Clark’s Painted Sketch offers array of vibrant, spontaneous landscapes

What is a painted sketch? The title of the Clark Art Institute’s most recent show seems to be an oxymoron if one arrives with the idea that a sketch is a staid pencil drawing, rather than one of the vibrant gems painted in luminous oils that comprise The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880. The exhibit features small field works, painted in oil on pasteboard or other portable panesl by American artists. With subjects ranging from the awe-inspiring pounding surf of the Maine coast to the delicately painted broken columns of the Parthenon, this is a show that merits a visit to the Clark.

Painted sketches during the mid-nineteenth century were generally small, plein-air works with animated brushstrokes completed in a rush before the weather changed or the sun rose to its zenith. These works are distinguished from final paintings by their less refined appearance: the artists’ own strokes are visible, where in final compositions all hint of impasto is replaced with a smooth finish. On location, with an entire panorama in front of them, artists make crucial, preliminary decisions about view, subject matter and time of day.

The painted sketches in the show represent that critical step in the process towards the finished easel painting, forging a visible link between nature and the studio, where the final piece will be carried out.

“The painted sketches should be seen as preliminary works, valued for freshness and immediacy, at the height of artists’ creativity, rather than as the finished result,” said Brian Allen, assistant to the director for curatorial affairs at the Clark. It is precisely this idea that makes the show so interesting: that individual artists had idiosyncratic methods of recording nature.

With landscape painting at the height of its popularity, the painted sketches became coveted items. To some degree they are merely the affordable by-products of the masterpieces they helped create, but they can also be seen as paintings in their own right. “The works represent a change in taste in the 1860s and ’70s. Sketches were valued in part because they were ‘viewer friendly’ and had an intimate, domestic feel, but also for their spontaneity. They were much more approachable than the large-scale, patriotic works,” explains Allen.

The press coverage of artists’ travels, which ranged in length from months to years, also heightened public interest. Allen says, “artists would write back to newspapers and magazines during the journey, trying to dispel the notion of American artists as urbane city dwellers.” They tried to give off a romantic aura, carefully cultivating their personas as intrepid adventurers.

In fact, the hardships should not be taken lightly: these artists braved swarms of insects, hostile Native Americans and long hours in extreme temperatures. Exposed on a mountain top while eyeing a temple at Petra, Jordan, Frederick Edwin Church saw his guide started frantically waving him away: he was in danger of being shot. He moved to safer grounds to quickly dash off View of Ed Deir and later sketched Bedouins in Camp at Night from the secrecy of his tent. Working quickly from a boat traversing encroaching fog and advancing icebergs, Church captures the blues of the ice, sea and sky for Off Iceberg, Newfoundland.

A number of works have been recently conserved, and many insects, which are attracted to the oil paint, had to be removed. Church writes of his time in the White Mountains with mosquitoes and black flies, “This is a very serious obstacle to sketching in the open air: we have found it so, particularly here; and as for confining both hands, as the use of oils would do, it is out of the question, unless you wish to be devoured by these remorseless little winged blood-suckers.”

For traveling to the ends of the earth, artists’ equipment needed to be portable and convenient. One of the exhibition’s highlights is Thomas Cole’s actual sketch box and camp stool. The stool resembles a richly needlepointed folding director’s chair. The box holds palette, paints, brushes, panel or pasteboards and brass fittings to secure wet work. Charmingly, on the inside cover he painted an Italian landscape. Cole wrote of his arduous sketching journeys, “sallying forth with my sketch book or paint box every morning at five and never returning until night.”

Though the landscape painters of this era were in search of inspiration and continually had to go farther afield to find ever more exotic topics, they also filled a scientific role. They took field notes to accompany their sketches, and saw themselves as performing a scientific duty akin to collecting specimens. Allen explains, ”the painted sketches took on a documentary function. For example, artists went out to the American West and sent back images of their findings.”

One sketch that exemplifies this trend is Albert Bierstadt’s View of Chimney Rock, Ogalillah Sioux Village in the Foreground of 1859. This small scale, rapidly executed sketch is just one example of the types of images he created during a survey trip out West. With its low horizon line, the painting emphasizes the vast prairie sky above, but Bierstadt’s interest in the Sioux village below is seen in details like the carefully rendered tent construction. It is a fast painting, but an accurate one.

On display through May 9, The Painted Sketch explains a number of the roles that these artists played; from recorders of the land, to prolific producers of collectable works, to intrepid explorers willing to go to extremes in pursuit of the perfect painted sketch.

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