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James M. Hart - Under the Elms

James M, Hart (1828-1901), British-American
Under the Elms, 1872
OIL ON CANVAS, 44 x 33 inches
Gift of Horace Fairbanks

James M. Hart remains a lit­tle known figure in the history of American landscape paint­ing, but his bucolic Under the Elms makes a strong case for greater attention. The work is inscribed on the back, "After­noon / Boquet River / Essex Co. / N.Y. / Loitering in the Stream," providing a much fuller sense of the site and sub­ject. Grand, stately elms climb gracefully upward over a peaceful stream as a herd of cattle edges across to the opposite shore. The painting pays tribute to one of Amer­ica's most elegant tree species, as both the format and vantage point frame the trees them­selves, rather than the scene playing out below. Such care­ful rendering of a single natu­ral subject, in this case the nearest elm, offers eloquent testimony to nineteenth-cen­tury artists' search for meaning in the landscape around them through close scrutiny.

Under the Elms is characteristic of Hart's work after the Civil War. Where he favored larger-scale depictions of unexplored wilderness in his earlier work, his later paintings are often more tranquil and refined. Trained in the academic tradition in Dusseldorf, Ger­many during the early 1850s, Hart already enjoyed widespread popularity before the onset of Civil War in 1861. His pre-war landscapes are also marvels of specificity, delineating every leaf and rock. Not only did his subjects change during the 1860s, from wilderness to pasture, but his palette and technique transformed as well. Light-filled, idyllic composi­tions such as Under the Elms suggest an intermediate step between the detailed landscapes of the Hudson River School at mid-century and the escapism of the impressionists that came to prominence during the ensuing decades.