Exploring Home, Exploring the American West: Two Paintings by Jervis McEntee (1828-1891)

On September 13, 1881, Jervis McEntee recorded in his dairy:

Jamie and I returned this morning from our visit to Lucy at Fort Halleck Nev. The two past months have been among the most interesting in my whole experience. The ride over this vast stretch of country and particularly over the Pacific rail road was crowded with interest day by day and never wearied me. I made a number of sketches and have returned with a hopeful and happy feeling and with the robust health born of living most of the time in the open air.[1]

A recent addition to Hawthorne Fine Art, Near Fort Halleck, was one of the oil sketches completed by McEntee (1828–1891) while in Nevada, where he traveled between June 28 and September 13, 1881 to stay with his sister and to take a “mental rest.”

Jervis McEntee, Near Fort Halleck, 1881, oil on canvas (Click to enlarge)

Demonstrating looser brushstrokes typical of oil sketching technique, this picture captures the sprawl and diversity of the landscape in a panoramic format. The lush vegetation in the foreground is dotted only sporadically with man-made structures, while the vast mountainscape in the background reveals a hint of snowcapped peaks at right that seem to hover in the atmosphere. As McEntee described, “The landscape is very fine and the mountains as picturesque as possible. Great sweeps of distance dotted with herds of cattle and terminating in Snow mountains are characteristic of the region.”[2] The format of this image effectively captures the vastness of the Nevada landscape, the remembrance of which could be used in a final painting upon the artist’s return to New York.

Jervis McEntee, An Adirondack Lake, oil on board (Click to enlarge)

A more typical subject matter in McEntee’s oeuvre is An Adirondack Lake. Born in the Hudson River Valley, in Rondout, New York, McEntee frequently depicted views of the Catskill and Adirondack mountains throughout his career. An Adirondack Lake reveals McEntee’s early training with Frederic Church (1826–1900) in its dramatic color palette and sensitive brushstrokes, while the luminosity of the scene exposes the influence of the artist’s close colleagues Worthington Whittredge (1820­–1910) and Sanford Gifford (1823–1880). The soft gray and brown of the lake and mountain contrast sharply with the flaming red of the autumn skyline. This juxtaposition of muted versus vibrant tones creates drama amid this serene lakeside vista. The bright autumn leaves frame the narrative of a man in his boat as a sharp peak rises dramatically above the lake.

Born in 1828, McEntee decided to devote himself entirely to painting by 1855 after working briefly in the flour and feed business. He took up a studio at the legendary Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, where artists such as Church, Winslow Homer (1836–1910), and Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) worked and exhibited. In 1858, McEntee had an additional studio built next to his father’s home in Rondout where the artist spent many summers painting the local landscape. He was elected an associate member of the National Academy in 1860, and became a full member the following year.

McEntee’s belief in the capacity of the natural landscape to arouse profound emotions often inspired him to exhibit his paintings with passages of poetry, reflecting the influence of the poet Henry Pickering (1781–1838) who boarded with the McEntee family during the artist’s childhood and introduced the young boy to fine art, poetry, and literature. McEntee’s austere autumnal landscapes, with subdued tones and a pensive and at times melancholy mood, set him apart from those Hudson River artists who preferred sublime topography and vivid colors. Today, McEntee’s works are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among others.

[1] Jervis McEntee, Diary Entry, September 13, 1881, The Jervis McEntee Diaries, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[2] Quoted in A Selection of Drawings by Jervis McEntee From the Lockwood DeForest Collection (New York: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 1976), unpaginated.


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