Perhaps art is a vessel through which we transcend the corporeal stuff of the everyday, transporting us instead to a greater, more spiritual place. Art like Asher B. Durand’s “Kaaterskill Clove” and John Frederick Kensett’s “The Hemlock,” two paintings currently on display at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center on rare public loan, certainly have the potential to transport us. Among the first works in Vassar’s possession were actually Hudson River School paintings, so “Kaaterskill Clove” and “The Hemlock” are a part of a great Vassar tradition of honoring the Hudson Valley.
“[Durand and Kensett] weren’t painting just what they saw, they were composing. They put the trees thus, so… [the branches] act as visual parenthesis. They got rid of some extra branches [to do] some cosmetic treatment,” says Director of The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center James Mundy. “The impact they wanted to portray is a very strong spiritual impact, a sense of appreciating what is all around.”
Like many paintings of nature, the works establish among the viewer a connection to the natural world often neglected in the rushed pace of the material world. But they are not simply powerful meditations on the beauty of a tree or the harmony of a summer valley at noon. They are especially compelling to the Vassar community because they are works of the Hudson River School of art, a collection of 19th-century artists who painted scenes from the Hudson Valley. Viewers can actually travel to the Catskill Mountains and see vistas strikingly similar to those depicted on the white walls of The Frances Lehman Loeb.
The two works are visually very different. “Kaaterskill Clove” is grandiose in both size and subject matter. It evokes the inexpressible sublimity of the Catskills. “It has an atmospheric feeling to it. You can almost feel the late-summer particulates in the air. It is a capstone to the other pictures in the gallery. A great crescendo. It pulls you right in,” said Mundy. He pointed out how the trees, which resemble the tops of Gothic cathedrals, orient the viewer and suggest a profound feeling of spirituality. “When [The Reverend Elias] Magoon got [the painting], he thought he could hear the squirrel and the woodpecker scolding him for breaking into their space,” says Mundy. “The Hemlock,” on the other hand, is very small in both size and subject. The painting, as described by Mundy, is like a portrait of a tree. “[‘The Hemlock’] is like a chamber trio and ‘Kaaterskill Clove’ is like a symphony,” continued Mundy. There is polyphony in the juxtaposition of these two works.
“You can get an adequate idea of what these two paintings look like through seeing images of them, but those images don’t communicate the artists’ exquisite brushstrokes and various shades of beautiful colors,” said Frances Lehman Loeb Curator Patricia Phagan. “Nor can images translate the sizes of these two canvases. The Durand painting, for instance, is so large that you almost feel like you’re standing there with the artist looking out through a gap in the mountains to the plains below. The Kensett is so small that you feel as if you were looking over the artist’s shoulder. Both experiences are intimate, subjective, and intellectual, all together at the same time.”
“Kaaterskill Clove” and “The Hemlock” have been on loan for over a year from The Century Association in Manhattan, an art club whose members once included the likes of Durand and Kensett. They are likely to remain on loan for a few more years due to construction at The Association. These works are important to the Vassar community because they enhance both the College’s connection to its physical environment and the other Hudson River School works in the Frances Lehman Loeb.