It might almost have been taken from a drone. That’s the first impression a modern visitor might get on seeing the painting “A View of Easton,” the large landscape done in 1857 by Moravian artist Gustavus Gruenwald (1805-1878) that offers a sweeping, aerial-like view of the river city, the canals that fed into it, and the hills beyond. The painting, on loan from the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society, is a focal point of a new exhibit at the National Canal Museum at Easton’s Hugh Moore Park, entitled “Where Creativity Flows: Two Centuries of Art Inspired By Our Canals.” It opened on July 2nd and will close on December 20th. For more information call 610-923-3548, ext. 224.
The exhibit features the works of artists from the 19th century to the 21st who have found the waterways known as the Lehigh and Delaware Canals interesting both for their time as a significant part of America’s real transportation system and for the natural beauty they have inspired. Several local museums and artists have loaned paintings from their collections. Also on display are film clips from “The Farmer Takes a Wife” from 1935 with Henry Fonda in his first movie role. Some scenes were shot on the Lehigh and Delaware canals.
Gruenwald’s painting brings up something that may seem odd to the current viewer. There are almost no trees or very few, perhaps less than there are even today on the hills surrounding the almost miniature view of the dwellings and church steeples of Easton. It was a result of the massive denuding of the local forests by farmers clearing land and lumberman seeking wood to feed the fireplaces and stoves of Philadelphia.
When England’s King Charles II decided to a pay off a debt he owed William Penn’s late father in land instead of pounds sterling, he gave it the name Pennsylvania, aka “Penn’s Woods.” Penn, who originally wanted his new colony called New Wales, was horrified. Rushing to the king, he told him the last thing he wanted was to have it named for him. Charles, who often found Penn’s Quaker piety quaint and amusing replied, “Don’t flatter yourself.” The sovereign sometimes known as the Merry Monarch said, using the royal pronoun, “WE are naming it for your father.”
Whatever Charles’s reason he was right about one thing, the 29 million acres he gave Penn were very wooded. Trees of all kinds stretched apparently unlimited to the horizon. By the 1760s, writes historian Carl Bridenbaugh in his ”Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America 1743-1776,” wood merchants lined the Philadelphia harbor every day and it was considered the best supplied locations for wood in the colonies. But by the dawn of the 19th century the “limitless” forests were rapidly disappearing. Wood was no longer cheap. A new source of fuel was needed and Quaker entrepreneur Josiah White, after years of struggle, managed to build the Lehigh Canal to carry anthracite coal from the coal regions of the north to Philadelphia.
When the state attempted to build the Delaware Canal but failed, they turned it over to White as well and he managed to get the job done. By the time of White’s death in 1850 the nation was in the middle of a canal building mania. It did not last. In 1855 the Lehigh and Delaware Canals had their best year ever for carrying anthracite coal. But with the arrival of railroads, which did not freeze up over the winter or go dry in drought summers, the canals’ long decline had begun. By 1870, 20 years after White’s death, although they continued to supply canal towns, the man-made waterways were considered outmoded and old fashioned. But they did not fully die out into the 1930s and early 1940s.
It was in the 1880s that the Lehigh and Delaware canals came to the notice of artists and tourists. Eventually it would spawn an entire art movement that became known as Pennsylvania Impressionism. Perhaps the first interest in using the Pennsylvania canals by an artist dates to 1886. That summer a group of wealthy New York society figures and artists, headed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the son of Charles Tiffany, founder of the famous jewelry store, decided on the novel idea of taking a canal boat vacation on the Lehigh and Delaware canals. One of the women on board was Louisa Knox, daughter of the president of Lafayette College. Five months later Tiffany and Knox were wed.
Among those on this 12-person boat journey, named the Molly-Polly Chunker after the two mules that pulled it, which also included carpeting and a dining room decorated with Japanese lanterns and staffed by two African American chefs, was photographer Walter C. Tuckerman. As the others held dramatic readings from Dickens and Thackeray and discussed topics like, “is it proper to dress for dinner on a canal boat?” he preserved the scene for posterity. Using the heavy-duty cameras of the day he recorded scenes along the trip that showed both the canals and the lives of the people on them. Many of these photos have been enlarged and are part of the museum’s permanent exhibit.
Tuckerman’s photos along with the account of the “journey” were later included in a privately printed book. This might have helped inspire those in the art circles in which Tiffany moved to see the canal as a possible spot for inspiration. And the dragonfly motif, some sources suggest, that Tiffany included in some of his popular stained-glass lamps may have been inspired by this journey.
William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938) is usually considered the father of Pennsylvania Impressionism. In 1898 he moved to New Hope and founded a summer art school. The location, forty miles from Philadelphia and seventy miles from New York by rail, made it accessible to artists in both cities. Among the first to follow him was Edward Redfield (1869-1965). Another was Daniel Garber (1880-1958). It was the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition held in San Francisco that made Pennsylvania Impressionism known to a wider public. Garber and Lathrop received gold medals and Redfield was given an entire room in which he exhibited 21 of his paintings.
The setting offered artists unique opportunities. They included spectacular river and canal views whose pastoral landscape, light and vivid colors made it ideal for plein-air or painting outdoors, instead of from models in a studio. Impressionism was born in France in the late 19th century with Claude Monet and others. But the American and Pennsylvania versions had its own take on it. “Pennsylvania Impressionism tended to be more ‘American’ than other branches of American Impressionism partly because it celebrated American landscape so vigorously, and partly because it always retained the careful draftsmanship that most of its practitioners had learned at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts,” writes art historian Mark W. Sullivan. “It was a hybrid of French and American ideas, and not a wholesale adoption of European ideas—as Boston or New York Impressionism were.”
Although interest in Pennsylvania Impression faded in the 1940s and 50s with the rise of Abstract Expression, it has never really gone out of favor with local artists. Walter Emmerson Baum, a Lehigh Valley painter, carried the tradition here. Other Lehigh Valley artists, such as Fred Bees and Joseph Skrapits, have paintings in the exhibit.