The fragrance of the apple blossom reminds me of a pure and innocent and unsophisticated country girl bedecked for church. – Henry David Thoreau¹
It is almost as if Thoreau were gazing at this very painting by Charles Courtney Curran as he pondered the simple, innocent pleasure of the apple blossom, just as the girl in The Scent of the Apple savors a moment of quiet solitude amidst a grove of apple trees. Curran’s choice in subject—his daughter Emily, a favorite model—is an endearing representation of the feminine archetype that Curran frequently sought to convey in his work. Her natural beauty and radiance is readily apparent, accentuated by the luminous, dappled sunlight breaking through the leaves. Rendered with fine brushstrokes and executed with a bright palette of summery hues, one can almost feel the coolness of the shade or smell the sweetness of the leafy enclosure. With her back turned to the viewer, the girl is absorbed in the simple pleasure of a fresh-picked, fragrant apple; she is the epitome of childhood innocence.
Charles Courtney Curran was first and foremost a figure painter of the highest caliber, well known for his exquisitely sunlit portraits of women and girls. Throughout the 1880’s, Curran trained in New York at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League before spending three years in Paris at the Académie Julian. Many academicians have aligned his style with the leading movements of the era, as he is most often classified as a realist and an impressionist. Yet Curran more than any other artist fostered a style based on assimilation; he merged his cosmopolitan sensibility with his midwestern background, as well as his diverse training in both America and France. In his paintings one can quickly see the ways in which influences of naturalism and symbolism have been fused with the plein-air style of both French and American Impressionism. With great talent and versatility, Curran quickly established a unique and steadfast stylistic sensibility that evades adherence to a specific movement. Curran retained his clear vision and pursued it unwaveringly throughout the art-world upheavals that came with the fin de siècle and the advent of modernism.
Though throughout his career Curran’s distinct style evaded adherence to a specific style or movement, The Scent of the Apple, nonetheless belongs to the tradition of the painted apple in 19th and early 20th century American painting. By the time Curran painted The Scent of the Apple, the apple had been a popular and widespread subject for decades, and a well-established national American symbol.
The apple is our national fruit, and I like to see that the sun yields it; I judge of the country so. The American sun paints himself in these glowing balls amid green leaves. Man would be less solitary, less friended, less supported, if the land yielded only the useful maize and potato, withheld this ornamental and social fruit. – Ralph Waldo Emerson²
By the early 19th century, the apple had become a staple of the American diet and a source of pride for the American people. Apples and children went hand-in-hand, as sayings such as, “children love an apple more than gold,” and “as sure as God made little apples,” became common. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the pervasive and iconic American apple trees, their blossoms, and the fruits themselves found new significance as the subject of many still-lifes and genre scenes. Worthington Whittredge, Levi Wells Prentice, Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson were only a few in a deep history of American painters to immortalize the humble fruit.
Curran is no exception to this tradition, though his style and treatment of The Scent of the Apple sets him apart from convention, merging it with his own tender sensibility.
In 1911, Curran was in the midst of his most successful years, having identified a distinctive style and established himself as a distinguished artist. By this time he had already been an associate at the National Academy of Design for over twenty years, and a full member since 1904; had exhibited paintings at the Paris Salons of 1889, 1890 and 1891; was an active member of the Society of American Artists, the Salmagundi Club, the Lotos Club and the National Arts Club; and had received a number of formal honors, including the Second Hallgarten Prize (1895), the Corcoran and Carnegie Prizes (1904) and the Shaw Prize from the Society of American Artists (1906).
Paintings of this time include The Golden Profile (1913), and the slightly later Summer Morning (ca. 1915), both of which were also painted in Cragsmoor. Each painting lends insight into Curran’s technique, and underscores his endeavors to paint the quintessential feminine essence. Set in idyllic outdoor scenes, the women in these paintings are visions of serene beauty illuminated by a soft glow of sunlight, which Curran has so delicately captured in the luminescence of their hair and the texture of their clothing.
While one can clearly see the influence of the Impressionists in Curran’s treatment of light and his plein-air technique in these paintings, his mastery of the human figure and careful rendering of the scenes set him apart from his contemporaries entirely. In The Scent of the Apple, particularly, Curran synthesized outside influences with the tradition of apple painting into a unique, effortless portrayal of an ideal, feminine beauty, which he executed through careful compositions enhanced by diffuse light and crafted with an exacting hand. Few other painters at the turn of the twentieth century have approached this level of coalescence between technical skill and symbolic unity; and even fewer have done so with such conviction.