Fleeting Autumns, Captured on Canvas

by Sylviane Gold New York Times Regional Edition, November 21, 2010

Arriving at the Hudson River Museum on a golden afternoon about a week ago, I felt compelled to pull out my cellphone and take a picture. Right above my parked car, vivid scarlet branches were overlapped with chromium yellow ones, backed by a pure-blue sky; the colors seemed to insist on being noticed and recorded before the winter — or the next rainstorm — erased them.

Albert Bierstadt must have had much the same sense in 1886, looking at a river view near Waterville, N.Y., where he painted “Autumn Woods”: there are those tomato-and-lemon trees, there is that sky, and, in the foreground, red leaves blown from the branches dotting the calm, dark water. Frederic Church felt the pull in 1856, and painted an orange canopy in “Autumn Landscape, Vermont.” Jasper Cropsey succumbed just north of the museum, around 1891 — the evidence is “View at Hastings-on-Hudson,” with its coral clouds faintly echoing the brilliant foliage below.

But unlike the crude little image now preserved in my cellphone, these paintings, along with the 100 or so others in the museum’s current show, “Paintbox Leaves: Autumnal Inspiration From Cole to Wyeth,” do more than simply fix a fleeting phenomenon.

There are moody gathering storms to counter every explosion of color. Plumes of smoke from steamboats challenge the vast stretches of primeval wilderness. Yes, children romp happily among the fallen leaves, but there are also sullen, enigmatic adults staring out at their own mortality. The 81 artists represented in this show, with works spanning the period between the early part of the 19th century and the opening decade of our own, are not just snapping pictures.

For many of them, the grand vistas represent the greatness of the American idea, the national energy that was systematically taming the wilderness. At a distance, Cropsey’s gorgeous panorama looks like a glowing natural paradise. But draw a bit closer and you see farm buildings clustered on the riverbank, and boats plying the Hudson under sail and steam. The human activity that will result in the Hastings-on-Hudson we know today is clearly in evidence.

The Kaaterskill Clove, on the other side of the Hudson, was already a tourist attraction around 1827, when Thomas Cole painted a looming storm darkening its colored hills in “The Clove, Catskills.” But he chose not to see civilization on the move; in this image, which has been turned into the exhibition’s calling card, he shows us the sublime power of nature having its way with gnarled, windswept trees and weathered crags. The little fall of water slicing through the rocks in the picture’s foreground provides a kind of miniaturized rendition of the force that shaped the magnificent valley in the background.

Some of the artists in “Paintbox Leaves” are even more consciously mythologizing the past, as Grandma Moses did in the 1959 “Pumpkins,” with its horse-drawn hay wagon and three figures threshing wheat on the barn floor. If not for their dress, they could be in a medieval illumination.

Marsden Hartley was born in 1877, just 17 years after Grandma Moses. But his painting “Dogtown,” created in 1931, looks forward rather than back. Using thick black outlines and bold slashes of paint to suggest the shrubs and boulders of this bizarre, abandoned site on Cape Ann, in Massachusetts, he reduces it to almost abstract blocks of color.

The contemporary painters in “Paintbox Leaves” are just as eclectic in their approach to the season. Looking at Andrew Stevovich’s meditative “Autumn Leaves,” from 1987, you wonder whether the title refers to the vegetation in the picture or to the impassive, inscrutable couple on the ground, he asleep, she gazing at the viewer with a rust-colored oak leaf in one hand and an album of green ones in the other. Jack Stuppin’s 2009 painting “Olana Landscape” vibrates with intense color, its blue-streaked tree trunks and electric-yellow foliage an over-the-top homage to the Hudson River painters who first showed the world the fireworks display that takes over the Northeast every autumn and whose works cover the adjacent walls.

With so many competing impulses and styles, “Paintbox Leaves” never quite coalesces into a consistent narrative. But the paintings are as exhilarating as the season that inspired them. In Worthington Whittredge’s 1861 “Portrait of an Artist With an Easel,” a painter works on a canvas in a little clearing in the woods, his auburn beard a match for the foliage. With his too-low stool and his too-low easel, it looks positively painful — nothing like pointing a cellphone at a tree. He might well have returned home that night sorry about the way he spent the day. But you won’t be.

“Paintbox Leaves: Autumnal Inspiration From Cole to Wyeth” is on display at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers through Jan. 16. Information: www.hrm.org or (914) 963-4550.