"A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole's Farm" is at once a beautiful panorama of the Hudson River, a painting that pays homage to Cole, the father of American landscape painting, and a prime example of the style promoted by the short-lived American Pre-Raphaelite movement. The London-born Farrer...
"A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole's Farm" is at once a beautiful panorama of the Hudson River, a painting that pays homage to Cole, the father of American landscape painting, and a prime example of the style promoted by the short-lived American Pre-Raphaelite movement. The London-born Farrer had studied under British critic and artist John Ruskin and absorbed his scrupulous realism, his meticulous attention to detail and finish, and his championing of humble details from nature as suitable subjects for high art. When he arrived in the United States in the late 1850s, Farrer helped to found the American Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was based on Ruskin's teachings and the ideas of the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded in 1848). The Brotherhood rejected academicism and turned to nature for inspiration; their canvases, influence by Ruskin's insistence on "truth to nature," were often painted "en plein air"and with bright colors. In 1863, Farrer spent the summer in Catskill, New York with fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist Charles Herbert Moore ["North Conway, New Hampshire," 56.373]. Among Farrer's earliest finished landscapes was "A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole's Farm," in which he captured the view from a field in Catskill, on the west bank of the Hudson River, looking northeast toward Hudson, New York on the opposite shore (near the present-day Rip Van Winkle Bridge). He noted his progress in landscape painting in a letter to the editor of the "New York Daily Tribune" in 1867: "ten years ago I could not paint or draw a single tree, bird, stone or flower accurately, and had not even made an attempt to paint from nature. Late in the season of 1859 I made my first effort to paint out of doors. Even as late as the Summer of 1862 (only five years ago) I had made but one finished oil study from nature…"(quoted in May Brawley Hill's entry in Linda S. Ferber and William H. Gerdts, "The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites," Brooklyn, N. Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 1985, p. 163). By 1863, Farrer had honed his skills sufficiently to undertake the painting of "A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole's Farm." Farrer chose his scene with care; the field in the foreground was formerly part of Thomas Cole's farm. Cole, a fellow Englishman, had arrived in America in 1818, and had settled in Catskill in 1836. He was the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, and many of his followers also settled in the Hudson River Valley. In 1860, for example, Frederic Church, one of Cole's students, had purchased land in Hudson on which he was to build his remarkable villa "Olana". The site was just to the south of Farrer's scene, where the village of Hudson is visible in the very center. While Cole portrayed the American landscape in a variety of ways from topographical views ["River in the Catskills," 47.1201] to imaginative landscapes imbued with philosophical, moral, or religious meaning ["Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," 47.1188], Farrer's work emphasized the topographical. Farrer chose a long canvas - the length is more than twice the height - to emphasize the breadth of his view, which celebrates, as Cole had done, the distinctive American scenery. His style, however, was different from Cole's. Farrer favored tiny, precise brushwork to render the details of his landscapes, whereas Cole used more liquid brush strokes and concentrated on the larger masses. "A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole's Farm" is striking for the meticulous detail and crystal-clear features of the scene, the play of light on the waters of the Hudson, and the use of lavender and blue in the foreground shadows. Charles Herbert Moore rendered the same scene from a vantage point on the bank of the river in a similar precise style ("Hudson River, Above Catskill," 1865, Amon Carter Museum). Farrer exhibited "A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole's Farm" together with "The Catskills, from the Village" (location unknown) at the National Academy of Design in 1864, to mixed reviews. The critic for "The Continental Monthly" observed in Farrer's paintings "a painful stiffness", and "the absence of one of the most prominent elements of beauty and interest… namely, mystery." The critic concluded that, "In these pictures of Mr. Farrer we fail to find any trace of atmosphere, and hence they strike us as bald, hard, cold, and unnatural." ("An Hour in the Gallery of the National Academy of Design," The Continental Monthly, vol. 5, June, 1864, p. 688). Clarence Cook, who was an admirer of Ruskin and an advocate for Pre-Raphaelite movement in America, wrote in "New York Daily Tribune" on May 21, 1864, "These two pictures are made forever precious and valuable by the faithful record of the truth of Nature that is in every square inch of them." But even as sympathetic critic as Cook declared that, "there is scarcely anything in them which rises to the rank of art; and that, while there is abundant reason for the interest they excite, and large promise for the future in them, yet there is also very good cause for the dislike which many persons have for them" (quoted in Ferber and Gerdts, p. 163). The writer for "The New Path," the journal for the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art which Farrer helped to found in 1863, was the only reviewer who was wholly positive about Farrer's landscapes. The critic described "the broad blue lake-like expanse of the Hudson, veined as it were with cloudy white, where the summer wind goes by, and dotted with snowy sails…" and found the purple shadows cast by the cedar trees, "so lovely a chord of color it is not often our good fortune to see..." concluding that "all of this beauty comes of following Nature" (quoted in Ferber and Gerdts, p. 163). Farrer was probably not surprised by the critical reception his paintings received. As one of the leaders of the American Pre-Raphaelite movement and as its main link to Ruskin, he had championed the new principles of truth to nature, meticulously detailed naturalism, and completion of work out-of-doors. He had defended these artistic principles in an article entitled "A Few Questions Answered" in "The New Path" in June 1863. However, the labor intensiveness of the Pre-Raphaelite style contained the seeds of its demise. The rewards for the artists' painstaking work were meager. And beyond a small circle, the public did not respond positively to the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. By 1865, "The New Path" had ceased publication. While Ruskinian ideas continued to flourish at Harvard University (see Theodore Stebbins, et al, "The Last Ruskinians: Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Herbert Moore, and Their Circle," Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 2007), the American Pre-Raphaelite movement in New York waned. Farrer eventually returned to England in 1872. Although the flowering of the movement was brief and the body of work produced by its members relatively small, many exquisite paintings, including "A Buckwheat Field on Thomas Cole's Farm," were produced. Janet Comey
Lower right: TCF 63 [TCF in monogram];
By 1955, with H. Grossman, Boston; 1955, sold by H. Grossman to Charles D. Childs, Boston; 1955, sold by Charles D. Childs to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1962, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: March 14, 1962)
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865