Posts Tagged ‘William Matthew Prior’

GC Myers Icon-Gilbert 2016This is the next step in the Icon series of paintings that I talked about a few days ago.  It’s an 18″ by 18″ canvas that I call Gilbert, going with the French pronunciation–  more jill-bear than gill-bert.  There’s a reason for that.

I had mentioned using this Icon series showing plain folks leading simple and uncelebrated lives in the pose and style of religious icon paintings.  But because these are personal pieces for me (by that I mean that these paintings are being done for me alone at this point) I decide to try to channel the spirit  of an ancestor into these pieces.  Kind of like the spirit portraits that famed folk portraitist William Matthew Prior did in the  19th century, where he would  paint a portrait of a dead person’s supposed spirit which of course didn’t look anything like their actual physical form.

I’m not claiming to be painting spirits here.  I don’t have that ability or the proper amount of belief to even attempt that.  But from doing genealogy I have come across figures that stand out for me, people that sometimes make me proud and sometimes make me not so proud.  Both have an attraction for me because as I stated  in the post about Frank the Icon,  I believe we are all capable of being both gods and monsters and every family has its fair share of both.  I thought it would be interesting to do  a take on those folks, good and bad, in the iconic form.

Gilbert is based on my great-grandfather, Gilbert Perry, a renowned lumberman of the early Adirondacks.  I have never seen a picture of him nor do I know much of him on a personal level.  He died nearly 25 years before I was born and was born in 1855.  But using old newspaper accounts and historic records I have been able to piece together a life that was based on life in the forests of the Adirondacks.  He went out his own at age 17 and immediately had a contract and a crew of workers to bring in a large number of logs in the burgeoning logging business of the late 19th century.

This was a time when the work was all by hand and the transport was all by horse sleds or by river.  The accounts of some of the river drives are pretty amazing.  Itw as time when being a cowboy or a logger were the most exciting jobs in the land. I read an account from the Atlantic magazine of that time that detailed a day in one of his camps.  Fascinating stuff.

He was  well known and did well in the Adirondack lumber world, at one point employing over 350 men and owning more than 50 teams of horses.  Born of French-Canadian descent, he brought many French-Canadian loggers and their families into this country.  That’s where the jill-bear comes from.  His nickname was Jib.

I wrote last year of going to North Lake in the Adirondacks where several of his logging camps had been located and standing on a dam that he had first built there in the 1890’s.  It was great to be in that space and air, not so unchanged as of yet from his time.  The sheer quietness of the place and the light of the sky off the lake made me think of how he must have felt in his early days, axe in hand and a huge task before him.  I think he was probably a happy man in that moment.

There’s more I could tell but it’s probably not that interesting to anyone outside my family.  And even many of them have eyes that glaze over when I do speak of it.  I will spare you that but his is how I choose to see my great-grandfather.

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William Miller's 1843 ChartWell, I got  up this morning and, outside of a light layer of snow on the ground, it looked pretty much the same as yesterday.  The world is still here and the Mayans have got some explaining to do for getting us all worked up.  Or were the Mayans just pulling our leg the whole time?

I’m not sure about that but I am pretty sure that this won’t be the last time someone predicts that the end of the world is upon us.  It’s happened on a regular basis throughout the history of civilization.  We seem to have some sort of predisposition for doomed thought that pops up in a big way every generation or so,  a doomsayer getting everybody’s panties in a knot with their what-seems-rational-at-the-moment reasoning  for the coming apocalypse.

One of my favorite apocalypses (how often do you get to say that?) was the End of the World of 1843 and 1844 as predicted by William Miller right here in the state of  New York, which was fertile ground at that time for new religion movements. Mormonism and Seventh-Day-Adventism, which sprang from Miller’s preaching, are the two best examples.

Miller was a preacher who came to the conclusion that the end was near through a complex system of mathematical calculations  based on his readings of the Old Testament.  He traveled throughout the northeast through the 1830’s and 40’s, preaching his prophecy of the coming end of the world.  It’s said that he spoke to over a million people during his promotion of the event and that over a hundred thousand actually chose to follow his instructions to sell their worldly possessions and gather on the hilltops with him, all dressed in white robes,  in March of 1843 to await the coming of the the lord and their rapture from this doomed place.   A great testament to the persuasive power of Miller’s preaching of his rationale for the prophecy.

It was a big deal at the time, with headlines carrying news of the prophecy and the hordes gathering for the end. But the day came with  a fizzle, not a boom.   When nothing happened at this event, an embarrassed Miller ran the numbers again.  I think he forgot to carry the seven as he added one column.  Whatever the case, he revised the date to a day in October of 1844.

I’m told that the world didn’t end on that particular day.  It was called The Great Disappointment and many of Miller’s followers abandoned him.  Some went on to form the Seventh Day Adventists.  Miller never gave up his belief in the ultimate truth of his prophecy, dying a few years later in 1849.

The chart at the top is one that Miller published to illustrate how he came to his conclusion.  Much of  the design and artwork was done by one of Miller’s followers,  William Matthew Prior, the famed American folk portrait painter who I featured in a post on his work recently.  You can see this amazing sheet at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown along with two portraits of Miller done by prior.  One is a spirit portrait, done afterMiller’s death.  It is Prior’s interpretation of Miller’s essential spirit, not the physical entity he inhabited while alive.

The Prior show, along with my own exhibit there, closes at the end of next  Sunday, December 30.  So time is short– for these shows, not this world.

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Cheri and I made our way to Cooperstown this past Saturday to see my exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum.  Cheri  had not yet seen it and also wanted to see the American Impressionists show before it comes down on the 16th of September as well as the paintings of folk portraitist William Matthew Prior.  Both of those shows were wonderful, particularly the Prior exhibit which gave a broader view of his work and the world in which he painted.

But  we there to mainly take in my show there, of course.  It’s always a strange feeling going into a space filled with your work.   I remember the first time I had a solo show at the Principle Gallery back in 2000.  When we came into the gallery, the work that filled the space seemed to surround and overwhelm us.  Both Cheri and I felt a bit nauseous at first, as though it were just too much to absorb.  I still periodically get that little bit of  a tremble in the gut when confronted with a roomful of my work and I did feel it just a bit on Saturday.

But Cheri’s response to the work took away any tension I was feeling.  Her eyes opened very wide and her face glowed as she came to the top of the grand staircase and spotted the painting that was framed perfectly in the doorway to my exhibit.  We went into the space and she turned, taking in all the walls with a glance, a broad smile on her face.

“Amazing.  It’s perfect.”

That was all I needed to hear.  I was happy as I could possibly at that moment.  I have often kidded that she is often my harshest critic but that is simply the result of a directness and honesty that comes from 35 years of marriage.  I trust her opinion and her glowing approval set aside any apprehension that might have been lingering.  I began to take in the work without worry.

For me, it was most satisfying seeing the very large painting, The Internal Landscape, shown at the top center here.  I had never seen it hang on a wall, especially  with the beautiful lighting and atmosphere that this space offered.  It was all that I hoped it would be on the wall and my eyes kept coming back to it.  The rhythm of the piece really rang out in that space and seemed to connect with all of the other pieces that surrounded it.  The works there seemed to be alive on the walls and there is a really nice warmth and continuum running through this group of work that seems to envelop you when you enter the gallery.  That’s a nice feeling and I think it’s a great representation of  my work to this point.

It was also interesting to go back into the gallery after taking in the work of the Impressionist masters that took up the adjoining larger gallery space.  I initially was a bit afraid that my work would not fit well, would be overwhelmed by this work.   I mean, there is gorgeous work there from Mary Cassatt, Hassam , Glackens and Willard Metcalf— all painters that I have long admired.  It is a bit intimidating.  But coming back into my gallery, Cheri commented how well my work held up next to their’s and I realized that I didn’t feel as out of place with my work there as I thought I might.  In fact, I no longer felt intimidated in the least.

I hope that doesn’t sound egotistical.  It’s certainly not meant to be and I would never put myself up to the level of the  time-tested masters.  But leaving the museum that day, I felt as though I had fully shown that my work had its own truly  individual voice, one that had the same validity and integrity as the work of any painter.  That was a good feeling on a very good day.

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William Matthew Prior Self Portrait

I spent several hours yesterday at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown giving a talk to the staff  and docents about my work and the paintings hanging in my current exhibit at the museum.  Many thanks to Maria Vann and the  staff  there for making me feel so welcome and for their many questions and comments.  They are a really impressive group of professionals who make the Fenimore a world-class facility and I was honored to be able to talk with them.

There was also news yesterday at the Fenimore about one of the other exhibits that is currently on display,  Artist & Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed.   This is the first  retrospective exhibit that focuses solely on William Matthew Prior, the great 19th century folk portraitist and features more than 40 examples of his work.  Yesterday, it was featured in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Lee Rosenbaum.

It’s a great show that I encourage anybody within range to take in before it closes at the end of the year.  For a real in-depth peek Rosenbaum has also posted an interview with Fenimore president and CEO, Paul D’Ambrosio.  His insights into the works really bring them and Prior to life.

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Once again, I came across a painter from the past of which I knew absolutely nothing.  That is nothing new but when I first saw these paintings I was shocked he was unknown to not only me but to most other people as well.  Actually, his biography is pretty thin in content but the sheer power of his work makes up for it. 

 His name was Thomas Chambers and he was born in England in 1808, probably training there as a decorative painter for the theatres of London.  He popped up in the States, in New Orleans, in 1832, filing for American citizenship.  Over the next few decades he moved along the Atlantic Coast and New England working as a landscape and marine painter as well as a fancy painter, meaning that he also painted  objects such as mirrors and furniture in a decorative fashion.  After the death of his wife in 1866, he returned to England, where he died in 1869.  He never really prospered as an artist, just scraping by for most of his life.  He died in an English poorhouse.

All of that seemed impossible to believe when I first saw his work.  It was unlike anything I had seen from that era.  They felt like folk art but with a stylized sophistication that displayed a distinct and fresh voice.  They seemed so modern, feeling to me as though they were perhaps 75 years before their time.  The colors were powerful.  The forms were stylized and rhythmic, the skies often having wonderful whirls of clouds and light.  Looking at some of these landscapes, I could believe that they were influenced by some of my heroes such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood even though I know that this is impossible because of their age.  I wondered if some of the more modern painters had come across his work or if his work was merely a similar artistic evolution, just earlier, isolated in time.

It’s hard to believe that this work was practically unknown until around 1940 when a group of his paintings were found in upstate NY.  How something this dynamic and modern in feel could slide by unnoticed is a mystery.  The first major museum exhibit of Chambers’ paintings was only held in late 2009/early 2010 at the American Folk Art Museum in NYC. 

There’s a good article from the NY Times that offers a good overview of Chambers’ life as well as a review of this museum show that I found very interesting, particularly when the author, Roberta Smith, writes about the works included in this exhibition of other painters who were better known contemporaries of Chambers, such as Thomas Cole and William Matthew Prior.  She writes:  This exhibition includes landscapes by other artists, including Cole, Thomas Doughty and William Matthew Prior, but don’t be surprised if you pass them by. Chambers’s work may lack the historic pedigree and national symbolism, say, of Cole’s paintings, but on the wall, it’s no contest.

As I said, potent stuff.  I’m hoping to find out more about Chambers but for now I am basking in these rich images. 

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