Looking Closely

Vose Galleries
Aug 14, 2019 8:45PM

Some may recall the 'Our Best to You' series, which Vose Galleries produced in 2002, 2008, and 2011. The series presented a notable selection of works of art from our inventory. We've decided to reinstate the series to celebrate works that we believe deserve special attention. In this edition, Director of Sales Tyler Prince takes a close look at John J. Enneking's Crotched Mountain in October.

I think there's an entry point into every painting we sell; some element or detail which activates my interest and causes me to pause and examine the work more closely. Individual brushstrokes are often that entry point for me. I find the creative process fascinating, and the layering of paint creates a timeline from which you can imagine how the artist built the work. Whenever a new painting comes into the gallery we crowd around it, forming our personal opinions on the piece and deciding what about it speaks to us individually. I like to look for the finishing touches and work backwards, peeling the painting like an onion to learn a more about the person who created it.

Tyler Prince, Director of Sales

I was reminded of this recently when I spent an afternoon in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston's Art of the Americas wing. The expansive galleries are quiet on Mondays and I love being alone with the paintings. I used to like company at the museum, I still do occasionally, but I'm more likely to explore the quiet corners of the collection when I'm on my own. This particular afternoon I was floating around the first and second levels. Those two floors are home to some of the crown jewels of American art, from Copley's Watson and the Shark to Homer's The Fog Warning to Cole's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When you first enter the second floor galleries you're immediately greeted by one of Sargent's masterpieces, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a painting that could easily keep me in place for hours. This particular day I kept moving, past thoughtful pairings of antique furniture and 19th century artwork along the first level. Crossing a gallery I typically breeze through quickly, I was stopped in my tracks.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

The piece that caught my eye was Thomas Doughty's A Lake in a Mountain Valley. Hanging over a sideboard, the painting is far enough away that you have to squint to pick out the details. What appeals to me most is its self-contained quality. It's as if Doughty captured the scene in a snow globe. Mirror-smooth water is dotted with white sails, reflecting light from the setting sun. The enclosing bulk of green mountains hug close along the lake's edge, with treetops picked out in silhouette against the dramatic sky. Smaller paintings like this draw me in. They usually require artists to distill their style and provide detail that might appear overly fussy on a larger canvas. While the atmospheric effect initially captured me, the minute layering of foliage in the foreground was my entry point. When the artist decided to paint individual leaves, where did he start and end? This is the kind of inquiry that takes a while, and I'm looking forward to revisiting this new friend on my next trip to the museum.

I had the same experience recently with John Enneking's Crotched Mountain in October. I sit in the front office at our Newbury Street gallery and decided to decorate my walls with a selection of the artist's work from our inventory (one of the ultimate perks of the job). In hanging this painting, amid the measuring and leveling and lighting and re-leveling and starting-all-over-again, I took a close look at how it's constructed for the first time in a while. If you're familiar with Enneking's work you know he was one of America's earliest impressionist painters, and this piece is exactly why he has been revered by critics, students and collectors for more than a century.

John Joseph Enneking, Crotched Mountain in October (detail), 1891. Vose Galleries

Crotched Mountain's composition and color harmonies are brilliant, but here my entry point is a stroke in the cloud layer. Throughout the canvas Enneking's brushwork is remarkably varied. It flows to define the topography of foothills and explodes in staccato bursts in the treetops. The small cluster of sheep in the foreground is defined by thick impasto, their woolly fleece heavy for the approaching winter cold. In the cool mountain shadows paint is applied in thin dashes, revealing the weave of canvas underneath. The section that always catches my eye is a small patch of clouds in the middle of the sky (detail, above). Here Enneking intentionally smeared his final paint layer, creating a smooth highlight which reflects light in a completely different manner than from the rest of the canvas. Small gaps in the cloud reveal underlying strata of blue and gray which set my mind whirring. Looking at Crotched Mountain every day, I've enjoyed the challenge of working backward from that cloud. Enneking was a master at building up his surface, and it's remarkable to me how his painting intricately weaves multiple effects together to create a completed whole.

When discussing these details with colleagues and collectors I always wonder where their entry points are. There's no right or wrong way to be interested in painting, and varying perspectives usually shine a new light on old friends. If you happen to be in Boston sometime soon, I hope you'll head to the MFA and wander around for a little while. Even a short trip can turn up something special, and if you have time after that maybe we'll see you over at the gallery to talk about what you found.

Vose Galleries