Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Paintings

Hanging behind the main desk at the Conway Public Library is a small painting by a relatively unknown artist Charles Codman depicting the scene of a famous avalanche, known as the Willey slide, that occurred in 1826 about thirty miles north of the library. This painting stands silently at the heart of an almost fifty year mystery, a kind of identity theft enacted by the art history establishment.

The Codman painting is a key to breaking the code that hides the truth within another, larger, far more famous, view painted by Thomas Cole now at the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The scene in the Cole painting has long been identified as the location of the Willey slide. But it’s not. Almost double the size and dramatically more colorful, the Cole painting is arguably the most famous example of White Mountain Art.

Since at least 1969 the Cole painting has become incorrectly set into the canon of art history at the nation’s largest and most prominent universities and museums as the definitive interpretation of the Willey slide. Whole chapters have been devoted to explaining the symbolism and meanings of the Cole painting in its supposed telling of the Willey slide story.

Here are some of the erroneous claims that scholars have made about the Cole painting. It has been described by an art historian from Dartmouth as depicting a “Landscape of Terror,” from Wellesley as “a place of tragic destruction,” and from the Smithsonian as a scene of a “catastrophic avalanche.”

All of these scholars are wrong. At this point you may ask, what the Dickens is going on?

Even a quick and cursory comparison of the two paintings clearly reveals they are not of the same place. The topography is strikingly different. This is intuitively obvious to the casual observer simply from the width of the valley floors at the notch, the shapes of the mountain outlines and contours, and the sizes/heights of the surrounding ridges in relation to the buildings depicted in the paintings.

For those familiar with the region, the proper location of the Cole painting can be immediately distinguished by the large elephant head shaped rock formation to the left of the notch. This spot is actually about 2 ½ miles north of where the Willey slide occurred. You can virtually visit these two locations from the comfort of your armchair easily using Google Earth or Google Maps and confirm the clear differences in topography.

While intuitively obvious to the casual observer, these geographical distinctions have not been apparent to the eminent professors of art history with their doctorate degrees and extensive credentials. While the point should be clearly settled on the topography alone as noted above the conclusion is strengthened when cross referenced and approached from a number of other academic disciplines including architecture, botany, cartography, geology, photography, and even meteorology. 
 Both sites can be easily visited today. The site of the Willey slide is marked by a plaque. 
For directions and more details on the history of these sites see app here for the Thomas Cole view and here for the actual site of the Willey Slide.
There is a small museum with artifacts from the family and a history of the event. There is a gift shop, ice cream parlor and restrooms as well as a spacious parking area and many trails to explore in the area. 

Thomas Cole's 1828 sketch below (now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts) clearly shows that he understood the Willey House size and shape and it's relationship to the tall mountains that surrounded it. For more info on this sketch see this link.  

Cole's depiction of the building coincides well with a later post card of the building.

Now let's compare Cole's sketch of the Willey House above with his 1839 sketch of the Notch House below, now in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum. For more information on this sketch see this link.

A similar sketch below was done by Cole's 1839 travelling companion Asher B. Durand. This sketch is from basically the same viewpoint and can be found in the collection of the New York Historical Society here.

Durand's sketched is inscribed at lower right in graphite: "Notch House / White Mts. July 3rd. 1839" 

Here are some details from the sketches.  

The sketches match up quite well with one of the earliest known American photographs by Samuel Bemis. 

The Cole view was well known to artists and writers before and after Cole's first visit in 1827. 

The Bierstadt brothers included the view in a book of stereoviews that they printed. 

This fascinating book had the stereo lenses built into the cover of the book. 

Here again is Cole's painting. 

 Below is a photo of the view from September 25, 2020.

 Ironically, the sketches by Cole and Durand were done in the summer, so in his painting Cole is resetting the story into the autumn.

For more on the subject, contact the Henney History Room of the Conway Public Library.
As we say in New Hampshire “live free and study art.”

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