Time traveling through canvas

Len Tantillo’s meticulously researched paintings are a fascinating exercise in time travel through four centuries of New York State history. His scenes of Native American traders and storytellers, Dutch Colonial life in the Hudson Valley, 18th-century sloops and views of Albany, 19th-century lighthouses, sailing ships, steamboats and locomotives and early-20th-century biplanes, city streets and Adirondack vacation spots are not only historically accurate, but also capture a particular season and time of day, bringing a long-ago moment back to life.

A native of New Paltz, Tantillo, who lives near Albany and has exhibited his work both nationally and internationally, has long been interested in his hometown’s origins as a 17th-century Huguenot settlement. This year, a series of commissions by Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) have enabled him to fulfill his dream of creating a visual record of this early history. He recently completed the first of three commissioned paintings for the not-for-profit organization, which is now on exhibit at the DuBois Fort Visitor Center (prints of the painting are for sale). Titled The Huguenot Redoubt, it depicts the 1685 stockade, complete with guard tower, based on the findings of Dr. Joseph Diamond, a professor and archaeologist at SUNY-New Paltz, and his team of students. The scene, which includes a view of the Shawangunk Ridge, shows a man driving a horse-drawn beer cart to the fort, followed by two slaves on foot carrying produce and other goods; in the background several men are erecting a barn.

Tantillo is about to embark on the second painting, which will depict the native Lenape Munsee people before their contact with Europeans. The third painting will represent the stone houses in existence now shortly after they were built, in the 1720s, when they were surrounded by farm outbuildings. Taken together, the three paintings capture one of the most fascinating aspects of the site in its early history, which is its multicultural makeup, according to Liselle LeFrance, executive director of HHS.

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“In 1677, the French Protestants made an arrangement with the Esopus Munsee for the land,” said LeFrance. “But the Native Americans didn’t leave right way, and the Huguenots intermarried early with the Dutch. There were enslaved Africans. Lots of different cultures made up the Mid-Atlantic, but few [of those historic Colonial sites] are as intact as we are.” She added that Diamond’s archaeological findings included several wigwams, a longhouse and numerous Native American artifacts, which indicated that the place had been a flourishing Esopus Munsee settlement before the Huguenots arrived.

LeFrance said that HHS board chair Mary Etta Schneider had the idea for the Tantillo commissions. “The SUNY-New Paltz Field School of Archaeology had been doing research on the site for decades, and they had unearthed evidence of the early structures. But we had no pictorial representations,” she said – a gap that Schneider hoped to fill. Last year, the artist gave a presentation at the organization’s Fall Gala and a fundraising campaign was launched, which provided the money for the first commission. HHS needs to raise another $15,000 for the second commission, which is also being funded by a small grant. The three paintings will be part of HHS’ permanent collection.

Tantillo has since spoken at HHS about his work and process a couple of times, and at this year’s Fall Gala on September 14, he was joined by his friend Russell Shorto, the renowned author and scholar whose book The Island at the Center of the World documented the prevalence of Dutch culture in the rise of New Amsterdam as a future world power.

Tantillo, who was born in 1946, earned a degree in Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design and practiced as a licensed architect before switching to illustration and historical and marine painting in 1986. He has produced more than 300 paintings and drawings depicting New York State history, along with works portraying other historical subjects, including the Dutch settlements along the Delaware and in the Connecticut Valley. His work has been collected by the Fenimore Art Museum, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, numerous historical societies and various corporations and individuals. One patron living in San Francisco commissioned a painting of Kingston’s Rondout waterfront at its peak, in 1883. A second Tantillo painting of Kingston, circa 1665, hangs in the Senate House State Historic Site in Uptown Kingston. Tantillo is the author of four books and the recipient of two honorary degrees. Lynn Woods recently interviewed the artist.

Why did you decide to focus on New York State history?

I grew up sensing that people in New York State had a historical inferiority complex. They seemed to feel that all the important history happened somewhere else, like Boston, San Francisco or Chicago. I thought that if I painted New York State historical subjects, I’d give people a sense of pride and a greater awareness of their own heritage. I tried to pick projects that fit my goal. The settings for my subjects range from Buffalo and the Canadian border to Manhattan and Long Island, and span four centuries.

That covers a lot of space and time! Do you have a favorite period?

  The era I like best is before the widespread use of photography, which occurred around 1850. Visual records before then are sparse or nonexistent, so when I create images within that timeframe, I’m depicting scenes that no one’s seen before.

What is your process of recreating a scene from the past?

  Back in the 1960s, Architecture students at my alma mater, Rhode Island School of Design, were required to build scale models of their projects. Later I continued to do that when I worked in architectural offices and as a freelance illustrator.

When I was commissioned to paint some complicated subjects involving the depiction of townscapes, it was time-consuming to make models for all of the buildings and, in the case of coastal scenes, build the ship models as well. Another problem was floor space: A model I made of Schenectady in the 1690s was ten feet long.

In 2001, I became interested in movies like Shrek. The discs often featured how these films were made utilizing digital technology. I was curious. Fortuitously, around that time I attended the launch of a historic ship in Albany. The boatbuilders gave me a tour of their shops. I met their chief designer, who showed me the program he used to engineer the ship’s construction, and it became clear how digital modeling could be used in my work. I investigated the programs he recommended and gradually learned how to use them. That opened the door, allowing me to take on big projects.

When it came time to paint Manhattan in the 17th century, I was able to model every building in the City. They weren’t built in great detail, but well enough for my purposes. After adding ships and other props, I was able to evaluate various views of the waterfront as possible sites and settings. Over the years my skillset became more refined and the projects have become more comprehensive. Today the technology is so advanced and accessible. Right now I’m working on a painting of Québec in 1745, and I’ve digitally modeled everything, including the terrain.

How do you plan a painting?

I start looking at period maps. Then I extract the terrain using a combination of Google Earth and one of my modeling programs. Once I have an approximation of the landforms, I begin creating buildings and important ancillary structures and props. Over the years I’ve acquired a sense of the architecture of early North America. This knowledge is invaluable in creating credibility for scenes set in different time periods and involving different cultures, be they Native American or European.

The scenes feel very specific, in terms of the light and weather. What else goes into the painting, besides the historical information?

I build the painting with layers of information as well as paint. The first and most grueling task is to get the canvas covered with all the essential elements. With that done, I put away my references, study the painting in its raw form and decide what it will need to make it work as art. This is the most challenging part. It’s the time for deciding what works and what doesn’t. Color, contrast and emphasis have to work together. I want to manipulate your attention so your eye moves around the piece. The challenge is turning it from an objective rendition to something artistic. How do I make it into something that has atmosphere and engages the viewer? These are the enhancements that make or break a painting.

 The New Paltz paintings depict the early history of your hometown. Does the subject have special meaning for you?

Five or so years ago, I was at an archaeological conference in Albany and had a chance to talk to Joe Diamond. He mentioned he’d found the remains of the early stockade fortification, which piqued my interest. We talked about it, and I told Joe I’d love to have the opportunity to do a painting using his research. But, as often happens, time passes and I forgot about it. All of a sudden, here comes this incredible woman, Mary Etta Schneider, with a tremendous enthusiasm for early history and a desire to tell that story. We met briefly at one of Historic Huguenot’s events, and she said she’d love to have a series of images depicting New Paltz in its earliest years of development. This was the opportunity I was hoping for: a chance to contribute a bit of hidden history utilizing my artwork to the town I owed so much to. I was thrilled to take it on.

In The Huguenot Redoubt, the first in the series of the three commissioned paintings, how much is historically accurate?

Almost everything in that painting had been discovered and documented by Joe Diamond. The footprints of the buildings are accurate. Joe had discovered the foundation of the building on the left, which he referred to as the earthfast house, meaning a conventional house above ground; vertical posts would be placed in the ground and infilled with clay and reed as a kind of stucco – more precisely, wattle-and-daub. The roof was probably bark or boards. The shape of that building was clearly defined, and the location of the chimney was accurate, because Joe found the base of the hearth. He also found the entrance to the fort, the footprint of the guardhouse and the north wall of the stockade. We don’t know how many buildings were inside of the fort, but there seemed to be more than one. On the right is a pit house, which consists of a hole dug in the ground with a roof over it. Twenty years ago I visited the Dutch open-air museum in Arnhem, which had a number of 17th-century relocated houses, including a pit house, so that’s what I based the one in my painting on.

Why include the beer cart?

People drank a lot of beer, which they preferred to water. It was low-alcohol beer and everybody drank it, including babies. Including the cart gave me the opportunity to portray a number of interesting characters that, I felt, would enhance the content and context of the scene. The brewer is delivering his beer to the fort, and behind him are two slaves. The woman has no shoes. She is carrying a heavy load of dry goods on her back. The man, who is somewhat older than the woman, carries a large wicker basket. There are numerous records from New Paltz and the rest of New York State indicating slave ownership.

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What’s speculative in the painting?

Initially I thought the roof of the earth house was thatch; but when you consider a potential attack by hostile natives, the danger of fire is apparent – hence the choice of bark or boards. By this time there are sawmills in the area. We know, for instance, that the sawmills of Saugerties provided vast amounts of milled lumber to the surrounding towns.

The guard tower was probably an elevated platform to provide greater visibility. Since a sentry would be posted in all kinds of weather, I put a roof over the structure. The barn must have utilized a typical Dutch “H” frame, which was in common use in New York throughout the Colonial period.

The clothing was pretty easy, since hundreds of 17th-century Dutch artists painted what daily life was like. Also, plenty of examples of carts and other everyday articles are depicted in their artwork. I thought about putting a child on the back of the cart, but decided not to because I didn’t want the driver to seem too friendly. He doesn’t think much differently about his horse than his slaves. The two women standing in front of the house are the wives or daughters of people living there, and they have little or nothing in common with the slave woman. There’s also a slave in the background carrying a board for the barn.

We do not know if all of the buildings depicted existed together in the same time period; the pit house might have existed before the fort. We don’t know what was contemporaneous from what Joe found in the ground.

I added the two pigs and a bunch of chickens, which are typical of what you would see when approaching any settlement back then. There is a suggestion of a fenced-in garden protecting crops from the animals that ran loose and were allowed to forage as they pleased. Livestock was marked in some way to identify owners.

How long did it take to do the painting?

  Four months. 

Do you paint your figures from live models?

  Sometimes. I used to make costumes for my live models, but with more sophisticated digital programs, I can build the clothes and put them on digital figures. That technique has allowed me greater flexibility in implementing style and fit. Although I have cut back on my use of live models, I still find that mixing figures in a painting adds to the overall credibility of a scene.

Do your paintings in any way connect with your own experience?

  How does a 21st-century white guy of Italian background connect with Native American people of four centuries ago? I can’t, in terms of culture. What I can connect to is this environment, since I grew up in New York State. I know what it’s like in winter and summer. When I place people in paintings, I try to imagine the work they’re doing and what their lives must have been like. In The Grandfather, which depicts an older Native American man telling his grandchildren about a hunting experience, I made the assumption that these kids are very interested in his story. I’m a grandfather and that’s the way I would like to entertain my grandkids. He had a captive audience and he’s enjoying it, and that’s not hard to relate to.

Which paintings are particularly challenging?

  The hardest ones involve subjects for which descriptive records are vague or nonexistent. I’m uncomfortable when the vast majority of content in a painting is speculative. I suppose I feel this way knowing that some viewers may interpret my rendition as fact.

In 2009, during a visit to the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, the Netherlands, I became interested in what that town may have looked like in the Middle Ages. Some time after my return to the States, I decided to attempt to do a painting set in 1340. That was a challenge. I used the research of a graduate student in Texas to determine the design of the boats in the canals, adding the museum’s own historical materials to create my conjectural image.

What is your favorite subject?

  The history of the Hudson River. I enjoy researching and painting the vessels used on the river in different time periods. The earliest vessels (other than Native American canoes) are very European, and are exactly the same as those you’d find in Holland. When the English came, the vessel designs became composites of English shipbuilding and Dutch craft. I always felt that this transformation was a great example of the American melting pot, especially when you look at Hudson River shipbuilding in the 19th century, where you find complete hybrids – nothing like the Dutch or English boats and distinctly purpose-built and provincial.

Are all your historical paintings done on commission?

No, I’ve done some on spec. For instance, a few years ago I had the time to create a painting of Hudson, New York in the 1760s. At that time it was called Claverack Landing. It fascinated me because of the enormous change that came to that settlement in the early 1800s. It morphed from a simple riverside community into a fully developed city practically overnight. I felt that it would be interesting to depict where that town started.

One of your commissions was for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for a painting of the Winne House. How did that come about?

The museum had collected pieces of the house, which was located in Selkirk, and reconstructed them on the third floor of the American Wing. They commissioned the painting to show the house in its original setting. Even now it’s hard to believe that I was given that opportunity. Working with museums in general is of great interest to me, but the Met is on a whole different level.

Do you ever paint contemporary scenes?

I just came back from a trip to England with my wife, and did two plein air paintings while I was there. I don’t exhibit my travel paintings.

What about the 20th century?

The 1930s are fun. I started a painting a while ago of strawberry pickers in the Catskills that I’d like to get back to at some point. I’ve also done a number of railroad paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I tend to lose interest in the documentary aspect of our time, because it has been covered so extensively by photography and the news media.

What are some subjects you’d like to paint in the future?

There’s no end to the depth of material in New York. Each new work inspires and introduces me to more possibilities. Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Beacon, Nyack, Yonkers, the canals, Lake Champlain, Lake George…it’s an endless list of places, times and events. I’m interested in all of it. ♦

Len Tantillo’s painting, The Huguenot Redoubt, is now on display at the Dubois Fort Visitor Center at Historic Huguenot Street, 81 Huguenot Street in New Paltz. It’s open daily except Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 31; from November 1 through the third Sunday in December, open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment; after that, closed through the first Friday in May. For more information, call (845) 255-1889 or e-mail info@historichuguenotstreet.org.

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