Art and the natural world

Visions: Landscape paintings and prints from the late 19th and early 20th centuries will be on display at St. John's College.

January 04, 2001|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Artists have been on intimate terms with nature since the earliest drawings of prehistoric animals went up on the walls of caves.

Since then, artists of every generation have continued to explore the natural world and its connection to the expressive soul.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were no exception to this trend, which is the point of "American Landscapes from the Paine Art Center and Gardens," an exhibit of 48 paintings and prints that will be on display at St. John's College's Mitchell Gallery in Annapolis from Tuesday through Feb. 23.

These works, by such luminaries as James McNeill Whistler, George Inness, Winslow Homer and Grant Wood, offer varying moods and takes on the ever-changing connection between the natural world and the artists who study it so intensely to capture its aesthetic messages.

The exhibit, which originated at Paine Art Center in Oshkosh, Wis., reads like a history of mid-19th-century and early-20th-cen- tury American art, which was dominated by tonalism, impressionism and regionalism.

Tonalist artists make up the core of the collection with their penchant for unifying colors, soft accents and poetic tones of light, which combine to set the agenda for their depictions of nature. George Inness' "Spring Morning Near Montclair" shows how subtle tones of light can blur a landscape to create a shimmering, atmospheric scene imbued with the spirit of romantic poetry.

In the early 20th century, impressionism inspired American artists as it did their European counterparts. For impressionists, light entered a painting to create a dreamy, emotional impression of a scene, leaving behind the notion that the function of art was merely to copy nature.

John Costigan's "Woman with Goats" flirts with impressionistic effects, as do the sky, clouds and small dab of a lake in Winslow Homer's 1895 painting "Lake St. John, Canada." But Homer, as usual, does it his own way, for there is nothing blurry or far-off about the gnarled, decaying tree marked by the sign of the cross amid the spiritual desolation of the scene.

Regionalism is also on display, as the artists of the 1930s turn to their parts of the country for inspiration. An opening reception and family-oriented program for "American Landscapes" will be held from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 14 at the gallery. Laurel Spencer Forsythe, curator of the Paine Art Center and Gardens, will present a lecture at 7 p.m. Jan. 17 on "Tonalism, Impressionism, and Regionalism: Highlights of the Paine Collection."

All Mitchell Gallery events are free, but reservations are suggested. Information: 410-626-2556.

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