Opening of Trout Season: Fishing, Art, and History

W. Douglas McCombs, Chief Curator
It’s April 1, the opening of trout season in New York and a sure sign that spring has arrived, along with the first appearance of robins in the yard and bunches of daffodils in the grocery store. Here at the Albany Institute, a search through our collections has revealed some inspirational images as well as some historical insight into angling’s rich history.

Sunrise by Walter Mason Oddie

I’d like to begin with this mid-nineteenth century painting by the American landscape artist Walter Mason Oddie. This peaceful looking painting, titled “Sunrise,” captures the essence of fishing. Sunlight begins to illuminate the countryside, touching only the tops of trees as it rises from behind distant hills. Water rushes over rocks in your favorite stream, creating little eddies followed by calm, deep pools. In the foreground, a lone angler ties a fly or lure onto his line. He’s only moments away from his first cast.
Fishing seems to be a recreation well suited for our own time of social distancing. It’s best practiced alone, or at least some distance from others. It allows time for contemplation, reflection, and enjoyment of nature. In 1850, a year after Oddie painted Sunrise, fellow American artist and avid fisherman Charles Lanman had this to say about Oddie and his landscapes: “He seems to have a passion for the thousand quiet nooks, which are habitually visited by the fishermen and boatmen of our tide-water rivers.”
Sunrise by Walter Mason Oddie, painted 1849
Oddie's fisherman

Scene in the Helderbergs near Albany by William Hart

William Hart, who was born in Scotland and came to Albany with his parents, began his artistic career drawing and painting scenes close to home. The Helderbergs to the southwest of Albany became one of his frequently visited regions. In this early landscape, painted around the same year as Oddie's, Hart captures a beautiful pastoral scene. Wooded hills create a pleasant backdrop to tidy farms and pastures with grazing cattle. But in the center foreground, almost overwhelmed by the vast landscape, a lone fisherman stands at the edge of a stream.
Scene in the Helderbergs near Albany by William Hart, painted around 1849
Hart's fisherman

Catskill Creek (Summer Afternoon) by Asher B. Durand

One other landscape in the collection, this one by Asher B. Durand, can easily be overlooked as a fishing painting. In fact, you have to look hard before you finally catch sight of a solitary angler standing under the shade of large trees that flank the stream. He has just cast. It's an anxious moment. Durand applied small streaks of white paint to show a disturbance in the water. Could it be a trout?
Catskill Creek (Summer Afternoon) by Asher B. Durand, painted 1855
Durand's fisherman

Fishing as a Popular Recreation

Fishing grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century and so did the appeal of fishing pictures. But not everyone could afford a painting by Durand, Hart, or even Oddie that captured the delights of their favorite outdoor recreation. Luckily, the New York City print publishers Currier and Ives created an inexpensive yet attractive lithograph that nearly everyone could buy. "Brook Trout Fishing" features a robust looking angler who is just landing a brook trout. The print was based on a painting by the British-American artist Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who made his living painting scenes of outdoor recreations like hunting, fishing, and camping. It's also worth noting that Currier and Ives published the print in 1862, a year into the American Civil War. A scene depicting the tranquility of fishing must have appealed to Americans wanting momentary escape from the horrors of war.
Brook Trout Fishing, published by Currier and Ives in 1862
By the end of the nineteenth century, fishing was enjoyed by nearly all Americans, young and old, male and female. A wonderful photograph album in the Institute's collection shows the fun and entertainment enjoyed by members of the Peekamoose Fishing Club, a private club of ten members who owned a fishing camp on Rondout Creek in the Catskills. The album was produced by New York City financier, sporting writer, and photographer Anthony Weston Dimmock, who in 1880 presented it to American sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward. Both Dimmock and Ward were members of the club.
John Quincy Adams Ward Photograph Album
One of my favorite photographs in the album shows a group of club members and guests standing on the rocky bank of Rondout Creek. Undetered by her heavy ankle-length skirt and tight, corseted bodice, one of the female guests tries her hand at fishing.
Fishing on Rondout Creek
Female guest fishing in Rondout Creek
Today, hundreds of thousands cast flies, lures, and bait into New Yorks streams, rivers, and lakes, hoping to land the "big one." I'd like to end with an image of Albany's longest-running mayor, Erastus Corning 2nd, who was known to enjoy the piscatorial delights.
Erastus Corning 2nd, 70th Birthday, by Hy Rosen, 1979
April 1, 2020