"West of Washington, Between Nature and Time" at Holderness Academy

The most famous paintings produced by the 19th-century White Mountain School of landscape painting have tended to be of the Mount Washington Valley region on the big mountain’s eastern side. A new exhibit opening at Holderness School on April 20—“West of Washington: Between Nature and Time”—will show that paintings and drawings of equal majesty and accomplishment were produced on the other side of the mountain—depictions of stirring places in the Lakes Region, the Pemigewasset Valley, Franconia Notch, and the North Country.

The paintings are on exhibition from P. Andrews McLane and Linda Harper McLane, while Catherine Amidon is the director of the soon-to-open Museum of the White Mountains and author of an essay in the exhibit’s accompanying catalogue.

“These are paintings by artists who defined the visual culture of a new nation,” says Dr. Amidon, “and they worked at a time when the region was transformed from a seldom-visited territory to a tourist haven.”

With landmarks like the Cannon Cliffs, the Franconia Range, and the Old Man of the Mountain, the western side of the White Mountains, adds Dr. Amidon, “was every bit as rich in dramatic formations and visual icons.”

But when the painter Benjamin Champney chose to build first a studio, and then a summer house, in North Conway in 1853, the Eastern Slope became the nexus of artistic activity in the White Mountains. Regional proprietors soon recognized the importance of artists in attracting visitors, and then the artists in turn—painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Champney—made Mount Washington an early destination for the railroad industry, and then thousands of hikers and tourists.

These same artists, however, brought their genius to the western side, especially once a railroad line was completed to Littleton. “Even as the experience became tamer and life at the resorts increasingly removed from the wilderness experience,” says Dr. Amidon, “there remained a desire to project a sense of adventure into a visit to the White Mountains.”

That sense of adventure—of humanity being challenged and dwarfed by the sweep of nature—is vivid in many of the paintings represented in or referred to in the exhibition: breathtaking works by Cole, Bierstadt, Champney, Alfred Thompson Bricher, Edward Hill, David Johnson, Samuel Lancaster Gerry, and many others.

So is the pastoral sensibility that comes to the forefront in paintings such as Champney’s “Haying—Squam Lake from Red Hill”—paintings that serve as moving historical snapshots in the region’s transition from wilderness to something beyond a tourist haven—a homeland.

And if these are paintings not quite as familiar as landscapes of the more frequented Eastern Slope, they are every bit as remarkable, and arguably even more expressive of Americans’ developing relationship to their environment.

“West of Washington” will be on exhibit at Holderness School’s Edwards Art Gallery from April 20 to May 27. There will be an opening reception on Friday, April 20, from 6:30 to 8:00 PM. The public is invited to attend.

The Holderness School is on Route 175 in Holderness. The Edwards and Heide Galleries are open from 9:00-5:00 Monday - Friday; from 9:00-12:00 on Saturday, and by appointment.

For more information call Franz Nicolay at 779-5387. Franz is also available via email at fnicolay@holderness.org.