White Mountain art exhibit turns gaze to art that shaped NH tourism
It was an earlier era’s version of going viral.
Soon after John Frederick Kensett created a dramatic painting of the White Mountains, the image swept the country, not only putting New Hampshire on the map but also preserving a poignant rural view of life in a swiftly industrializing nation.
“Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway” is considered the most famous New England landscape of the 19th century, and its associated school of art and expression have become an enduring advertisement for the Granite State, whose tourism industry today still celebrates the balance of natural and cultural resources.
“Canvassing the White Mountains: Icons of Place,” on view from Saturday through Sept. 12 at the Historical Society of Cheshire County in Keene, traces that pivotal journey with more than 40 historic paintings by landscape artists including Benjamin Champney, Alfred Bricher, Asher Durand, John Enneking, Alvan Fisher, John Ross Key, Willard Metcalf and William Paskell.
“The exhibit will share how the painting styles of these artists illustrate not only the evolution of American art, but also how they helped to shape the American view of and reaction to wilderness and nature,” said Alan Rumrill, the historical society’s executive director, of pieces from the 1800s through the early 1900s. “(The exhibition conveys) how the work of the artists impacted the growth and development of the White Mountain region.”
Evolution of Art
In the summer of 1850 three young American artists “discovered” North Conway Village in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Kensett, Champney and John Casilear were drawn there by the work of earlier landscape artists who strove to capture the grandeur of the mountains and countryside.
“Champney, a native of New Ipswich who had previously painted a ‘View of Keene, N.H.’ in his home region, described the village and surrounding landscape as the most beautiful place on Earth,” said Rick Swanson, development director at the historical society.
Drawing a Response
These White Mountain Art painters, many in residence at hotels such as the Profile House in Franconia Notch, Crawford House in Crawford Notch and Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, were among the first marketers of New Hampshire in an age of railroads and resort hotels.
“Their work reflected romantic sensibilities of wilderness, beauty and spirituality, which echoed the work of writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau,” according to exhibition literature.
In particular, Kensett’s 40-inch by 60-inch painting of Mount Washington served as a catalyst in extending the artists’ admiration of the Granite State through the United States. The painting, representing man and nature living in harmony, sold immediately. But it also was copied that same year by a skilled engraver named James Smillie. Copies of that engraving were distributed nationwide to 13,500 members of the American Art Union. Many others subsequently copied the painting or visited the area to paint their own versions, from Sunset Hill overlooking the town. Within 10 years Currier & Ives gave even wider distribution to its own rendition of this same iconic view of the village and its intervale, all crowned by the distant summit, exhibit officials said.
“There are several fascinating sub-stories to the overall tale, but the main point relates to nature, art and tourism,” Rumrill said. “When we think of the White Mountains, we often picture photographic images of the region’s dramatic landscape. The impact of that natural landscape was difficult to convey in words before the widespread use of photography, however.
“The early artists who worked in the White Mountains and the Monadnock Region in the 19th century served to illustrate the beauty and drama of the area for the American people,” he said. “Their paintings were the first PR for New Hampshire’s peaceful yet breathtaking forests and mountains. Their work was essential to the creation of the state’s tourist industry, and the natural landscape continues to draw tourists to New Hampshire today. The canvasses of America’s first wilderness vacation destination actually played a major role in shaping the nation’s view of wilderness and nature.”
That sense of beauty and drama stretched across the United States, luring people who wanted to experience those views to New Hampshire. Kensett’s painting became an icon of American art, and Mount Washington itself became an icon of nature in a time when a developing nation was shifting its collective gaze from agriculture to manufacturing. Kensett’s original work is at the Wellesley College Museum of Art in Massachusetts; several noteworthy copies of the painting — which serve to highlight curators’ focus on the influence such early works had on other artists and communities throughout the country — will be on display in the Cheshire County exhibit.
“Kensett’s work was one of the most important landscape paintings of the period,” Rumrill said of the oft-copied image. “Thousands of Americans owned a representation of this piece, thereby introducing the natural beauty of the White Mountains to a large audience.”
Another mountain far to the south of Mount Washington also became a geographic icon for the region that now bears its name — the Monadnock Region. This was a focal point for artists, writers and tourists by the mid-19th century. Monadnock itself was soon the subject of hundreds of paintings by well-known artists, some of whom were the same artists who were working in the White Mountains. In fact, the town of Dublin at the base of Monadnock became the site of a celebrated art colony.
So, while the historical society show specifically spotlights the White Mountain school of art, it also will include important paintings of the iconic mountain of southwest New Hampshire, as a means of contrasting and comparing 19th- and early 20th-century art and history of these two distinct areas of the Granite State, show officials said.
“The paintings are visually stunning, but they also express fascinating commentaries on settlement, adventure, agriculture, industrialization, tourism, natural history and conservation as seen through the eyes of the painters,” Swanson said. “Their work had a major impact on American Art and New Hampshire history.”
“Canvassing the White Mountains: Icons of Place” marks the first time in more than two decades that a detailed exhibit of White Mountain art has been mounted in the Monadnock Region. Rumrill said most of the artwork is an anonymous loan from a couple residing outside the Monadnock Region, as well as pieces from a few other unnamed collectors and museums.
“The artists’ celebration of the state’s natural beauty has endured because the natural beauty itself has endured,” Rumrill said. “The landscape paintings were inspiration for the strong history of land conservation in New Hampshire. Those who worried that the state might lose its natural character simply had to point to these artworks to prove how important natural spaces were to the state, its residents and its economy.
“Huge tracts of the White Mountain region (are) now preserved as a national forest and Mt. Monadnock is preserved as a state park,” he said. “These are just two of thousands of parcels in the state that have been conserved for the enjoyment of the public, confirming the enduring importance of the work of the landscape artists.”
The historical society is located at 246 Main St., Keene. For more information, call 352-1895 or visit www.hsccnh.org.