Kevin J. Avery, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave a talk on Kingston artist Jervis McEntee at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz last Saturday afternoon. On that day as on later days, the October change of season seemed more pronounced after such a sunny September. The day felt cold and restless, as though it were absentmindedly later in the month than it should have been.
The Friends of Historic Kingston have mounted a more modest McEntee show, open through October 31. The New Paltz exhibition, not to be missed, closes December 13. These tandem shows mark the first comprehensive retrospective of McEntee’s work.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art lent the sparkling Dorsky exhibit an 1875 oil painting called Saturday Afternoon. The picture, painted three years after Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip, painted in the Hurley Flats, was one of the few McEntee landscapes with a lot of human figures – about 15 – scattered across it.
These people weren’t there solely to establish a sense of scale. The women in the foreground, mostly in browns and grays, are doing things: starting a fire, huddled in pairs (à la Homer). The guys are single figures in black or blue, standing in pondwater or sitting on a streambank. Across a meadow in front of more indistinct trees are grazing black livestock. On a hillside, perhaps half a mile away, one can see what looks like a simple stone house. A vigorous dappled sky occupies the top half of the painting. The light in the distance seems to be fading the way it would be in a late autumn afternoon. As Avery noted, McEntee liked to paint nocturnes, “times of deliberate vagueness.”
“Looks like a McEntee day outside,” observed Dorsky Museum director Sara Pasti in her brief introductory remarks prior to Avery’s talk. And indeed it was. In Saturday Afternoon, some leaves are clinging to the trees for dear life while others have already fallen near the huddled pairs of figures. The women in the foreground all wear headgear.
McEntee (1828-1891) was largely self-taught, but for a short period of time, he studied under Frederic Church. He 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 brother-in-law Calvert Vaux, the Englishman who co-designed Central Park.
Like other art historians have done, Avery paints McEntee as a melancholic, battling depression. At least in words, McEntee struggled against such a characterization. “I would not reproduce a late November scene if it saddened me or seemed sad to me,” he wrote. “In that season of the year, Nature is not sad to me, but quiet, pensive, restful.” On a Saturday afternoon 140 years later, Avery had the last word: “He left a diary,” said the art historian about the artist. “Big mistake.”
Suppose both men are correct. Though burdened by a degree of isolation, suppose McEntee came alive most when he was painting, when he was making choices among colors, lines and spaces. True, Saturday Afternoon may have been imitative to some degree. But the fact that every McEntee painting seemed to remind Avery of some other artist’s work may say more about Avery than it does about McEntee.
With winter closing in on this Saturday afternoon, it seemed more appropriate to celebrate McEntee’s choices about how vigorously he chose to paint a sky, or how many black cows should dot the far side of his meadow, or which trees would lose their leaves, than to critique these choices as the decisions of a lesser artist. Perhaps another Saturday might bring a different judgment.
“Jervis McEntee: Poet-Painter of the Hudson River School” is at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz, Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through December 13. For more information, visit newpaltz.edu/museum or call (845) 257-3844. The “Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School” exhibition is at the Friends of Historic Kingston, corner of Wall and Main Streets, Kingston, Fridays and Saturdays through the end of October, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit fohk.org or call (845) 339-0720.