Landscaping People

     Since the early Renaissance, artists have regularly enhanced portraits with painted landscapes. In addition to their decorative appearance, landscapes impart a wealth of information about the individuals portrayed, including their social standing and aspirations, as well as information about the economic and political climate in which a portrait was painted. Artists have also incorporated landscapes to experiment with mood and feeling, to elicit emotional responses from viewers, and to reflect the psychological temperament of the sitter.
     The cultural theorist W. J. T. Mitchell noted that landscape is “both a frame and what a frame contains,” meaning that landscape is both a framework of meaning—a structure that provides context and implication—and simultaneously the object of the viewer’s attention. But more importantly, the landscaped portrait unites man and nature in a setting the human presence dominates and controls. Artists of the Hudson River School likewise dominated and controlled nature; they painted the landscape to satisfy the expectations of patrons, the desires of the consumer market, and the prevailing ideals and cultural attitudes of the period. The portraits gathered in this section display landscapes as an integrated part of mankind’s identity—landscapes shaped and configured as well as admired and esteemed.
Magnifying Glass
Abraham Wendell
John Heaten (active c. 1730–1745)
Oil on canvas, c.1737
Gift of Governor and Mrs. W. Averell Harriman, Dorothy Treat Arnold (Mrs. Ledyard) Cogswell, Jr., Gates B. and Bessie DeBeer Aufsesser and Richard C. and Marjorie D. Rockwell, 1962.47
     In the eighteenth century, the Wendell family of Albany owned land just south town, in an area now set aside as Lincoln Park. A deep ravine with a swift-flowing stream named the Beaver Kill divided their landholdings, making it an ideal site for milling operations. This portrait of Abraham Wendell depicts a rare view with one of the family mills in the background.
     In a will dated July 29, 1749, Abraham’s father, Evert Wendell, left the mills, the dwelling house, and all the land on both sides of the stream to Abraham. Evert also left specific instructions in his will that his sons Abraham and Philip “shall build a Chocolate mill for the use of my son Philip.” The mill represented in the portrait may have been retrofitted with chocolate milling apparatus, or a separate chocolate mill may have been built nearby. We cannot be certain whether the chocolate mill was ever built at all, but if Abraham was as “trusty, faithful, beloved, honest” as Evert’s will states, he probably would not have wanted to disobey his father’s last wishes.
     The landscape in this portrait reveals much information about the young Abraham Wendell, his family’s business activities, and the design and construction of Dutch buildings in the Albany area. For Wendell, himself, the decision to have the family property included in his portrait reveals the pride he must have felt in his family’s accomplishments.
Magnifying Glass
Members of the Nepean Family of St. Just, Cornwall
Arthur Devis (1712–1787)
Oil on canvas, c.1768-1770
Gift of Mary Taylor Moulton (Mrs. David C.) Hanrahan, 1947.78.2
Magnifying Glass
Couple in a Mountain Landscape
Johan Zoffany (1733–1810)
Oil on canvas, c.1779
Gift of Mrs. David C. Hanrahan, 1945.15.27.1
     The handsome couple in this painting form a stark contrast to the rugged landscape in which they pose. There is tension present in this work between their affectionate deportment and elegant attire, and the overcast gloom of the valley beyond—a tension between fascination and fear. Johan Zoffany’s portrait reflects the emotional conflict common to European romanticism.
     The German-born Zoffany led a peripatetic life that took him from Regensburg to Rome, London, Florence, Parma, and the Indian sub-continent. Throughout his long and varied career, he painted allegorical works, portraits, theatrical pictures, conversation pieces, and genre scenes. He painted King George III of England and his wife Charlotte, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Pietro Leopoldo, the acclaimed English actor David Garrick, and the ruler of Oudh, India, Asaf-ud-daula. To say he was a society painter captures only part of Zoffany’s celebrity. His paintings captivate viewers with their attention to detail, lively animation, and rich colors. The English connoisseur and antiquarian Horace Walpole declared Zoffany one of the three great English painters of his time (the other two being Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough); yet until recently, much of his life remained a mystery.
     The couple in the portrait have long been identified as Samuel Blunt (1723–1800) and his second wife Winifrid Scawen (b. 1742), but evidence does not support the claim. The couple’s clothing suggests a date in the late 1770s or early 1780s, which would place Blunt in his mid-50s. The uniformed man in the painting, however, appears to be much younger in age. There also exists another painting by Zoffany of a man identified as Samuel Blunt, but the individual in that portrait shows no resemblance to the man in this painting. Furthermore, Samuel Blunt was not in the military, although his oldest son Robert was an officer in the Royal Horse Guards. Even though Robert died in 1780 before marrying, the couple may represent Robert and some unidentified female.
Magnifying Glass
Major (Charles Temple) Dix
George Gerhard (1830–1902)
Oil on canvas, 1865
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1975.18
     At the end of the American Civil War, Major Charles Temple Dix of the 14th Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry, posed for his portrait with the German-born artist George Gerhard. Dix was an artist himself, who began painting during the early 1850s before attending Union College in Schenectady, New York. He started exhibiting at the National Academy of Design in 1857, and in 1861 was elected an associate. The Civil War temporarily curtailed his activities, but he continued to pursue his interest in painting marine views after the conflict ended.
     In this full-length portrait, Dix towers over the landscape. The thin thread of water in the distance most likely represents the Hudson River, and the rocky ledge on which he stands the eastern extension of the Helderberg escarpment south of Albany. By placing Dix in the Hudson River valley, the portrait associates him with the Hudson River School, from which he drew inspiration as an artist.
Erastus Corning I at Kenwood
Unidentified artist
c. 1871
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mary R. Halliwell, Patricia R. Rowe, and Elizabeth R. McManus, 1983.35.40
Walter Launt Palmer and Companions
Unidentified photographer
Albumen photographic print on card, 1874
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, BV 448
     This beautifully composed photograph of Walter Launt Palmer (1854–1932), seated to the left of the large tree, and his traveling companions was almost certainly taken during the spring of 1874 in the forest of Fontainebleau, located about thirty-seven miles southeast of Paris. The American Cyclopædia, published that same year, noted that the forest’s “varied and picturesque scenery is highly appreciated by travelers and landscape painters.” Most certainly Palmer wanted to see the forest for himself.
     The young man was just beginning his career as a painter and had already studied with Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) before accompanying his father, the Albany sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer, and other family members on a trip to Europe. (His father planned to model and cast in Paris his bronze statue of Robert R. Livingston, commissioned for Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington.)
     Palmer’s photograph is a travel souvenir. It captures him beside one of the forest’s famed beech trees, thus validating his visit and reminding him of the popular destination, but more importantly, the photograph connects the young man to the artistic tradition of visiting the forest of Fontainebleau.