Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Paintings

Hanging behind the main desk at the Conway New Hampshire 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 seen below 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 is not.
Almost double the size and much more dramatic, the Cole painting is arguably the most famous example of White Mountain Art. Since at least 1969, the Cole painting has been 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. FMI on the painting's interpretation at the National Gallery of Art see this link here.
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.” Similar mistakes have been made by curators from Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

All of these scholars are wrong.

Even a quick and cursory comparison of the two paintings clearly reveals they do depict the same place. The topography is strikingly different as can been seen from the shapes of the mountain and the heights of the ridges in relation to the size and shapes of 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.
Both sites can be easily visited today. You can get directions and more details on the history of these sites on your cell phone or computer through app. 
For the Thomas Cole view here and for the actual site of the Willey Slide here.  
You can also 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 doctoral degrees and extensive credentials. However, the differences are well known to New Hampshire's many hikers and White Mountain Art enthusiasts.
While the point should be clearly settled on the topography alone, this conclusion is strengthened when cross referenced and approached from a number of other academic disciplines including architecture, botany, cartography, geology, photography, and even meteorology. 
The site of the Willey slide is clearly marked by a plaque.
There is also a small museum nearby 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. 

Some have suggested that perhaps Thomas Cole did not know where the Willey Slide actually happened and unwittingly painted the wrong location when he intended to refer to the story of the Willey Slide.

However a treasure trove of Cole sketches with his notations now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts proves different.  

Cole's 1828 sketch below 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 and many other photographs 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 traveling 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.

FMI on this sketch see the link 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.

FMI on this 1841 photograph at the Art Institute of Chicago see here. Note for this blog I have flipped the image horizontally and lightened up the image. 

Note the cut and "blasted" tree stumps and the standing dead trees in the photos, the sketches and the Cole painting (click on images to enlarge them).

Here is another view showing the front of the barn from the Getty Museum with tree stumps around the barn and standing dead trees in the background.

 FMI on this photo see this link here

The Cole view was well known to artists and writers before and after Cole's first visit in 1827. FMI see the White Mountain Art website here and White Mountain artist and guidebook prints here.

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 Conway New Hampshire Public Library's Henney History Room.
As we say in New Hampshire “live free and study art.”

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