Monday, May 22, 2017

Thomas Cole Drawing at Princeton & Burchfield Drawings in Buffalo

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Last weekend I did some time traveling. Or so it seemed. 

I took a trip with the Baltimore Museum of Art's Prints, Drawings and Photographs Society to the Princeton University Art Museum. Upon entering the Museum's galleries I fell almost immediately into an unassuming drawing by one of the great old masters of American painting, Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. Titled simply Rocks, Trees, and Dog, Cole made it out probably while out on one of his nature hikes in 1846, just two years before his untimely death. 

As I looked at it I had the sensation that old as it was, it could have been drawn by Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893- 1967) whose drawings I've been studying the last couple of years in the Archives at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. 

Modest as Cole's drawing is in scale, it has a lot to say-playing eloquently with themes of solidity and permanence v.s. forms that are delicate, and almost immaterial. Best of all he makes both of these qualities seem equally important and mutually dependent on each other. 




Charles Burchfield, untitled, 1915, ink and graphite, Burchfield
Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY


Burchfield had the spirit of early 20th century modernism in his bones. Yet he shared with his predecessor Cole a deep love of wandering through the forest and recording his delights and discoveries. Both of these artists drew with a sharp eye and a palpable love for the forms of the natural world. 


Charles Burchfield, Study for the White Wings of September,
conte, circa 1960, Burchfield Penney Art Center



It's surprising how similar the feeling of these drawings can be, made as they are by artists so separated by time. 

There is an intriguing thread of continuity that runs through American landscape painting. Each generation of sees a little differently. And each has their own particular contribution to make to that long chain of art. I imagine art history like a beaded necklace that winds its way through time. Each artist adds their own take on what it looks and feels like to be alive in their time.  Some of those "beads" shine a little more brightly than others. And sometimes the light from one ends up reflecting on another's contribution from far later on in the chain. The jewels of drawing made by Cole and Burchfield can shine with a special luster. 



Charles Burchfield, Thistles, charcoal, 1961, Burchfield Penney
Art Center

P.S. This wasn't my first trip to the Princeton Art Museum as I have a family connection through my dad's brother. My uncle Robert A. Koch was an art historian at Princeton for many years. His specialty was Northern Renaissance painting and prints. In 1949 he was appointed Assistant Director of the Museum and later served as the faculty curator of prints. He retired from Princeton in 1990.



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