Art from the Archives, or A Most Amazing Collection of Family Art!

Did you grow up in one of those families that nurtured a “family artist?” Or was there someone in your life who could draw really well? Perhaps it was your sister, or brother, or cousin; an aunt, or uncle; maybe it was a parent. Maybe it was you. Here at Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site there were many family members who fit the description of “family artist” and we are lucky enough to have hundreds of their drawings preserved in the archives. In this new weekly series, we’re going to take an unsystematic look at some of these drawings, with commentary ranging from contemporary letters or journal entries that place the drawings in context, to the free association musings of your friendly “Artchivist.” Our aim is to bring some of these delightful and fascinating visual records to light and share another dimension of the site’s rich collections. We hope you will enjoy them!

No. 1: From Mt. Holyoke, July 9, 1835

I want to begin these posts with a drawing by Frances Elizabeth Appleton. Fanny’s work appeals to me because she is gifted, well-educated, and yet, unknown as an artist. As a young woman she makes drawings of interest and beauty for upwards of ten years, sometimes writing about them in her journals and letters, and occasionally noting how the act of drawing serves to connect her with her world. Fanny includes both human and natural elements, she constructs interesting designs, she pays attention to detail, and she is passionate about what she sees.

In 1835 Fanny Appleton traveled from Boston to the Berkshires to visit her mother’s family for the summer. To get there Fanny and her older brother Tom took the then-new railroad as far as Worcester, continuing their journey in a “carry-all,” finally arriving in Northampton on July 9th. Later that afternoon she and her friend Robert Apthorp set off to ascend Mt. Holyoke:

In the P.M. set off with Robert to ascend Mt. Holyoke. Rode through the beautiful meadows & crossed the ferry… We found a carriage road for some distance but ¾ of the way we mounted on foot—clinging to the boughs & stones—pretty hard work—We at last emerged into daylight, & saw this glorious panorama spread around on every side—mountain beyond mountain, the lovely valley of the Connecticut lying like a leaf beneath us, with its silvery river as a huge caterpillar coiled around it! The different strips of grain looked like ribbons thrown across, & the trees like large ants dotting them here & there! This is about as sensible a description as one can give of such an enormous coup-d’oeil. We remained about an hour in the crazy shanty on the summit amusing ourselves with the book & some refreshing lemonade—I sketched one of the prettiest views from one of the doors of the house finding it almost impossible to seize such an ocean of scenery.

In this drawing of the view from Mt. Holyoke Fanny sketches the inside of the “crazy shanty on the summit” framing the “coup-d’oeil” of the panoramic view. A rake, a hat, and a shawl are placed to the left of the door. Fanny shows us the oxbow of the Connecticut River, the forested hillside she and Robert have just climbed, distant hills, and puffy white clouds in the sky. The drawing records her adventure and marks the scrambling hillside climb with her good friend. On the next day she notes in her journal that she finished the sketch with Tom’s assistance, and I wonder, is this sketch Fanny’s work alone? Did Tom offer encouragement and an older, more practiced eye? Or did he also put his hand to this drawing?

When Fanny and Robert made their ascent a well-worn path to the top of Mt. Holyoke already existed. The famous view of the pastoral valley surrounded by hills was included in several guidebooks on United States travel. They comment favorably on the view, and one even describes the caretaker of the summit house who went up the mountain every day to provide refreshments and to oversee the guest register.

The celebrated view was also depicted by others. In 1836, Thomas Cole chose the same vantage point Fanny took just a year earlier to make his View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow. Cole’s grand landscape focuses on the contrast between wilderness and cultivation and depicts human presence by showing a small painter and easel partway down the hill. In contrast, Fanny gives equal billing to the landscape and the rustic cabin, and her interpretation of nature and culture seems less opposed. Cole’s painting went on to be publicly exhibited, purchased, and eventually placed in a museum. Fanny’s drawing remained private, shared with intimate friends and family, a piece that could spark conversation and enrich and enliven her memory. Is one work better than the other? Does one have more value? Cole’s highly developed, dramatic painting has a presence no sketch can match. Fanny’s drawing of an afternoon, possibly worked on again the following day holds an immediacy that makes it look like it was done yesterday.
This is a lot of words for one little picture, but the picture is lovely and real, seen and made some 182 years ago by a young woman exploring her surroundings with delight and beginning to find her way in life. It helps make the past feel present, and to me, it is a small treasure.

Sources:

Buckley, Kerry Wayne, ed., A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654-2004, Jill A. Hodnicki, “The Literary Landscape,” pp. 257-281.

Coke, Edward Thomas, A Subaltern’s Furlough, Saunders & Otley, 1833, pp. 219-223. Accessed through Internet Archives, https://archive.org/details/asubalternsfurl02cokegoog 2017-01-24.

Dwight, Theodore, Sketches of Scenery & Manners in the United States, New York: A.T. Goodrich, 1829, pp. 2-13. Accessed through Internet Archives, https://archive.org/details/sketchesofscener00dwig 2017-01-24.

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, LONG 19177, From Mt. Holyoke, July 9, 1835, No. 1 sketch by Frances Elizabeth Appleton.

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, LONG 21586, Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow journal, 1835, pp. 13-19.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10497 accessed 2014-01-24.

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm­­ The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 08.228

Cole painted this work in the studio, basing it on a plein-air sketch and subsequent studio sketch.

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