Romantic on the Rondout

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Friends of Historic Kingston and Dorsky Museum shine a light on Hudson River school painter Jervis McEntee

Reputations and legacies in the arts are neither permanent nor assured by genius alone, no matter how great an artist’s fame and critical esteem may have been in his or her lifetime. Like brands, artistic reputations require ongoing advocacy, freshening, maintenance and the occasional tussle with competing legacies.

Shakespeare, that ultra-eminence of English literature and kind of a disposable pop favorite in his own day, was barely more than a curiosity of the canon for nearly the first two centuries of his ­postmortem career, until the Romantics and then later the Modernists detected something uncannily relevant in his work. It was the 20th-century orchestral transcriptions of Leopold Stokowski that elevated the reputation of Johann Sebastian Bach to one that seems eternal and monolithic today. Reputations are never entirely secured; nor are they ever entirely lost.

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In his own time (the late 19th century), Kingston’s Jervis McEntee was a prominent American painter, a well-known and respected figure in the New York City art and culture world and a prime representative of the Hudson River School, which is widely considered to be the first significant American art movement. Today, the Hudson River School is synonymous with the mega-reputations of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and a handful of oft-exhibited others. Church’s student, friend and occasional traveling companion Jervis McEntee (1828-1891) has never received a major museum exhibition.

Enter the Friends of Historic Kingston and a variety of local scholars, curators and sponsors with a mind toward restoration. McEntee was not only a distinctive and prolific member of the Hudson River School, but also the closest to home for most of us. He lived his entire life on the Rondout, spending winters working in the City. His father, James McEntee, was the resident engineer of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which brought coal to Kingston’s Rondout port from the Pennsylvania coalfields. His mother, Sarah Goetschius, was the daughter of the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Paltz.

Like so many painters and poets, McEntee was an inveterate walker, traversing the hills and trails of the Kingston and Hudson River area with or without canine companionship, surveying the vistas and grabbing quick sketches as he went that would later form the subjects of large-scale works. (The sketches themselves often proved to be salable as well.) He had studied briefly with Frederic Church, but was otherwise self-taught. He, Church and the other painters of the Hudson River School embraced Romanticism’s reverence for the natural world and abided by “truth to nature,” the dictum of the critic John Ruskin, whose theories of the medieval craft guilds would later inspire the Byrdcliffe arts colony in Woodstock as well.

As a young man in the 1850s, Jervis McEntee built his studio on the grounds of his parents’ property above the village of Rondout in present-day Kingston. The studio – a large and historically significant building – was designed by McEntee’s lifelong friend and eventual brother-in-law Calvert Vaux, the Englishman who co-designed Central Park. Vaux was hardly McEntee’s only influential friend. In his years living part-time in artists’ studio/housing in New York City, McEntee and his wife Gertrude (who died at the age of 44) befriended and played host to many of the age’s great painters and writers. Edwin Booth, widely considered the greatest American actor of the 19th century, was an especially close friend. One account has Booth cooling his heels with the McEntees for a time after his brother assassinated Lincoln.

The restoration of McEntee’s stature will begin locally, and in force, this spring. The Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK) will present the exhibition “Jervis McEntee: Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School” from May 1 to October 31. The exhibition at the FHK will be in its gallery at the corner of Wall and Main Streets in Kingston’s Stockade District. The exhibition will be on view Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A companion exhibition at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz will be on view from August 26 to December 13.

Together, these represent the first museum presentations of the work of this Kingston native and Hudson River School notable. The FHK exhibition will feature never-before-seen works from the McEntee family and local collectors and works from such museums as the Adirondack Museum, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum in Vermont and the Senate House State Historic Site in Kingston.

Accompanying the Kingston exhibit is a substantial and informative catalogue featuring much of McEntee’s work, as well as portraits of the artist and family. Jervis McEntee: Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School (Black Dome Press) provides a detailed and brisk biographical essay by Lowell Thing, author of the forthcoming The Street that Built a City: A History of Rondout’s Chestnut Street, also published by Black Dome Press. Thing’s essay is followed by a lucid critical discussion of the architectural significance of McEntee’s Rondout studio and several other notable studios in the region by William B. Rhoads, professor emeritus of art history at SUNY-New Paltz.

FHK will also present a special lecture by Dr. Linda S. Ferber, senior art historian and museum director emerita at the New-York Historical Society, this Sunday, April 26 at 2 p.m. The lecture, entitled “Jervis McEntee: Hudson River School Master of the Melancholy Landscape,” will be held in the Senate Room of Uptown Kingston’s Kirkland Hotel, located at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Main Street.

Leafing through the landscape paintings sprinkled generously throughout the pages of Jervis McEntee: Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School, this lifelong Hudson Valley resident can’t escape a feeling both of familiarity and of revelation, as the artist teaches us how to see our home anew. In a way, little has changed since McEntee cast his eyes on the river and its surrounding environment. The industrial transformation – present here as the occasional ship or tuft of smoke in the distance – was already underway. The colors, contours and moods – indeed, the smells and sounds – of the Hudson River and environs are both unmistakable and transportive in McEntee’s luminous work.

For more information, call the FHK at (845) 339-0720 or go to www.fohk.org.

 

“Jervis McEntee: Hudson River School Master of the Melancholy Landscape,” lecture by Dr. Linda S. Ferber, senior art historian and museum director emerita at the New-York Historical Society, Sunday, April 26, 2 p.m., Kirkland Hotel, corner of Clinton Avenue and Main Street, Kingston, (845) 339-0720;
www.fohk.org.

Exhibition “Jervis McEntee: Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School,” May 1 through October 31; Friends of Historic Kingston gallery, corner of Wall and Main Streets, Kingston, on view Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., (845) 339-0720; www.fohk.org.

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