If I were an artist around here and looking for something to paint, I wouldn’t choose Mount Monadnock.
Apparently, few artists agree.
Have you ever strolled through Art in the Park in Keene or the Art Walk downtown?
That damn hunk of granite is painted on canvas, paper, wood, wallboard, posterboard and even cloth, depictions of it at sunrise, sunset, summer afternoons and covered in snow. There are thousands of photographs of it, color and black-and-white, from every conceivable angle. Pencil sketches, acrylics, watercolors, oils. Every once in a while there may be a barn or a cow thrown in.
I would bet there are more artists painting that thing than there are people who climb it. Maybe somebody’s had an image of it tattooed on their back, or even below that. I hope the Walldog artists this month don’t splash that thing on a building’s side.
Always the mountain.
I have this image in my mind of the first group of white explorers scrambling through the thick forests of this land, grizzled men with long flintlocks, coming upon the view of the mountain. One says “You know, as soon as we can get rid of these bears and mountain lions, I’d like to paint a picture of that thing.” Then, when they reach a village of hardy Native Americans, they find there are already depictions of the mountain all over the place, on deerskin and carved into elk antlers. Available for sale or trade, no doubt.
Okay, I completely get it: Mount Monadnock is our only mountain; the region is named for it. I’ll grant that a couple hundred, maybe a thousand, paintings and photographs of it are OK.
There’s many, many more than that. It’s more likely than not that when you go into anyone’s house in this region, there’s that painting on the wall, the mountain. That goes also for libraries, town halls, restaurants, shops and offices.
There’s another reason I wouldn’t choose it as a subject, being that someone much more talented than probably anyone else — ever — already painted it, and their work hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
It’s called, naturally, “Mount Monadnock,” and the painter was Abbott Thayer, 1849-1921. Photos of the guy from the time show a thin, bald man with a mustache.
My opinion of Thayer’s lifelong portfolio of work is that he was every bit as talented as John Singer Sargent, who is considered a titan of American art. Many art critics agree with that assessment.
Here’s the description of Thayer’s Mount Monadnock, from the National Gallery, written in the style, of course, of highfalutin art-gallery talk:
“Abbott Thayer described Mount Monadnock, the subject of this subdued, violet-blue landscape, as ‘this dear mountain.’ It provided continual artistic inspiration and personal solace for the artist throughout his life. In this depiction, he casts the majority of the scene in shadow, save for the stark white mountain peak, illuminated by the rising sun in the dawn sky.”
The painting, oil on canvas, is gorgeous, beautiful, stunning, nuanced. All his work is. That’s my opinion. If you want to see the original, it’s located in the National Gallery’s West Building, Main Floor, Gallery 70.
Thayer, the gallery notes read, “was born in Boston and raised in New Hampshire. He trained in Paris and New York becoming a successful portrait painter and leading member of the Society of American Artists. Wishing to retain his connection to the countryside, in 1888 he bought property in the quiet town of Dublin, New Hampshire, an artists’ colony with views of his beloved mountain. He would settle there permanently by 1901.”
The painting intrigued me even more after I read this in the gallery’s notes:
“A generation earlier, Mount Monadnock figured prominently in the lives of the transcendentalist poets and philosophers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both artist and naturalist, Thayer was deeply rooted in transcendental philosophies that imbued his landscapes with cultural, spiritual and personal significance.”
And there’s more:
“Upon learning in 1911 that a group of private developers wanted to purchase an expanse of Mount Monadnock, Thayer successfully organized the local community around its conservation. When he died, his ashes were scattered on its summit.”
That description makes me think that I would have liked knowing the man, that I would have enjoyed chewing the fat with him at the 1911 version of the Dublin Store. No doubt he was a very sensitive man, a deep thinker. It’s said that he was eccentric and opinionated, and grew more so as he aged, and his family’s manner of living reflected his strong beliefs: The Thayers typically slept outdoors year-round in order to enjoy what he believed were the benefits of fresh air.
Although I’d have to smash some time frames together, I wondered how it would be to hobnob with Thayer, Thoreau and Emerson all at the same time, in the town at the foot of the mountain.
But then another thought occurred to me, too. I’d be the guy who showed Thayer my artistic version of the mountain, painted in garish colors on an old saw.
And, I probably would have been one of those private developers with plans to build all sorts of tourist traps on the mountain. I’d urge Thayer to quit sleeping outside; hadn’t he ever thought about his wife? I’d tell Thoreau to stop living alone on a lake in Massachusetts and get a job. Emerson? I’d tell him to get a grip, to stop spouting all that gibberish about transcendentalism.