May Day! Puritan scandal and picturesque landscape conventions in a recent acquisition by Julius Herman Kummer (1817–1869)

Hawthorne Fine Art’s most recent acquisition, by the Dresden-born landscape painter and lithographer Julius Herman Kummer, depicts a May Day celebration in honor of the coming of spring. Painted while the artist was residing in Boston, May Day demonstrates Kummer’s knowledge of picturesque and Romantic landscape conventions. The canopy of trees dwarfs the figures in the foreground while engulfing them in its embrace, and the arched shape of the composition may allude to a spiritual reverence for nature popular among nineteenth century landscape painters in both the United States and Kummer’s native Germany.

Julius Herman Kummer, May Day, 1859

Kummer’s painting was completed the same year the popular illustrator and painter Winslow Homer (1836–1910) published his engraving May Day in the Country in Harper’s Weekly. There are similarities in the two images, including the figural groupings of children, the wooded scenery, and the popular subject matter. However, Kummer heightens the drama and Romanticism in his composition through the monumental scale of the trees and deep recession of the primary subject–the Maypole.

Winslow Homer, May-Day in the Country, Harper’s Weekly, April 30, 1859

May Day was a popular spring celebration that originated in pagan traditions in Northern Europe and was brought to America by early European settlers. May Day festivities traditionally took place in the woods and included music, wine, bonfires, outdoor plays, horse races, dancing around a Maypole adorned with ribbons and garlands, and filling baskets with flowers to be left on the doorsteps of neighbors.

Among the earliest and most notorious May Day celebrations in America occurred in 1627 in Massachusetts, and was chronicled in the short story “The Maypole of Merrymount,” by Nathanial Hawthorne, for whom Hawthorne Fine Art is named. Legend has it that the Anglican Thomas Morton, who had a reputation as a bon vivant, erected a Maypole in his plantation at Merry Mount on the coast of Massachusetts, initiating boisterous May Day celebrations. Hawthorne begins his story: “Bright were the days at Merry Mount, when the Maypole was the banner staff of that gay colony! They who reared it, should their banner be triumphant, were to pour sunshine over New England’s rugged hills, and scatter flower seeds throughout the soil. Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire. Midsummer eve had come, bringing deep verdure to the forest, and roses in her lap, of a more vivid hue than the tender buds of Spring.” The story describes the incident when the Puritan John Endicott disrupts a Maypole dance, accusing the celebration of idolatry and cutting down the Merry Mount Maypole. “It groaned with a dismal sound; it showered leaves and rosebuds upon the remorseless enthusiast; and finally, with all its green boughs and ribbons and flowers, symbolic of departed pleasures, down fell the banner staff of Merry Mount. As it sank, tradition says, the evening sky grew darker, and the woods threw forth a more sombre shadow.” Governor Bradford, who, like the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Boston Puritans, believed May Day celebrations amounted to idolatry, sought a court order from England to ban the holiday and eventually had Morton deported. May Day continued to be commemorated in America despite the victory of the Puritans at Merry Mount.

Kummer’s depiction of the May Day celebration during his brief residency in Boston is a testament not only to his landscape training at the Dresden Academy, an important center of the Romantic movement in Europe, but also to the survival in America of this traditional celebration that rejoices in nature’s changing seasons and the renewal of springtime.

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