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Adirondack Ledge

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Adirondack Ledge

Artist: Alexander Helwig Wyant (American, 1836-1892)

Date: 1884
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Framed: 55 3/4 x 46 1/4 x 5 1/2in. (141.6 x 117.5 x 14cm)
Overall: 43 1/4 x 33 1/2in. (109.9 x 85.1cm)
Signed: Lower left: "A.H. Wyant"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 64.146
Label Text
The elaborate decoration on the frame that surrounds Wyant's painting, comprised of leaf, flower, and acanthus motifs, and 18th century ornamental devices, suggests that it was made during the decade of the 1880s, contemporaneous with the painting it surrounds. What is less certain, however, is whether the finish that is now on the frame dates from the same time period, or whether this finish was added sometime during the 20th century.

The two most unusual aspects of this frame are the crusty deposits that were randomly applied over its surface, and the layer of tan, black, and brown paint that was applied over most of its originally gilded surface. There is precedence for this latter decorative practice among the French Impressionists, who reused 18th century frames after stripping off the gilding, or painting over it.1 When the Wyant frame was refinished, care was taken to allow small sections of the molded ornament to remain uncovered, creating a surface that echoes the grays, yellows, and browns of Wyant's paint surface. Whereas frames typically rely on molding shape, ornament, and gilding to enhance the pictures they surround, the surface of this frame is an unusual but nevertheless effective departure from that practice in its use of texture and color to enhance the aesthetic experience of the painting.
Just when this frame was finished in this fashion is not clear. The picture was probably exhibited publicly for the first time at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City in 1904, twelve years after Wyant's death. It was sold to a private collector shortly thereafter and was owned by several other dealers and collectors before it was acquired by the Museum in the 1960s. It is certainly plausible that the frame's present surface was added during any of the instances when the picture changed hands.

Note
1. Matthias Waschek, "Camille Pissarro: From Impressionist Frame to Decorative Object," in Eva Mendgen, In Perfect Harmony: Picture and Frame, 1850-1920 (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 1995), pp. 146-47.

PDS
August 2010

Text Entries

Rocky Ledge, Adirondacks of c. 1884 (1) depicts the awakening of spring in both its choice of colors and its use of paint strokes. The overall impression of the canvas is that of gray tones suggesting the dormancy of winter. The setting is Keene Valley, New York, where the invalid Wyant lived with his wife, Arabella, in the early 1880s.(2) In a geographic area so packed with distinct vistas and unique mountain profiles, Wyant has gone to considerable care to select a site that cannot be immediately situated on a map.(3) Instead, he forces our eye to remain on the picture surface. There is no distant view and little exploration of the sky overhead. We, as viewers, are completely sealed within the wooded ledge before us. The spatial limitation experienced produces an immediate sense of intimacy and forces the viewer to be enveloped in the world of the painting. Once so captured, one’s eye becomes aware of the incredible variety of colors—of ocher, russet, and green-- that Wyant has woven within the overall gray of the painting. As a true tonalist, (4) Wyant recreates the first warming of spring with a very delicate light just breaking through the foliage on the left. In this diffuse light, one spots the short, quick strokes of yellow marking an early spring leafing and the smooth, fluid impasto of a newly rushing stream. Perhaps the most memorable color in this subdued canvas is the emerald green of moist grasses and mosses. Little wonder that when Rocky Ledge, Adirondacks was first exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City, it was singled out for its “lovely early spring effect in tender greens.”(5)

Wyant’s handling of paint in this Keene Valley painting anticipates the sketchiness of surface associated with later American nineteenth-century landscape painters such as John Henry Twachtman.(6) Like Twachtman, he translated the dynamics of nature into a painterly effect. “He [Wyant] is emphatically a painter of wholes, of effects. He looks for, finds and grasps the specific, essential permanent truths of a scene . . . he interprets the beauty of the unseen and the lasting.”(7) Such was the appreciation of Wyant in the decade when Rocky Ledge, Adirondacks was executed, and such it continues to be a century later.

Notes

1. This title appears on a Macbeth Gallery label originally attached to the painting, which is now in the curatorial files of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art. It is the fervent hope of this author that this label was placed on the painting at the time of Macbeth‘s December 1904 exhibition of Wyant‘s paintings. Unfortunately, a catalog for this exhibition has yet to be found. The Utica painting is illustrated in Eliot C. Clark, Sixty Paintings by Alexander H. Wyant (New York: privately printed, 1920), no. 12, f.p. 32 as Adirondack Ledge in the collection of George S. Palmer. The picture can be dated to approximately 1884 on the basis of its very strong similarity in style, subject, and size to A Mountain Brook, Adirondacks (present location unknown), formerly in the collection of the Al- bright-Knox Art Gallery, and which was acquired in 1884. (Letter from Susan Krane, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, to the author, April 1, 1986.) A photograph of the former Buffalo painting is on file at the Frick Art Reference Library, no. 118-22/F.

2. Robert S. Olpin, Alexander Helwig Wyant, 1836-1892, exhibition catalog (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah, 1968). In addition to offering major biographic information on Wyant, Dr. Olpin included the Utica painting in his “Register of Alexander H. Wyant Paintings in American Public Collections,” unpaged.

3. Letter from Peggy O’Brien (author of“Capturing the great North Woods . . . Alexander Wyant 1836-1892,” Adirondack Life, vol. 3 [Spring 1972], pp. 38-41) to the author, April 28, 1986, confirms that “it could be any number of places."

4. See Wanda M. Corn, The Color of Mood: American Tonalism, 1880- 1910, exhibition catalog (San Francisco: M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1972). Dr. Corn included Wyant in her exhibition and essay.

5. Macbeth Gallery Scrapbook, 1902-10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., reel NMC1, frame 54. The Utica picture, which is likely the one mentioned in the Macbeth Gallery’s December 1904 exhibition, was sold by Macbeth to George D. Pratt on May 10, 1905, for six thousand dollars. (Letter from Gwendolyn Owens, H.F. Johnson Museum of Art, to Paul D. Schweizer, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, March 29, 1985.) The source of Ms. Owens’s information is the as yet to be micro-filmed Macbeth Gallery account books. (Letter from Ms. Owens to the author, May 2, 1986.)

6. James L. Yarnall, “John Henry Twachtman,” in Patricia C.F. Mandel, Selection VII: American Paintings from the Museums Collection, c. 1800-1930 (Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 1977). no. 28, PP. 72-74.

7. “Alexander Wyant,” in American Art and American Art Collections, ed. by Walter Montgomery (Boston: E.W. Walker and Company, 1889), pp. 967-68.

 

 

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