Frederic Edwin Church, Mark Tobey and John Covert are all American painters. The works I selected from Church and Covert are paintings in oil, while the work that I selected from Tobey is a watercolor. Church was one of the most influential members of the Hudson River School from American landscape painting, but I was drawn by the spiritual aspect of the painting that I chose. Mark Tobey is an abstract expressionist who co-founded the Northwest School, and his watercolor entitled “Farmers’ Market” captured much of the energy that goes into that environment in an intriguing way. John Covert was one of the early leaders of the American Modernism movement and also co-founded the Society of Independent Artists. I was drawn to “The Temptation of St. Anthony, #2” by the dark figures and heavy lines that dominate the composition.
“A Country Home” is a landscape with a small lake in the foreground. There is a tall tree to the right, and shorter trees to the left. A large hill, or perhaps a small mountain, is further in the background to the left, and the slope gently rolls down to the viewer’s right. It is either sunset or sunrise; the sun is behind the hills, casting its light up into the pink and orange clouds that dominate the upper half of the painting. In the very center of the painting, there is a clearing between the clouds and the hills, where the glow of the sun exudes the most. The power of the light, though, extends to the lower surfaces of each cloud above it, spreading from yellow to orange and pink as the viewer’s gaze goes upward. On the left, in front of the tallest hill, there is a small house with a light shining through the open window; it is the home that inspired the name of the painting. In The Home Book of the Picturesque, Church wrote that “the hand of man generally improves a landscape. The earth has been given to him, and his presence in Eden is natural. He gives life and spirit to the garden (Church, p. 111). The idea of a country house in the early nineteenth century symbolized American experience in finding one’s own land and one’s own property, so that one could have satisfaction of living independently, raising one’s own food and sustaining oneself. For Church, the idea was that human presence did not only complete nature, but also improved it, brought it to its intended completion, and the purpose of the sun in the back is to show the benevolence of God. Most of Church’s works consist of landscape with some sort of spiritual symbolism or meaning for the viewer; it was this combination of natural beauty with spiritual significance that made his work popular, much as was the case with the recently deceased Thomas Kinkade. However, Church’s works were all individually made, instead of mass-produced. For me, the idea of divine providence combining with the hard work of the individual, which was the basis of much of the Puritan work ethic, is a powerful source of motivation, and it is a kind of symbolism that spoke to me from this painting.
The lines in the painting move gently downward from the left to the right, following the hill to the focus, which is an open gap in the clouds. The light from the home is another focus, standing out from a darker part of the painting to show the happiness of humanity in harmony with the nature. This organization is typical of Church’s works.
Mark Tobey painted “Farmer’s Market” (and a later “Farmer’s Market No. 2”) in protest as to the proposed closing of the Farmer’s Market in Seattle, which had been a thriving institution since its opening in 1907, but had started to decay with its surrounding neighborhood by the 1950’s. Although it would later become the famed Pike Place Market, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, the survival of the Farmer’s Market was in doubt every time its ten-year lease came before the city council (Dietrich). Rendered in opaque watercolors, this abstract expressionist rendering of the bustle and toil that typify a farmer’s market teem off the surface. The devotees of the Seattle Farmer’s Market took this painting as a symbol of their struggle. The figures moving about in the painting, at times more chalk lines than actual figures, tend to show the movement rather than individuals, and it clarifies the energy that the market brings to the city that Tobey is portraying here. Many of Tobey’s abstract expressionist pieces show the same sort of vibrancy and movement, with the intrinsic energy the key to the presentation. The political statement is clear: without the Farmer’s Market, the city of Seattle would lose one of its most vibrant institutions.
This painting is dominated by line and shape. The top third of the poem is dominated by triangles: lines of light coming down from the ceiling, pennants hanging in parallel from cords, and triangular lamps that hang above the patrons as the move from stall to stall. There is one load bearing pole, in the left third of the painting that appears to stop right above the head of a patron in the foreground. The meaning behind this could be a reference to the shaky future of the market, because of the possibly termination of the lease. It could also mean that the market is supported by the people, rather than anything else. The elongated figures are, by and large, faceless – the power of the market comes from the masses of people, moving and bustling, rather than from the individual. This emotional dynamo in the hub of Seattle is clearly a vital institution. I enjoyed the fact that this painting was both a social protest and an expression of the energy of the masses.
John Covert’s 1919 “Temptation of St. Anthony, No. 2” represents a subject that has been well represented through the history of painting. The subject is the trials that St. Anthony the Great faced while alone in the desert of Egypt. He is presented with the view of a variety of creatures engaging in different forms of sin; however, St. Anthony remains faithful by heading to a nearby altar and kneeling at it, focusing on Jesus Christ (Minnick, p. 82). Most representations tend to feature St. Anthony faced with the temptations around him. In contrast, though, this vies shows alternations of white and black stones, in sharp, angular shapes, yawning before the viewer. The circle in the upper left hand corner could be St. Anthony cowering before temptation, or clinging to the white stone before him. The twentieth century featured some of the greatest inhumanity in recorded history, and even in 1919, Covert would have been aware of the horrors of World War I: the first biological weapons, in the form of mustard gas, as well as the massive deaths in the trenches of the Western Europe. These massive black slabs make Covert’s statement; namely, that these dark, powerful shafts run through all of us, making sin not only possible but inevitable. This acknowledgment of the dark possibilities within us, without surrender, spoke to me as I viewed the painting.
This is one of Covert’s earliest Cubist works. Before coming back to the United States in 1915, Covert had developed a style that was described as conservative and academic. However, when he returned, he spent a great deal of time with the artists and intellectuals who gathered at the home of his cousin, Walter Arensberg. Both Arensberg and his wife were modern art patrons, and under the influence of this salon, Covert moved to a Cubist style, although he was never able to achieve the sort of professional success that would help him paint independently (“Finding Aids – Historical Note”). The lines clearly move the viewer to the upper left hand corner from all of the other corners, as the black and white triangular shafts focus in on the mysterious figure in the upper left hand corner. If one views this as St. Anthony, then he is being skewered by the two black triangles of temptation, and the black shadow on the right side of the figure renders his submission to those temptations to be an ambiguous matter at best. He keeps the white shapes before him; the suggestion is that keeping good before us is the best that any of us can do.
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I selected each of these three paintings for different reasons. These three painters are quite distinct from one another, but all three of them pulsate with their own individual type of energy. In Church’s painting, the focus is on the spiritual energy that harmony with God and nature can bring. In Tobey’s painting, the focus is on the aggregate energy that humanity can create, empowering an entire city. In Covert’s painting, the focus is on the perilous energy that temptation brings to each of us. Church’s painting follows the conventions of the Hudson School landscape; Tobey has the powerful cuts and swings of abstract expressionism; Covert has the Cubist distortion of reality that Picasso, Braque and others would use to define a century.