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- 19th Century American Painting
- Picnic on "Artists Ledge" Overlooking Conway Meadows, NH , 1874
- oil on canvas
- 30 1/2 in. x 48 in. (77.47 cm x 121.92 cm)
- Bequest of Henry Melville Fuller, 2002.20.15
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Interpretive text from 2004, Exploring American Art: An Online Resource for the American Collections
Known as "the Father of the White Mountain School," Benjamin Champney was among the earliest and most prolific of the many artists who depicted New Hampshire's mountain scenery. He was born in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, and began his career as an apprentice in the lithography firm of Thomas Moore in Boston. At the age of twenty-two, he made his first trip to the White Mountains in the company of Robert Cooke (c. 1810-1843), a friend and fellow artist who had provided some earlier instruction in drawing.
Acting on the advice of Washington Allston (1779-1843), Champney in 1841 went to Europe, where he remained for much of the decade, sketching and gathering material for a large panorama of the Rhine. Although financially unrewarding, Champney's panorama established the artist as a talented figure in the field of landscape painting. Champney returned to New Hampshire in 1849, and from about 1850 onward he made a specialty of White Mountain scenery. Through his efforts, numerous artists in Boston and New York discovered the region. For many years, Champney maintained a summer studio at North Conway, which served as a rendezvous for painters visiting from all over the Northeast.
Completed in 1874, Picnic on "Artist's Ledge" overlooking Conway Meadows, NH is a familiar Champney mountainscape enlivened by vignettes of group recreation. A warm, atmospheric light envelops the mountains and vale in the distance. On a granite ridge in the foreground, a party of sightseers has paused to engage in various activities. Lunch pails resting on the rock indicate that a picnic is in the offing. To the right, a pair of young people prepares lunch while others appear to be gathering berries or perhaps flowers; on the left, a standing couple and a seated boy gaze out over the meadows. The man carries a folded easel, identifying him as an artist and providing the viewer with a clue as to the location of this well-known site near North Conway. Champney's decision to include such a figure is at least partly self-referential, and at one time, it was believed that the individuals in this painting represented the artist and his family.
Ironically, by the mid-1870s images of the White Mountains had become somewhat hackneyed. No longer the sublime wilderness depicted by Thomas Cole (q.v.) some fifty years earlier, the region had instead become an easily accessible summer resort whose scenery had become fully domesticated in the minds of visitors. Iconic images of Mount Washington and Mount Chocorua were losing currency at art exhibitions, and for a painter to remain viable in the White Mountains, it became increasingly important to focus, not on spectacular views, but on the sensory charms of the place.(1)
Champney recognized the need to change emphasis, and in Picnic on "Artist's Ledge" he highlights the pleasant dreaminess of an afternoon spent in what White Mountain panegyrist Thomas Starr King called "a suburb of Paradise." As early as 1860 King compared the North Conway area to the Italian Campagna, asserting that both shared the same bliss-inducing and reposeful quality.(2) Champney himself had visited Italy while touring Europe in the 1840s and was clearly inclined to agree. In his painting, the Italian referents are unmistakable: the blue-gold skies and picturesque pines closely parallel those depicted in Italian scenes by such artists as George Loring Brown (1814-1889) and George Inness (1825-1894).(3) As is frequent in those artists' renditions of the Italian landscape, a mood of warm languidness characterizes Picnic on "Artist's Ledge." The view is panoramic, yet the sense of the sublime is largely absent. In place of worshipful awe, Champney substitutes the pleasures of sunlight, sultry air, scenic beauty, and simple recreation.
The original owner of Picnic on "Artist's Ledge" remains unknown. The painting has a history on the Boston art market, however, and it appeared there at least once in the 1930s before it was purchased by Henry Melville Fuller in the early 1960s. Fuller bequeathed the painting to the Currier Museum of Art in 2002.
Hilary Anderson, Donna Bell Garvin, Donald D. Keyes, and Charles O. Vogel. "Beauty Caught and Kept: Benjamin Champney in the White Mountains." Historical New Hampshire 51, nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1996).
Benjamin Champney. Sixty Years' Memories of Art and Artists. Woburn, MA: privately printed, 1900.
William G. Hennessy and Frederic A. Sharf. "Benjamin Champney and the American Barbizon, 1850-1857." Antiques LXXXIV, no. 5 (November 1963): 566-569.
Thomas Starr King. The White Hills; Their Legends, Landscape, and Poetry. Boston: Crosby, Nichols and Company, 1860.
1965 North Conway Library Assocation, North Conway, NH, "A Century of Art in the White Mountains." July 11 - 17.
1971 "19th Century American Painting form the Collection of Henry Melville Fuller." Traveled to: Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, Sept. 18 - Oct. 17; Mead Art Building, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, Oct. 27- Nov. 24, no. 12.
1995 Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Art Center, Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH, "Paintings of Nineteenth-Century New Hampshire from the Collection of Henry Melville Fuller." Oct. 23 - Dec. 13.
1997-1998 New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, NH, "Beauty Caught and Kept: Benjamin Champney in the White Mountains." Mar. 1, 1997 - Jan. 4, 1998.
2002 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "19th Century American Paintings: The Henry Melville Fuller Collection." Feb. 2 - March 11.
Vose Galleries, Boston, MA
Purchased by Henry Melville Fuller, October 30, 1961
Bequest Currier Museum of Art, 2002
The information presented here is reviewed regularly and may change as result of ongoing research.