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White Mountain Painters – Capturing Nature’s Beauty

The Laker - November 1, 2017

By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

Photo – example of scenic painting, artist unknown.

Artists love beauty. Whether in summer or winter, whatever the location, if an artist responds to nature’s landscapes, he or she has a desire to interpret what they see in a creative medium, be it a drawing or painting or photograph.

Over the years, the sweeping grandeur of the White Mountains of New Hampshire have been interpreted in books, poems and by numerous artists. From the mid-1800s, when hiking and travel to rural areas for summer vacations became fashionable, artists have traversed remote country roads and sometimes crude mountain paths to glimpse and set down their visions of the hills via their chosen artistic medium.

Hundreds of painters have visited the White Mountains, but the best known are those of the “White Mountain School.”

These painters may have been visiting the area as early as the 1820s or 30s, when sketches of the hills began to circulate. Soon, two landscape artists, Thomas Doughty and Thomas Cole, traveled to the northern New Hampshire area.

According to Chronicles of the White Mountains by Frederick Wilkinson Kilbourne, Cole chose the foliage-beautiful autumn of 1828 to visit the area with his friend, Henry Cheeves Pratt. The purpose of the trip was to explore the region. Cole must have found the mountains to his liking and inspiration, because a number of beautiful paintings were the result of the visit.

Cole and Pratt climbed Chocorua, a mountain that was to become a favorite of writers and artists. At that time, trails were few and roads primitive. The climb was difficult, according to Cole’s writings. So awed was Cole of the view from Chocorua, he wrote that the scene was too “extended and map like for the canvas”, and it was not for sketches, but rather for “thoughts” that he climbed Chocorua.

Cole walked the mountains and wilderness trails of the White Mountains, impressed by the scope and beauty of the area, in particular of the Great Stone Face (Old Man of the Mountains). He was among the first artists to explore and produce paintings of the northern portion of New Hampshire. His paintings of the mountains were exhibited as far away as at the Royal Academy in London, bringing the remote White Mountains to the larger world.

Perhaps Cole’s paintings and writings of the White Mountains prompted the steady trickle of artists who found their way to the inspirational hills. By the 1850s, A. B. Durand, one of the fathers of the American landscape and a Hudson River School (of art) leader, had visited the White Mountains. According to Chronicle of the White Mountains by Kilbourne, Durand produced many paintings of such areas as North Conway, Campton and Franconia Notch. The paintings have hung in public, as well as private collections.

Because of the number of artists who painted in the White Mountains, some have been forgotten over time. A great source of information about the White Mountains artists was Benjamin Champney, who, in the last years of his life published a memoir of the artists of the area.

Champney died at age 90 in 1907. His first trip to the White Mountains was many years earlier, in 1838, according to Consuming Views: Art and Tourism in the White Mountains, 1850-1900, a publication of the New Hampshire Historical Society. On that early visit, Champney produced sketches of the scenery. After that, he studied in Europe for a number of years.

When he returned to America, Champney was a professional landscape artist. The pull of the majestic White Mountains was still strong, and Champney made another visit to the Saco River/North Conway area in 1850 with two other artists. They lodged with a local resident and made friends in the area. It was a successful trip, and the artists stayed for the entire summer and into the autumn, hiking and sketching among the mountains.

By the following summer, artists were flocking to the northern New Hampshire mountains and when Champney returned, he found other artists already living at the Kearsarge House. The next few years saw the number of artists swell, and by 1855 the hills and fields were populated by men and women sketching and painting all they saw.

After his marriage in the 1850s, Champney acquired a home in the area and made it his permanent summer resident. In his writings, Champney stated that the area was at one time as famous as any European or New York artist’s colony.

Men were not the only ones who came to the White Mountains to capture the scenic beauty. Women, too, ventured to the area and for some of those female painters, it was due to the influence of Champney. He mentored both male and female artists in Boston, and according to a historical catalog for a Museum of the White Mountains exhibit Taking the Lead: Women and the White Mountains by Marcia Schmidt Blaine, one of those artists, Anna C. Freeland, came to Jackson, NH to teach art classes. This was during the 1880s and Anna was a member of the Boston Art Club (Champney also was a member of the club).

Some painters set up residence at White Mountain hotels of choice and became artists in residence during the summer months. Emily Harris Selinger and her husband, Jean Paul, were resident artists at the Glen House and later the Crawford House, according to Taking the Lead.

It must have been an idyllic lifestyle for the artistic couple. The White Mountain Echo in the 1880s reported that Mrs. Selinger painted florals and socialized at her studio at the Glen House “received every afternoon, surrounded by her own beautiful pictures of roses and chrysanthemums.”

The Selingers offered paintings for sale to hotel guests; in an age when photography was in its infancy, there was little to remember a White Mountain vacation except in memory. But when the Selingers arrived on the scene, a guest could purchase paintings of area scenes that the talented couple had captured on canvas.

Not only were the Selinger artists, they also were, according to Consuming Views, at the center of the hotel’s social and literary life. (This was at the Crawford House, where they served as artists in residence after 1894.)

However, other female artists resided and sometimes taught classes at more modest hotels and inns in the area.

Another famous artist, Frank H. Shapleigh of Boston, painted in the White Mountains for about 15 years beginning in the late 1870s. Among his well-known paintings are views of Mount Washington.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art received a painting of the White Mountains, when “Madison and Adams from Randolph Hill” was donated to the museum in 1891. The painting was done by Homer Martin, another artist who summered in the mountains.

Although difficult to imagine from today’s modern viewpoint, during the 1800s the White Mountains still largely unsettled. While there were hamlets and towns, such as Conway, trails and crude roads linked mountain communities. The artists who came to the area during those years had to be prepared physically, as well as emotionally, for life in the wild. Hiking was the primary means of getting to the natural scenes everyone wanted to catch on paper and canvas. That meant not only hiking through miles of wilderness, but also camping out in the forests and seeking lodgings at a rural farm along the way. (Not all were as lucky as the Selingers to serve at artists in residence, with an indoor studio and comfortable lodgings.)

Still, artists continued to come to the mountains for a chance to set down their visions of the beauty around them. They sensed the spirituality of the area, and created an entire culture and method of painting.

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