Book Review: The Painted Sketch , American Impressions from Nature (1830-1880)

Albert Bierstadt  “Surveyor’s Wagon in the Rockies  c. 1859
Oil on paper mounted on masonite   (7 3/4 x 12 7/8)

“The Painted Sketch, American Impressions from nature  written by Eleanor Jones Harvey  is a fascinating  exploration of  sketches created by landscape painters from the Hudson River School.   Included are artist Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Robinson Gifford, John Frederick Kensett  and a few other lesser known artist.  I was impressed with the research and the lovely reproductions of these small scale sketches.  Keeping in mind these sketches were made as “references” for larger studio works.  It is interesting to see how they became so popular as works of art in their own right by critics and patrons who were anxious to acquire these intimate studies.  

In the middle of the 19th c. landscape painting became a popular genre and the oil sketches were very popular with the patrons.  The Dallas Museum of Art presented an exhibition of this work and showcased this book in 1998.  Wish I could have seen the exhibit.  Harvey spent many years  visiting museums seeking out collections of oil sketches and her appreciation and knowledge of the work is evident in the descriptions. 

Each chapter deals with different aspects of landscape painting and features different artist.  I enjoyed reading about the trials and triumphs of these painters.  Plein- air artist had to endure many obstacles.  Travelling with oil paints in pigskin bladders were messy.  A typical set up included a camp stool, folding easel, pasteboards,  or prepared paper for oil paints or watercolors , a sketch box , palette, paints, brushes and umbrella.  The sketch box being the most important piece of equipment.  many artist sat down with the open sketch box balanced on their knees.  See the charming pen & ink  by Sanford Robinson Gifford  of Albert Bierstadt below illustrating this technique. 

Pen & Ink study by Gifford   
 Albert Bierstadt  “Surveyor’s Wagon in the Rockies  c. 1859


By 1842 Winsor & Newton invented the collapsible tin tube with a screw top lid.  These tube paints made life so much easier for the painters but they still had to contend with the elements, bugs and travelling with wet paintings.  One story describes how Sanford Gifford’s whole winter’s work of sketches arrived back home stuck together.  Thoroughly disgusted and depressed Gifford writes: “I should have written before, but it is very hard to write when one feels that he has nothing good or pleasant to write about – and such has been the case with me for a long while.  I have not been well in either mind or body, and have suffered much from depression of spirits. ” Giffords depression passed and he managed to complete this lovely painting of Lake Nemi, Italy.    I enjoy seeing the progression from the initial bare pencil sketch, plein air study to finished studio painting.  

Gifford – sketchbook (3 7/16 x 10 1/4)   
 “Lake Nemi”  Oil (10 3/8 x 14 1/4) 
“Lake Nemi”  (39 5/8 x 60 3/8) 


I highly recommend this lovely book which chronicles a time when the landscape artist was also viewed as romantic explorer.    

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