Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a peninsula that includes the towns of Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, and Manchester, has long been a magnet for artists who are drawn to its intense light and varied scenery. In the 1880s, William Picknell established a summer art colony there in Annisquam, a small...
Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a peninsula that includes the towns of Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, and Manchester, has long been a magnet for artists who are drawn to its intense light and varied scenery. In the 1880s, William Picknell established a summer art colony there in Annisquam, a small village within Gloucester known for its picturesque lighthouse, peaceful village lanes, and giant granite boulders. Between 1883 and 1891, Picknell was joined by as many as thirty artists, including Hugh Bolton Jones [27.1325], whom he had known in Pont Aven, an artists’ colony in Brittany where Picknell had worked from 1874 to 1881. During his summer campaigns on Cape Ann, Picknell was attracted to both the peaceful views of the Annisquam River and to the wilder vistas of the dunes on Coffin’s Beach [53.383], across the river from the village of Annisquam. Picknell painted Sand Dunes of Essex, Massachusetts in 1884. Realizing that large canvases attracted attention in crowded exhibitions, Picknell chose one almost seven feet long—just as he had in 1880, when he painted The Road to Concarneau (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which had been the first American landscape to win an honorable mention at the prestigious Paris Salon. The Road to Concarneau was especially acclaimed for the intensity of the glaring light that Picknell was able to convey, and Sand Dunes of Essex, Massachusetts can also be admired for its brightly lit surface. Picknell’s many years of painting in France are reflected in the presentation of his subject and in his technique. Eschewing strict academic practice, like most of the more progressive French artists, Picknell selected a vista without historical associations, natural drama, or a distinctive motif. Instead, his subject is the effect of sunlight on the unspoiled dunes, with a horse-drawn wagon on the road to provide a sense of the substantial scale of the scrub-covered sandbanks and the granite outcroppings. A variety of intense greens, which contrast with the blue sky and white sand, unify the composition. Like the innovative French Realist painter Gustave Courbet, Picknell applied his pigments vigorously with palette knife and brush. The palette knife enabled him to cover sizeable swaths of canvas quickly and to impart a distinctive texture to his landscape. Both artists also used subtractive methods; Picknell is known to have achieved his mottled blue skies by rubbing the painted surface with a pumice stone to reveal the white priming below. Picknell was not the only American artist to paint stark landscapes of dunes in the 1880s. Dunescapes [Block quote] suddenly appeared around 1881 almost simultaneously on the East and West Coasts among artists seeking not only to commune on a personal level with nature, forsaking the familiar and the grandiose, but also shunning the traditional—whether Hudson River School, Düsseldorf-influenced, or French Barbizon landscape traditions. Almost mysteriously, [William] Keith began painting the dunes of California in 1881, at the same time Picknell and his colleagues were painting them in Annisquam, while that same year John Ferguson Weir painted the dunes at East Hampton and R. Swain Gifford… produced…several other dunescapes near Nonquitt on Buzzard’s Bay, south of Boston. [/Block quote] The raw, uncultivated dunes appealed to Picknell, and during his nine summers in Annisquam, he revisited the subject several times on a smaller scale. Among his other dune paintings are Annisquam Landscape (date unknown, private collection) and Solitude (1888, private collection).  Picknell sent Sand Dunes of Essex, Massachusetts, under the title Côtés de Ipswich, to the annual Salon exhibition in Paris in 1884, together with Côtés d’Annisquam (destroyed). A critic for La France commanded his readers to “look at Mr. Picknell’s two pictures: ‘Ipswich’ and ‘Coast of Annisquam.’ Full of life, light and poetry.” And a writer for La Femme et la Famille opined that “Mr. Picknell has made a fine picture at Ipswich, Mass. A road in the middle, with a cart moving along; in the foreground chalky earth, white and yellow flowering shrubs and enormous moss-covered rocks. Above and beyond all a blue sky, flooding everything with a gorgeous light.” Picknell next entered Sand Dunes of Essex, Massachusetts, again under the title Coté de Ipswich, in the Fifteenth Exhibition of Boston’s Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in the fall of 1884. The painting was awarded a gold medal and was one of seven chosen to be acquired by the organization. Boston reviewers appreciated Picknell’s work as fully as their French counterparts. A critic for the Boston Transcript was almost certainly referring to Sand Dunes of Essex, Massachusetts when he wrote, “the power and grasp of the artist in conveying the solidity and expanse of the earth and the richness of its clothing of verdure, recall nothing less than the power and grasp of Courbet in the expression of such aspects.”  In 1885, Daniel S. Ford, Picknell’s uncle and agent, anonymously gave $1,200 to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to buy the painting from the Charitable Mechanic Association for its own collection. Ford was a successful editor, publisher, and philanthropist, who had purchased Youth’s Companion, a small Sunday-school paper for young children, and gradually developed it into the most popular family journal in the country. Ford wanted the Museum to buy the picture since it “would be an acknowledgement by a recognized official authority of its merit” and also “a great benefit to Mr. Picknell, as a public recognition of his merits as an Artist.” However, Ford wished his part in the purchase to remain confidential, and the painting was thus credited as an “anonymous gift.” Notes 1. William H. Gerdts, “Frank Dudley in a National Context: Dunescapes and Other Landscapes,”in The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley, ed. James R. Dabbert (Valparaiso, Ind.: Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 139–40. 2. Christie’s New York, May 19, 2005, Lot 170. 3. See Lauren Walden Rabb, “William Lamb Picknell: An American Emersonian Artist” (master’s thesis, George Washington University, 1996), http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/8aa/8aa361.htm [http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/8aa/8aa361.htm], n124. 4. Both writers quoted in Art Criticisms from the French, English and American Newspapers:Upon Paintings in the Paris Salon, Royal Academy and other Exhibitions by William L. Picknell (New York: S. P. Avery, Jr. Art Galleries, 1890), 11. 5. Quoted in Art Criticisms, 28–29. 6. Curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Janet L. Comey
Lower right: W. L. Picknell.
1884, purchased by Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, Boston for $1200 - one of seven paintings acquired by the association from its fifteenth exhibition; 1885, purchased from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association by the MFA with funds donated by Daniel S. Ford and credited as an anonymous gift. (Accession Date: August 7, 1885)