Recently I took a journey to a place of importance in the history of American and international art and in the geography of my soul.
The occasion was a trip to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where a dear friend took me to see a superb exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Instituteone of Americas great small art museums. The main galleries of the Clark are nestled at the foot of Stone Hill, while a recently completed art conservation annex sits on its flank. The bucolic hill itself, part forest, part open farm meadows, with meandering wood roads, provides inspiring views of three mountain rangesthe Berkshires, Taconic, and Green Mountains. Its romantic landscape serves as the backyard and escape for many college students and local residents. My memories span the seasons with skinny-dips in a stream at its base, cross country ski trips and toboggan rides through its snowy fields, and long runs through autumn leaves of fiery yellows and reds. Any trip onto the hill promised to blur the lines between the real and spiritual worlds, to offer escape from the cares of the day and refuge in the beauty of natures most discrete and secret realms.
No better venue could be found for the spectacular art exhibition entitled Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly. This show displays and offers insights into a brief but important movement in American art at the turn of the 20th century. A small group of landscape painters, including George Inness and James McNeill Whistler, moved away from hard-edged realism, instead filling their canvases with luminous, hazy depictions that captured the mood or spiritual essence of a place. The exhibitions title comes from a quote by Whistler, who said Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.
George Inness, whose Hudson Valley and Berkshire scenes are prized among museums and collectors today, railed against much of the landscape painting of his time, especially its tendency to ignore the reality of the unseen. He believed, and demonstrated in his work, that nature possesses living motion that interacts with human vitality. The greatness of art, he wrote, is not in the display of knowledge, or in material accuracy, but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impressions of a personal vital force that acts spontaneously, without fear or hesitation. While touring the show, my friend Frank Martucci, a leading collector and student of Innesss work, pointed out to me the many dimensions in the paintings, where the realm of reality fades into the spiritual plane.
Anyone who spends time in Americas majestic open spaces whether hiking, kayaking, bicycling or just sitting and admiring breathtaking scenery can experience this vital force, this sense of the divine amid natures ethereal beauty. For many, this is the very reason we enjoy the outdoors. It offers us a chance to connect with something far more immense and awesome than our own, often mundane lives.
These more spiritual values may be as important, if not more important, than the more tangible benefits of protecting land. In addition to boosting local economies through increased recreation and tourism, reducing threats from global climate change and safeguarding wildlife habitat, protecting the sacred spaces in our world helps us center ourselves and find meaning in an otherwise chaotic world.
Actually, there is tangible proof that regular contact with nature is good for us, especially those who are among one of the fastest growing segments of our population the elderly. Older people are prone to feelings that life has lost its sense of meaning or purpose. Studies have shown that engaging the elderly in regular outdoor experiences fosters a sense of community, or oneness with a wider world, that improves both their physical and emotional well-being. The benefits to children have also been well documented.
My journey back to Stone Hill with Frank reminded me of natures power to open, nurture and restore our souls. As we work to save the planet, lets make sure we dont lose sight of that power.
"Summer, Montclair" / George Inness
Like Breath on Glass is on exhibition at the Clark Art Institute through October 19.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.