Deft midtone touches of yellow ocher and the siennas within the shadows also invite a certain amount of attention. At the same time, relatively even divisions of alternating branch and shadow thrust out and upward, urging the eye to identify the true subject and discover as well that not only is the shape on the right side triangular, but the entity of hilltop and crowning tree is also. The climbing diagonal of the hill provides one side of this triangle and contains the painting’s brightest light-value pattern, overlapped and emphasized by the dark shape on lower right. True, the apex of the light triangle is the hickory tree, whose top branches reach into a hazy blue sky, its lower ones, pendant and contorted, ignoring it. But it is the knoll, painted in high values of green and yellow, that anchors this shape. It is the set piece for its jewel, the tree; the nut gatherers in a way do self-effacing duty as decorative seed pearls, announcing to one and all that dominance belongs justly to the left. The flicks of extreme brightness hovering some- what above the shadows’ edges are also glow-heightening devices, but the contestants must still rely upon the hills in the middle ground and distance for a decisive assist. They contribute a coloristic unity that knits together the two large triangular shapes. Skillful accents appear rhythmically in the cool, dark greens of piney knobs, lending both contrast and the projection of, yes, that third important, humpy, but noncompeting triangle—a small hill, right in the center. Just where it should be.



1. Despite his having produced a number of tree-less landscapes of the New England shore in the American impressionist manner, Metcalf wrote Charles Woodbury in 1912 regarding a summer rental at Ogunquit, Maine, specifying that the cottage must have trees close by for subject matter. Woodbury must not have been able to comply, for Metcalf spent the season at Kittery Point (Woodbury letters, Keeper of the Prints Archive, Boston Public Library).

2. Metcalf Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., reel N70/13. frames 330. 333, 344, 380, 385, and 387: also reel D-105, frame 895.


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