Bolton landing, a resort town on Lake George, was the permanent home of David Smith, an artist commonly regarded as the greatest American sculptor of the 20th century. Smith bought a home there in 1929 and was accepted quickly by the small year-round community as he continued to produce his work.
“Landscapes Lost and Found: Two Centuries of Art from Bolton Landing” is now on view (through Oct. 14) at the Bolton Historical Museum. Thanks to Smith’s daughters, Rebecca and Candida, both of whom have summer homes in town, the show’s organizers have been able to include not only sculptures and drawings by Smith, but also his paintings of the surrounding landscapes that have never before been exhibited. They may remind you of Cezanne’s paintings of Provence. Like Cezanne 60 years earlier, Smith was in search of a summer studio, a place where he could escape the city’s distractions, discomfort, and expense while continuing to make art.
At the invitation of Weber Furlong, an administrator at the Art Students League who had established an artists’ colony on a farm overlooking Lake George, Smith and his first wife, Dorothy Dehner, began visiting Bolton Landing in the 1920s. (It’s worth noting that Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz, who also spent summers on Lake George, brought John Marin to the colony in 1927, a visit that inspired several of his paintings of the lake.) Furlong is attracting renewed interest as a path-breaking modernist, and her work, as well as that of Dehner and others who spent their summers with her, such as John Graham, are represented in the exhibition. Those artists were fully conscious of the fact that these landscapes were already iconic.
Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, first visited Bolton Landing in 1826. He was followed to Lake George by younger members of the Hudson River School, who portrayed Lake George as one of many possible manifestations of something spiritual, eternal, and universal. Like Cole, they idealized Lake George, expressing, however obliquely, ambivalence about the benefits of industrial progress, already encroaching upon the Hudson Valley. This exhibition includes work by many of them.
By the 1930s, when David Smith was painting these same scenes, the landscape was supporting a settled community, civilized though sparsely populated. Perhaps it is to be viewed as a prodigal’s native land, one seen through the scrim of nostalgia or memory. In any event, the paintings are renderings of a specific, verifiable place rather than of a vague, amorphous ideal.
These different treatments of the same views can be attributed in part to changes in the landscape—but also, no doubt, to different political philosophies. As Thomas Cole himself emphasized, landscapes are composed, not copied. Smith, who was assigned to the WPA’s Federal Art Project in 1937, was intrigued by the New Deal’s promotion of what he called “American Romantic Nationalism,” otherwise known as Regionalism, in the arts. By reminding us that we are rooted in specific places, landscapes, and communities, the progenitors of Regionalism may have hoped that this trend, persuasion or disposition—call it what you will—would serve as a bulwark against foreign ideologies, from Fascism on the one hand and Soviet-style Communism on the other. Regardless, a walk through the Bolton Historical Museum’s gallery is a pictoral narration of Bolton Landing’s history, from wild forest to farmland and beyond, to second-growth woods and second homes.
These are the “landscapes lost and found”: some irreversibly lost, and some preserved through the efforts of conservationists. And as the 21st century artists included in the exhibition suggest, all are mutable, subject to human-induced market forces and climate change.
The landscapes by David Smith are themselves “lost and found.” So far as we know, he never again painted the surroundings he knew and clearly loved in this representational way. He once said of his art that it “possesses nothing unknown to you.” Perhaps. We cannot, of course, see the world as he saw it, but like his more famous abstract sculptures, these paintings may teach us to see it for ourselves.