Nostalgia and the Local Landscape: Clark Greenwood Voorhees (1871-1933)

By the time Matt Rowland’s Road, Old Lyme, CT was completed around 1919, Clark Greenwood Voorhees (1871-1933) was well versed in the plein air painting technique of Impressionism. Depicting a local landscape near the Old Lyme, Connecticut, art colony where Voorhees made his home, this painting captures the crisp autumn air and vibrant foliage of the Connecticut countryside. Voorhees’s even brushstrokes and thick dabs of paint are typical of the Impressionist manner, which occupied itself with natural effects of light and air. But in this nostalgic image of tangled, overgrown land and a rickety bridge emerges Voorhees’s tendencies toward Tonalism, influenced by the American Barbizon movement.

Voorhees, Matt Rowland’s Road, Old Lyme, CT, c.1919

American Barbizon artists such as George Inness (1825-1894) painted in a Tonalist manner using washes of harmonized colors in an attempt to encourage introspective viewing of the image, rather than sensory overload through academic naturalism. Originating from the Barbizon movement in the Fontainbleau region of France, the American Barbizon artists likewise focused on the wildness of local landscapes as a retreat from modern urban life. Voorhees, while incorporating the painting techniques of the Impressionists, is reflecting on this small, seemingly insignificant plot of land along a country road as an escape from the progress of modernity.

The man whose name gives this painting its title was lifelong resident of Old Lyme, Matthew L. Rowland. Recording himself as a “Farm Laborer” in the 1870 Federal Census, Rowland most likely lived and worked near the location depicted by Voorhees. Whether the road was in fact named after Rowland, or if Voorhees simply applied the farmer’s name to the location is unknown, as is any relationship that may have existed between the artist and Rowland, who lived until about 1920. Voorhees’s choice of this local resident and location allows for a meditation on change in the landscape over time, a common theme in both Barbizon and Impressionist philosophy (for example, seasonal change; times of day; or the progress of society). A regular biker who enjoyed physical connections with the landscape, Voorhees aspired toward a subjective interpretation of nature in his paintings, such as this.

1870 Federal Census showing Matt Rowland. Click to enlarge.

By 1919, when this painting was most likely completed, Voorhees and his family, a wife and three children, began to travel to Bermuda each year to escape the Connecticut winter. Voorhees may have completed this autumn scene just prior to his escape to a warmer climate, incorporating the idea of change, in this case seasonal, so prevalent in Barbizon painting and Impressionism. As the brightly colored leaves dry out and fall to the ground, everything and everyone prepares for a long winter in New England. Whether it was Voorhees’s intention or not, it is difficult to avoid the metaphor of the changing seasons, the changing society in which Voorhees was living, and the “autumn” of Matthew Rowland’s life and land.

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