Art from the Archives: Berkshires

In this new bi-weekly series, we’re going to take an unsystematic look at some of the drawings of our collection, 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. For the complete collection, go here.

No. 2: Drawing the Berkshire Countryside 

This week I want to look at a few more of Fanny Appleton’s drawings from the summer of 1835, as well as highlight some journal passages which provide specific information about these drawings, and others. These passages also give insight into what Fanny was thinking over the course of that summer and help us understand her response to her natural surroundings.

From the time of her arrival in July to the end of the summer,  Fanny writes about participating in all kinds of “country” activities like berrying, milking cows, making cream cheese, visiting friends and relatives, taking walks and drives, and dancing. She writes about the landscape and the weather, and occasionally philosophizes on the Divine presence she finds in nature:

I vainly try to reconcile myself to these awful whispers of the Divinity, & can never cease wondering at the indifference of most people….The ghastly & livid smiles of the lightning glared over the sulky clouds like a fiend, over his helpless victim, triumphing in his weakness—& tossing about his dishevelled hair with his burning fingers—When the storm was over, the sky in the west assumed the most magnificent & wonderful appearance that I ever saw.

She also writes about sketching. On July 13th she spends time with her cousin:

Picked flowers and felt “delightfully un-cityfied. …rambled with Willie down to the river, through the fields—where I staid 3 hours, sketching the ruralities, & enjoying the “breezes which blew thro’ the trees—

 One week later on July 20th:

After breakfast Tom & I strolled down to the lovely Housatonic to sketch away in good earnest. He carried a stool for my accomadation, [sic] which looked as if we were “going a milking.” But we were going to draw cows in another fashion—Horrible! After scrambling over some few fences & wading thro’ the “dew spent” grass we found a most enchanting location where two branches of the river meet with a lovely little island between, as if formed for a pic nic. Here we ensconced ourselves in the shade, & sketched away lustily for 2 hours—I very much amused by two urchins who clambered a tree over my head to see what wondrous mystery I was weaving, & exclaimed “Why! the lady has got that tree right down on the paper!” There were a thousand little glimpses of scenery we longed to immortalize but the pencils were bad & the morning had flown.

On drives, she also records impressions of scenery: “After dinner I took a drive with Father in an open vehicle to Lanesboro, which is a beautiful road & along the shore of a pretty lake—the beauty of the valley & mountains led us on….”

I wonder if it isn’t the same scene that she drew on August 6th: “Took quite a nice sketch of the little pond—seated on a Virginia fence with Aunt Martha reading by me….”

In this first drawing Fanny shows her developing talent, and her sophistication. She deftly uses established conventions, framing the image with a fence, a road, and trees that direct our eye into and around the composition’s focus on the pond, and then to the farther hills. The nearest fence, and its slightly more distant companion follow the gentle arc of the foreground making it feel like we are standing on a little rise above this peaceful pond. Fanny creates a sense of distance through scale and the use of atmospheric perspective, employing her pencil with confidence to mark out the fence and areas of special interest, like the middle-ground trees, with strong, vigorous marks, and to describe the mountains and soft clouds with subtle shading. There is a kind of familiarity to the drawing, and an intimacy and peace in the view across the pond and valley toward the partially cleared hills. The composition is multi-layered, and rewards extended looking.

Where did Fanny learn these conventions, and what models was she looking at?

Interest in the visual arts in Boston in the late 1820s and early 1830s was growing. We can imagine that Fanny’s first art teacher was her mother, Maria, who was also gifted, and educated in drawing. As a young married woman, Maria Theresa Gold Appleton purchased artwork; and around the time of their marriage in 1806, Nathan and Maria each had their portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart. In 1827 the Boston Athenaeum opened Boston’s first picture gallery, allowing women to visit and giving well-off Bostonians a chance to see both European and American art. Also around 1827, German artist Francis Graeter arrived in Boston to become drawing master in Elizabeth Peabody’s school, which Fanny attended. Graeter encouraged young students to draw from nature and to keep sketchbooks and journals concurrently, and to return to their work later for re-drawing and reflection. Perhaps this is where Fanny learned these habits. And Fanny had friends and peers with whom she corresponded, and with whom she may well have gathered to look at, and share one another’s work.

Her journal also gives another clue as to how Fanny saw the landscape in her reference to Ruysdael, perhaps Salomon Ruysdael, a 17th century Dutch landscape artist:

After church Mary & I meandered down to the Housatonic, where we dawdled away an hour or two, seated on the grass & gazing at the swollen stream whose silvery rippling called to mind other days & other waters….the intensely blue sky & the grand waves of snowy clouds—with a stripe of sunshine in the distance & a spire shooting to heaven were more Ruysdaelish than anything I have seen.—

Nine days after her drawing of the pond, Fanny was again inspired to draw. Passing a view of Saddle Mountain on the way to take a walk with friends, she recognized the potential of this fine scene and understood its appeal to her senses, emotion, and perception. On her return she decided to stop and sketch.

Mr. Clay came & we made arrangements to set off to explore the famous cave we have been so long contemplating….At the place where we alighted to commence our walk was a beautiful view of Saddle Mountain, blue & misty, with the village spires peering out below it & a grand rock for foreground. This, I sketched on my return. We had a veritable scramble …While I sketched the view the Clays drove on to Lenox & Mary & Mr M. sentimentalized over a book….

Fanny was proud of this second drawing. It is filled with all kinds of detail: the handsome rock she first noticed, a series of diminishing fields separated by rows of trees, a farm worker turning hay, a horse and rider proceeding down the road. We see the spires of two churches, parts of buildings among the trees, and several handsome, gnarled trees. In the distance, presiding over it all is Saddle Mountain, as it was then known, just beginning to be called “Grey lock.”

This drawing has many of the same elements that make the drawing of August 6th successful. It is a skillful composition with a clear and interesting foreground that leads toward a middle-ground that speaks of habitation and cultivation, and finally brings our eye to the distant mountains, which in this drawing are farther away, and grander. But I think this drawing also seems to have more energy to it; perhaps I feel that because of what Fanny wrote two weeks later:

I took a long last look of Saddle Mountain from my window & felt sad indeed that I should no more watch the echo of the clouds along its ever-changing summit; ever beautiful, in sunshine or in mist: with the glory of morning flooding it with light, or its cloud-canopied brow shrinking into heaven—or its noon-day, shadow-haunted grandeur, or its twilight wanness, faint blue & undefinable—“lovelier than all”. Oh ye immortal mirrors of Heaven’s gloom or joy how my soul clings to you: ye glorious aristocracy of earth must I not revere your towering majesty. “How far is society in the presence of…skies & waters & everlasting hills!”…. Have I not felt its poverty at Niagara, the Ocean, & here!

The next day she continued:

Must I say that I felt almost sadder at parting with the mountains than with the kind hearts that have made such sunshine around us. Nature has been the one friend I have vainly sought elsewhere—& here where it is grander & lovelier than many mortal spirits, I have basked in its every shadow with a visionary’s fervor.

The act of drawing placed Fanny in direct relationship with this evocative and meaningful landscape. It offered her engagement with a source of inspiration, and challenged her to use her skills to create something of value. The act of drawing allowed her to connect with Nature, which had been her “one friend” through the summer. In these last journal entries Fanny reflects on the power of nature for her, and mourns its impending loss from her daily life. Returning to the city, Fanny must have known that her consolation for this loss would be her memories which had been cultivated and preserved in her journals and drawings, keepsakes of the landscape’s sustaining presence.

Brown, Maurice & Diana Korzenik, Art Making and Education, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993. See pp. 134-135.

Korhnauser, Elizabeth Mankin, Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2003. See introduction.

Korzenik, Diana, “Face to Face: Fanny Appleton and the Old Man of the Mountain”, Historical New Hampshire, vol. 63, No. 2, Fall 2009

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, LONG 19165, 6., Aug 6th 1835 sketch by Frances Elizabeth Appleton.

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, LONG 19508, 8. Saddle Mountain or Grey lock. Aug 15thsketch by Frances Elizabeth Appleton.

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

Marshall, Megan, The Peabody Sisters, Houghton, Mifflin & Harcourt, 2006. See chapter 2.

Miller, David C., ed. American Iconology, Yale University Press, 1995. See Kenneth John Myers, “On the Cultural Construction of Landscape”.

Novak, Barbara, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875, Oxford University Press, 1980, 2007.

Sears, John F, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attraction s in the Nineteenth Century, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.