There are many different paths to approach a work of art on the way to understanding and appreciating it. For example, I recently used the seasonal color in this image in a previous blog here to celebrate the first day of autumn and to serve as a starting point for an interpretive guide for a display at the entrance to the Conway Public Library, which in turn is designed to stimulate interest in the library's Henney History Room collection.
I did not know at the time that this painting would soon be on display within driving distance of the Conway Public Library at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, but only through November 29, 2020. It is usually found at it's home at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City.
For this blog we will move from the background landscape to the figure in the foreground. Art historians and critics often speculate on the actions and emotions of the characters in the scene. Has the man in the painting reached his goal and is now enjoying the prospect at the top of a mountain? Or is he starting a journey and facing a fork in the trail? In this case the evidence is inconclusive.
In this blog we will look at only four of the many items on display in this fabulous exhibit.
This first one above embodies the spirit of many a White Mountain place, but can not be tied to a specific site in the White Mountains.
The second depicts a place known to be in the White Mountains, but there is some controversy about its exact location.
The third is a scene that started in the White Mountains and then taken out of it's place.
The fourth is a scene "re-placed" into the White Mountains.
If you click on the image to enlarge it, you can see the first painting is signed and dated at the bottom right: Winslow Homer/Oct 10th 1873.
Now I invite you to look at this image in a number of different ways. It seems to me that this painting captures the essence of time. Notice how the paint and brush strokes record the elusive nature of the moment. It is like action frozen in time on the canvas. The seasonal subject can also be taken as a metaphor for the changes taking place during this state of transition, from its bright autumn tints to the green leaves by his feet and the evergreens around his head.
As part of the exhibit, the Portland Museum of Art website invited people with different backgrounds to comment on the art. The description for this painting was done by a working artist and can be found here. In discussing the artworks composition, he points out that "The brim of the hat, the horizon, the tree branch, the figure’s leg, are all on a descending slant. The knapsack goes the other direction. I keep putting it into a metaphor of personal baggage that pulls us and holds us back. The figure is in the center of the frame, halfway in between where we are going and where we came from."
My White Mountain art friends and I are often to be found tramping around looking to tie an artwork to a specific place. This one defies a definite location. There just are not enough clues to be specific. However, it is a great image to capture one's sense of exploration as well as the autumn season.
Another way to look at this artwork is to examine the clothing and gear that the man has. It would be unusual today to see a hiker with a long sleeve white shirt, a suit coat, dress slacks and a hat like that. The knapsack is old fashioned.
The history of outdoor gear guides us to another timely event that took place the day after I originally posted this blog, Thursday, October 15. The zoom program was recorded and can now found at this link.
The program In Their Words: Historical Hiking
Journals and hear the voices of hikers from the 1910s and 1920s, was presented by Appalachian Mountain Club
Archivist, Becky Fullerton, who works at the archives in Crawford Notch.
Becky is a self-professed history nerd, a trail runner and White Mountains landscape painter. She is also a historian of outdoor gear and was featured in the current (Summer/Fall 2020) issue of the Mount Washington Valley Vibe magazine (p. 44). You can read it here.
Now, let's take a virtual hike to the Portland Museum of Art exhibit starting here.
Using the virtual navigation tools we can enter the exhibit and make our way to the painting we have explored above. We can click on the caption icon and read the community contributor's description.
Let's focus again on the knapsack in the painting.
We can then use the way finding tools on the exhibit's website to find another Winslow Homer depiction of another knapsack on display in the painting Artists Sketching in the White Mountains.
You can see the knapsack in the lower left of the painting with the name "Homer" on it.
Here is a detail of it.
Below and to the left of the knapsack the painting is labeled "White Mts" and dated 1868.
There is some controversy among art historians about the exact location of this viewpoint in the White Mountains. One prominent scholar says it was a mountain top, another a valley.
I believe the true answer is in the middle. I believe that it is a hill, specifically Conway's Sunset Hill, now the site of the Red Jacket Hotel. You can see Chocorua and the Three Sisters towards the left of the painting.
A sketch used in developing the painting can be found at the Cooper Hewitt Museum here.
Note there is no knapsack in the original sketch.
Displayed next to the painting is a print related to the painting. It features a young lady admiring either the art or the artist, or perhaps both?
Here is a detail of the print. You can see the knapsack in the lower right of the image.
While the print maintains many of the elements seen in the painting, the background landscape has changed and it is no longer recognizable as a specific White Mountain location. It has been taken out of it's previous cartographic context.
To the left of the print is the next Homer we will explore with ties to the Mount Washington Valley.
The painting A Mountain Climber Resting can also be read for its imagery of outdoor gear.
Again can look at the gear, clothes, spats, hat, pipe, and walking stick. Unfortunately, this climber seems to have forgotten his knapsack.
The exhibit website takes an very interesting approach to this painting, using a perspective I would never have considered, relating it to a Civil War veteran. You can read it here.
However, I associate it with hiking Mount Washington as you will see. However, there is no river that can be seen like that near the summit in this painting, nor in the original sketch from which the painting is based.
The sketch is at Cooper Hewitt Museum and can be seen here.
My viewpoint comes from a print in which Homer or an engraver combined the climber figure with others and placed them in a print that is clearly the summit of Mount Washington.
If you drill down into the print, note the building in the background held down with chains.
Upon closer inspection, the name "Tip-Top House" can be read.
Our family recently visited the summit and the somewhat altered Tip Top House is still there.
For the next chapter of the story let's look at the landscape behind the Tip Top House.
Notice the small figures on horseback across the felsenmeer, a German based geological term for "sea of rock."
The character in the back of the herd bears a striking resemblance to another of Homer's work, The Bridle Path.
There are a number of preparatory sketches for this and a related painting scattered across the country. Here are some examples. It is interesting to see how Homer make changes as he developed his ideas.
A number of scholars have suggested Homer was playing on the homophone title: bridle path (path for horses) and bridal path (leading to marriage).
While we were there this past weekend, we happened to catch a young woman (bride to be) proposing marriage at the summit of Mount Washington. Notice the cairn behind the couple. We found it interesting that the groom to be is a geologist and the young women is a marine biologist.
While it is of course, up to them, we understand that while the couple currently live in Florida, they may get married in the White Mountains. Perhaps they will incorporate a traditional means of transportation used in the White Mountains for their wedding such as this seen in Homer's Mountain Wagon. A number of these can be seen in museums around the area.