Modern heir to the Hudson River tradition
DAVID COUGHTRY's painting,``North Elba'' has nothing to do with the island of Napoleon's exile, being rather a locality in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. North Elba is now hardly more than a place-name, whatever it may have been in the years when it was first settled and thriving. It is near the heart and the greatest heights of this singular clump of mountains, part of no chain but sufficient unto itself - complete with an intricate system of lakes, ponds, springs, streams, rivers, valleys, plateaus, and foothills.
This painting takes place in a plateau meadow facing what we Adirondackers call the High Peaks. I use the phrase ``takes place'' deliberately, because landscapes in these mountains are dramatic ``happenings'' as often as they are ``views.'' The artist takes full advantage of the coming together of the activities in the scene. The mood is exciting but not threatening.
The heavy Adirondack clouds muffle those High Peaks, the chief of which is Mt. Marcy - the highest mountain in the state. The Indians knew it more poetically as Tahawus, the Cloud-Splitter. In all seasons, these clouds snuggle down in the valleys, throwing scarfs of mist over the summits rising up into the sky. In some years the vast water system of these mountains produces clouds and rain for the area alone, while surrounding parts remain dry and sunny.
The strong breeze blowing over the long grasses in the foreground indicates that these are lowering clouds that presage another rain shower. One feels that in a short while even the clearly defined formation in the center of the canvas, known as the Whale Tail, will become invisible to us as the storm rolls in.
The canvas is sizable, giving the viewer enough space to enter easily into the landscape. It is painted in very close color harmony with little contrast between the greens of the foreground and middle ground, a meadow that is also known locally as the Plains of Abraham, and the blue-lavender-gray mountains and sky.
While the effect is of a very simple color scheme, Coughtry uses a full range of pigments - red, yellow, blue, green and violet. ``I use every color except black,'' he says simply. These are skillfully blended into the entirely natural effect of his landscape.
Coughtry knows the Adirondacks intimately. He has hiked its forbiddingly wild trails since the age of 12. This painting is the outcome of six weeks spent sketching the region. Every day he went out to make numerous watercolors and gouaches. Out of these come large oil paintings such as this one.
This method is, one might say, fairly standard to landscape painters as a whole wherever they are found.
Coughtry says of his work, ``I paint until the vision crystallizes.'' This is certainly different from the early Hudson River painters, who many times composed their paintings according to academic formulas.
The Hudson River artists spooned in natural, previously drawn-from-life elements with certain ideographic or symbolic meanings intended to uplift the viewer with a transcendent sense of the sublime in nature. Their rendering was tight and detailed.
Coughtry's painting gives a sense of optical freedom such as we might experience standing knee-deep in those breeze-blown grasses.
His impulses in ``North Elba'' are juxtapositions of ``isolation and barrenness'' against ``beauty and purity.'' The painting tells us there are still wild places preserved for those who have the need for the primal loveliness and force of unspoiled nature.
For me, the painting breathes a prayer that such scenes will so remain for other landscape painters a century hence. These artists will be able to look back to our present-day painters as well as to the Hudson River School. They will have two centuries of American landscape painting behind them, appreciating the David Coughtrys of this century as he values the Hudson River School, continually adding to a great tradition of American art.