White Mountain Art & Artists
Revision 2014-07-22
Web site content and research by
John J. Henderson and Roger E. Belson.  Please direct any comments to John J. Henderson


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History

Our history of White Mountain Art and Artists follows the basic outline below.  You can read the history as presented, or use the outline to move to your area of interest.

Early History
Benjamin Champney
The Artists
Mid-Century and the Period of Manifest Destiny
Painting in North Conway, Franconia, and Points North
Characteristics of the Artists
The End of an Era
 

Early History

It was early in the nineteenth century that artists first began to travel to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to paint and sketch.  These early paintings portrayed a dramatic landscape with an emphasis on nature and man's insignificance.  One of these early artists, and the founder of the style of painting that would later be called the "Hudson River School," was Thomas Cole (1801-1848).  His painting, A View of the Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, is perhaps the finest example of these early paintings, if not the finest White Mountain painting ever painted.  Upon his early death in 1848, Cole was eulogized in a funeral oration at the National Academy of Design by his friend, William Cullen Bryant.

Two other early White Mountain painters were Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), of Dedham Massachusetts, and Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), who lived in Boston from 1828 until 1938 and spent his summers in the White Mountains.

Benjamin Champney

It was New Hampshire native Benjamin Champney (1817-1907), however, who is considered by many to be the founder of the "White Mountain School" of painting.  In effect, he established one of America's first artist colonies.  He made his first trip to the White Mountains in 1838 on a summer excursion that was to change the course of his life and career.  In 1853, he bought a home in North Conway and spent the rest of his life painting in the greater Conway area.  It was during this time that the region's resort hotels gained in popularity as major summer attractions for well-to-do city dwellers.

Champney attracted other artists to come to North Conway in the summer to paint.  The area was filled with artists painting "en plein air" under their umbrellas.  In 1855, The Crayon wrote that North Conway had become "the pet valley of our landscape painters.  There are always a dozen or more here during the sketching season, and you can hardly glance over the meadows, in any direction, without seeing one of their white umbrellas shining in the sun."  Winslow Homer depicted these artists in his 1868 painting titled Artists Sketching in the White Mountains.  This painting is now in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art.

In 1858, Champney painted a view of Mount Washington from Sunset Hill which looks down on his own house and backyard, and out across North Conway’s Intervale.  The house still stands today, although the backyard where Champney painted this scene is now the location of North Conway’s Red Jacket Inn.  Looking out across the Intervale, it is easy to imagine why the artists that congregated in North Conway considered this view so picturesque.

The Artists

As an emerging artist in the first half of the 19th century, Champney's style was influenced by America's first native artistic school, the Hudson River School.  Beginning in the 1830s, the landscape painters of the Hudson River School sought to define America and what it was to be an American.  Artists of that time saw themselves as scientists making "documents" that expressed Christian truths and democratic ideals.  The roster of painters visiting and painting in the White Mountains reads like a "Who's Who" of the Hudson River School.  Among those who painted the area's landscapes while maintaining studios in New York City were Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John W. Casilear, John F. Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Jasper F. Cropsey, Aaron Draper Shattuck, David Johnson, Alfred T. Bricher, William Hart, James Hart, Samuel Colman, Albert Bierstadt, and George Inness.

Boston area artists who painted in the White Mountains include Thomas Hill, Edward Hill, William F. Paskell, Alfred T. Ordway, Sylvester Phelps Hodgdon, John White Allen Scott, Francis Seth Frost, and Samuel Lancaster GerryMaine artists who painted in the White Mountains include George McConnell, Delbert Dana Coombs, Harrison Bird Brown, and Frederick A. Butman.  Even artists as far away as Pennsylvania came to paint in the White Mountains.  Their ranks include William Trost Richards, Charles Wilson Knapp, Russell Smith, and Edmund Darch Lewis.

In all, over 400 artists are known to have painted White Mountain views during the 19th century.  A complete list can be found using our Artists Biographies Index.

Most of the artists came to the White Mountains in the summer but returned to their urban studios, or sometimes to warmer climates like Florida, in the winter.  Although winter scenes are not common, a few artists, like Champney, had homes in New Hampshire and would sometimes paint winter scenesFrank Shapleigh had a home in Jackson, New Hampshire and was a prolific painter of New Hampshire scenes, both in summer and winter(Shapleigh usually titled his paintings on the back, leaving first hand documentation of the views in the 1800s.)  Edward Hill is another artist who spent most of his life in New Hampshire and also painted winter scenes

Mid-Century and the Period of Manifest Destiny

By mid-century, painters were flocking to the area, and their works often depicted literal views of the mountains and the unique granite formations within the region.  To view how literal these depictions were, we have provided a number of Photo Comparisons to actual scenes in the White Mountains. 

Many American artists, including Champney, spent some time in Europe.  In a few cases, like George Loring Brown, an artist would spend most of his life in foreign countries, particularly in Europe.  There they depicted life in the city or the suburbs, rather than nature in its raw and undeveloped state, avoiding the earlier Romantic and wild landscapes of the Hudson River School artists.

Back in New Hampshire, however, artists were working during a period of nationalist fervor.  Inspired by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the American public was hungry for national emblems and patriotic expressions.  Using traditional European principles of the picturesque and beautiful, artists of the White Mountains created paintings filled with symbols of an optimistic and expanding nation: the orderly village with a church spire gleaming, farmers gathering produce, boys fishing.  They viewed nature as divine. Unlike their European contemporaries, they did not include crosses or overt symbols in their landscapes; nature itself provided a religious experience.  

The community of artists in the North Conway area attracted tourists.  Soon, during the 1840s, a number of railroads began to approach the White Mountains. During the fifties, the region practically became Boston's backyard. Grand hotels and railroads grew simultaneously and synergistically.  The railroad made it possible to ascend Mt. Washington without climbing, via a cog railroad celebrated as a grand technological achievement.  These developments began to overshadow the White Mountain artists' picturesque agrarian paradise, where contemplation had been more important than action. The next decade brought more tourists and artists.  During the early 1860s, the works of those artists gave little hint of the Civil War taking place to the south.

Painting in North Conway, Franconia, and Points North

A favorite spot for viewing and painting Mount Washington was Sunset Hill, now the site of a hotel called the Red Jacket Inn.  The view today from the Red Jacket Inn is obscured by trees as well as commercial development.  In 1851, John F. Kensett painted a monumental canvas of this scene titled Mount Washington from the Valley of ConwayIt was purchased by the American  Art Union and made into a  print which was distributed to 13,000 subscribers throughout the country.   Many artists painted copies of this scene from the print and Currier and Ives made a similar print.  The view has become an icon of White Mountain art.  Other frequently painted views in the general Conway area included Moat Mountain, Mount Kearsarge, Mount Chocorua, Pinkham Notch, and Crawford Notch.

Many artists went to the Franconia Notch region of the White Mountains to paint.  A rivalry developed between the Franconia artists and the North Conway artists.  Each faction believed that their location had the most beautiful view of the mountains.  In the Franconia region, artists painted Mount Lafayette, Franconia Notch, Eagle Cliff, and, New Hampshire's favorite icon, The Old Man of the Mountain.  Water was a favorite subject.  Two small lakes in the Notch - Echo Lake and Profile Lake - were subjects, as well as The Flume and other waterfalls in the area.

Fewer artists painted in the area north of the Presidential Range.  Those who did, painted less well known, but equally as beautiful, scenes from Shelburne, Gorham, Jefferson, and Bethlehem. These locations were strategically located along train or coach routes from North Conway and Franconia.

Characteristics of the Artists

Each White Mountain artist had certain characteristics that would distinguish his work. Some painted particular vistas depicted in each of the four seasons of the year.  Champney was a master at painting water and is known for often favoring warm autumn colors.  Paskell, in his later style, used broad brushstrokes and bright colors to create an impressionistic feeling.  McConnell was known for the velvety pastel look of his paintings.  Edward Hill often created a canopy-like depiction of trees to frame and accentuate the focus of a painting, a technique that gave many of his works a feeling of intimacy and solitude.  Many of Gerry's works included dogs and people on horseback.  Frost was known to use small figures, wispy clouds, and an oval format.  Bricher liked to portray calm water.  Hodgdon liked to paint sunrise and sunset scenes, often in Franconia Notch.  John White Allen Scott frequently painted passing storm clouds in his skies.  Shapleigh had his own slightly primitive style and used the same "props" over and over again in his paintings.  He is known for painting landscapes as seen from the inside of a house or barn looking out through an open door or window.  Inside the room would be such props as a ladder back chair, a cat, a basket, a straw hat, and/or a tall clock.

Often, the popular White Mountain resort hotels had their very own "artist in residence" who would open his studio to sell paintings to the tourists.  Frank Shapleigh, for example, was the artist in residence at the Crawford House for many years.  Edward Hill was the artist in residence at the Profile House for fifteen years and spent shorter stays at the Waumbeck Hotel and the Glen House.  Champney maintained his own independent studio and was not affiliated with any hotel.  The scenes these artists painted became American icons, or at least icons to the people of New England.  As tourists took these White Mountain paintings home, they were widely disbursed throughout the country.  Today, these paintings are often discovered as far away as California.

The End of an Era

Following the Civil War, many factors, including artists' discoveries of the West and the development of photography, helped shift the aesthetic focus away from the idealism of the Hudson River School and the White Mountain School.  Essentially, the entire American art world underwent an extensive transformation. Prior to the 1860s, there had existed a hierarchy of subjects, some deemed more worthy than others.  Most important had been subjects with significant historical references or sublime characteristics such as Niagara Falls, and of course Mount Washington because of its association with the country's first president.  With a newly developing aesthetic, this hierarchy of subjects was replaced, and every subject began to take on equal value. All of nature, from the most humble scene to the most lofty, became worthy in itself as a subject.  By the end of the 1860s, the public began to find oft-repeated images, such as Mt. Washington, monotonous.  Other "new" images, such as the Rocky Mountains, were outweighing interest in the White Mountains.  The impact of images of those mountains was usurped both by new artistic ideas and by the social and technological changes that were rapidly occurring in the region and throughout the country.  By the end of the nineteenth century, these factors, and the advent of photography, led to the gradual decline of White Mountain landscape painting.

References

Beauty Caught and Kept.  Benjamin Champney in the White Mountains
The Crayon
Incomparable Scenery, Comparative Views in the White Mountains