Friday, July 8, 2016

"The Acadia Centennial Collection Show" at The Gallery at Somes Sound: My journey in painting “In Reverence to Lane” and “The Pull of the Sea"

“In Reverence to Lane” by Diana Cobb Ansley
After Fitz Henry Lane’s “Entrance to Somes Sound from Southwest Harbor"

Fitz Henry Lane’s “Entrance to Somes Sound From Southwest Harbor” has a special significance for me as my ancestor,  Abraham Somes sailed up Somes Sound to settle Mount Desert in 1761.  We had a print of the painting in our dining room in Somesville as I was growing up.  I had always been amazed by Lane’s use of light.  I knew that it was painted somewhere off of Manset, but it wasn’t until last summer that I saw the light he painted. 

I was in Manset around 7:30 in the evening as the sun was setting. The mountains were saturated with a glow of light appearing almost bare as the light blocked the tree-covered mountains.  I finally understood the light he had achieved and began to scope out various views for a plein air painting. Over the winter, I was thrilled to be asked to recreate a work for the Centennial Show and I knew Fitz Henry Lane’s Entrance to Somes Sound would be a great challenge.  I named this painting “In Reverence to Lane”.

Before I began I did a great deal of research about Lane and The Entrance to Somes Sound.  The Cape Ann Museum and John Wilmerding’s “The Artist’s of Mount Desert” were wonderful resources. Lane did the painting in 1852 at the age of 48.  Lane came to Mount Desert over several years.  In 1850 he first sketched the view of Somes Sound sitting in the stern of a vessel while sailing up the sound. He came again in 1852 with his friend from Castine, Maine Joseph L. Stevens, Jr. who hired the sloop “Superior” to come to Mount Desert.  In the diary of William Witherle, a member of the boating party, he mentions that Lane took a sketch especially when the water was calm. Lane often stayed on board the boat, while the others went ashore. He walked with crutches and was lame as a child possibly from polio.

I also found sketches by Lane of the sails and studied rigging on similar vessels.  I then painted a grisaille of the vessel, which is a painting done in shades of a neutral color.  I used burnt sienna for the grisaille in order to study the values in the sails.

Old postcards of the view enabled me to see his perspective points-- in one account it said he had often sketched in the crow’s nest of a ship.  I could see that his perspective was lower and probably done off the stern of the Superior.

Lastly, I was trying to decide on my color scheme based on the three images I had of the painting.   I had read a report about Fitz Henry Lane’s work versus an artist named Mary Blood Mellen.  Mellen was a student of Lane’s and may have collaborated with Lane in some of his paintings. The report stated Lane’s palette was restrained and subtle with soft blues.  I wanted to maintain the same soft palette he used, as it is his light and subtle palette which make this painting.  Then I did a small color study of the view to see how Lane’s light pervaded the scene.  I usually begin my paintings with a ground of cadmium scarlet or rose red and orange, but it just did not feel right to tone the canvas.  I felt I would not be able to achieve the light with a red under painting so I began with a blank canvas.

This painting was more difficult to make my own than my rendition of the Frederic Church’s painting.  There was a mostly clear blue sky reflected in almost dead calm water in the Lane painting.  I love history and thought that the painting would lose some of its power without the towering period vessel Lane used and the charming figures and dory in the foreground.  I wanted to show in a modern version the grandeur and power that drew people to travel to Mount Desert after they had viewed these paintings.

It was fascinating to recreate this painting as you could see into Lane’s mind as he made decisions on how he would treat different aspects of the painting. Despite the appearance of it feeling sparse and full of air, the amount of detail in the painting is amazing.  I wonder if he could have seen from his vantage point every line in the rigging that he detailed or whether he just knew it should be there. Lane made calculated decisions on the placement of every house and item.  I tired to match up some of the houses with the early postcards I found without success. In this painting there were 12 buildings with reflections that is 24 structures, 8 boats, countless riggings and 3 figures. One of the people had an odd cap that was unfamiliar.  In my research I found it was called a thrumbcap- a dense woven cap used by sailors at sea for warmth and also the namesake of a rocky outcropping call Thrumcap off Ocean Drive.

I found Lane had lightened a mountain that I believe would have been in shadow using his artistic license to help pop the dark sail on the left in the foreground of the vessel.   He chose not to continue the light reflections in the water perhaps not to break the wonderful expanse of blue.

In the end my goal was to capture the light that made this painting a stunning example of Luminism.  I simplified several aspects and even left out one vessel, as I wanted the left opening to stay pure light.  I pushed the color a bit more, but did not want to lose the simplicity of the color scheme.  It seemed every time I made even a slight change the light seemed out of balance.  I hope I achieved in recreating the spectacular view that captivated Lane and portrays the grandeur of Somes Sound which ultimately drew rusticators to Mount Desert Island

“The Pull of the Sea” by Diana Cobb Ansley
 After Frederic Church’s “Newport Mountain" 

I have always been drawn to the work of artists Fitz Henry Lane and Frederic Church as they both stayed at the inn next to my family home in Somesville, Maine.  Frederic Church invited my family with many of the villagers to a grand party during their stay in Somesville. According to Dr. Virginia Somes Sanderson, my cousin, in her book “The Living Past”, the invitation for the party was in Emma Frances Somes diary.  It read "The Boarders at Mr. Daniel Somes’ will be happy to see Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Somes and family Tuesday evening, August 28, at 1/2 past six”.

Last summer while I was painting up at Katahdin, I was determined to track down Frederic Church’s camp that he built on Millinocket Lake. It was way off the grid and quite interesting to see where he came after painting Mount Desert.  So it is a bit ironic that I had this opportunity to paint Church’s “Newport Mountain”.  Newport Mountain changed names and is currently known as Champlain Mountain.

In this second painting for the Acadia Centennial Collection Show I felt I could be freer and make it more in my style.  I named this the “Pull of the Sea” in reference to Church’s use of the sailor pulling a mast out of the sea indicating the possible perils of the sea.  My goal was to be more painterly and less detailed than Church and too keep that feeling of the power of the sea. 

I had scoped out this site the summer before, as I wanted to determine where he painted this view.  I found that it was probably on private land, but later read in John Wilmerding’s book that he believed that this view was taken from a combination of preparatory sketches “The final composition partially conflates and adjusts elements of the landscape, as different angles of view of the mountain and headlands are synthesized while still remaining true to the specific place.” Church did sketches while visiting the Lyman farm at Great Head.

This is an area I am familiar with, as I have painted on ocean drive many times.  The light appeared to be late day which is my preferred time of painting as the shadows are long and the light is golden.  I kept the light and eliminated many details from the painting.  Church had made notes of the fact there were birch trees in the middle ground which he perfectly delineated.  My focus was to convey the power of the sea with and the breadth of the landscape while remaining looser and more painterly.  

I changed the figure in the foreground especially his face. I have a great respect for the work that it took Church to paint the rocks in such detail.  It would have taken another couple of months to achieve the extent of detail he used. It was a pleasure to do the shallow water in the foreground with so many variations and colors.   The sky was similar to skies I have painted and so this painting seemed to flow from me.

It was an honor to recreate these two works with a contemporary feel and I hope you will have an opportunity to visit The Acadia Centennial Collection on view till October 31st.

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