The Poetic and Visionary Landscapes of Alfred D. Nicholson
Alfred Nicholson was born in Paris in 1929 to American parents. His father (also Alfred) was a noted art historian and expert on the Italian Old Masters. The family returned to Philadelphia’s Main Line where young Alfred grew up. At Princeton University, he became passionate about painting and was drawn to the Old Masters and their techniques. (Coincidentally, it was in 1932 that Princeton University published what became his father’s most important contribution to art history — an explanation of the evolution of Italian painting through Cimabue: A Critical Study.) However, whereas the father was an art historian, the son was determined to become a painter. His studies were interrupted by World War II but he returned to complete his work at the Tyler School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
The following is an excerpt from the memoriam written by William Innes Homer, dean of American art historians:
In the face of several obstacles, Nicholson’s dedication to art paralleled that of the legendary French painter, Cézanne…. Nicholson’s life was dedicated to poetic landscape. His paintings reflected the natural world he revered. He was influenced by the work of Corot and Turner, and was regarded as a master of the portrayal of trees. His works were a reflection of his efforts to preserve many of the unspoiled resources of nature in both Cape May and Cumberland Counties.
Beginning in the 1950s, Nicholson reflected his lifelong love of nature in two ways. First, following a tradition started in Europe in the mid 19th century, he devoted himself to painting his landscapes en plein air. Second, he became a powerful advocate of land conservation, working closely with the Audubon Society and other land preservation organizations of Cape May and Cumberland counties. Yet, he remained adamant about keeping his painting a private side of his life. It was only after he had been painting for more than forty years that his wife coerced him into an exhibition — and he agreed only because proceeds would benefit his favorite land preservation organization. As a result of Nicholson’s choice to be a solitary painter, when he passed away in 2009 the art world remained unaware of his unusual body of work.
Nicholson is fascinating because of the duality in his style and approach to landscape painting. On one hand, he exhaustively studied and became an expert on the techniques of the great European landscape painters, Constable, Turner, and Corot. He even made copies of famous Corot paintings for the National Gallery. Nicholson’s own works clearly fall into the tradition of the poetic landscape. Like the great American poetic landscapist, George Inness [1825-1894], Nicholson captured the atmosphere and spirit of the special places where he spent hours studying nature. Inness was particularly influenced by the small group of landscapists at Barbizon, France, especially its two elder members, Jean Corot [1796-1875] and Theodore Rousseau [1812-1867]. It was at Barbizon that Inness came to express his reverence for Nature. Nicholson was drawn to Inness’ works and methodically absorbed the techniques the European masters of the poetic landscape. Like these masters, Nicholson was unconcerned with details and more concerned with capturing the essence of special places. His brushstrokes were deliberately loose and he flattened space from foreground to sky and horizon. This opened the way for him to make his own personal statement about landscape and pursue the expression of its mystical qualities.
On the other hand, back in the studio Nicholson found delight in deftly switching to the fantastic landscape. There he conjured visions of neoclassical themes with Grecian women dancing about temple ruins beside majestic bays, often with brilliant sunsets. He turned up the volume of his palette too, employing a brighter spectrum of pinks, yellows, reds, purples, and oranges. He returned to these paintings over the years, reworking them over and over until the impasto became so thick that the final painting was of considerable weight.
In the history of American landscape painting, the visionary artists who pursued the path of fantasy and mysticism are few, yet Nicholson is clearly the successor to several important predecessors: Albert Pinkham Ryder, Robert Loftin Newman, Ralph Albert Blakelock, and Louis Eilshemius. Certainly, the greatest master of the visionary landscape was Albert Pinkham Ryder [1847-1917]. Ryder studied at the National Academy of Design and in 1877 became a member of the group of progressive artists called the Society of American Artists. His epiphany — his call to developing a unique style that synthesized poetry, music and painting — occurred in 1888. His technique, which Nicholson studied, was to build layers of heavy pigments and glazes, from which would emanate an inner luminosity. Just after the turn of the century, Ryder became increasingly reclusive, drawn to expressing his inner world of fantasy and spiritualism. Fortunately, just four years before his death a colleague ensured that that ten of his paintings appeared at the famous Armory Show of 1913.
Robert Loftin Newman [1827-1912] was another early painter of moody landscapes, inspired by his meeting the Barbizon painters in 1854. Yet, like Nicholson, Newman transformed his landscapes into personal visions, often populated with women and children based upon biblical themes.
Although he lived in New York City from 1873-on, he rarely exhibited his works and did not receive critical recognition until 1894 when a group of his friends organized a solo exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Ralph Albert Blakelock [1847-1919] was a romantic visionary best known for his moonlit or misty, atmospheric landscapes. A recurrent subject was Indian encampments, inspired by memories of a three-year horseback tour of the West that he began in 1869. However, Blakelock’s visions resulted in dark, moody landscapes, typically built with layer upon layer of pigment, scraping, and glazing. The best of these have an eerie glow, like those of Ryder. Although he was elected to the National Academy of Design, he spent the final decades of his life locked up in an insane asylum where he died in 1919.
Louis Michel Eilshemius [1864–1941] was born to wealthy and socially prominent immigrant parents near Newark, New Jersey. He studied at Cornell University as well as the Art Students League in New York and spent eight years in Europe from 1873 to 1881. He returned to Paris to study at the Académie Julian in 1886-87. Upon his return to New York, his paintings in the Impressionist style were accepted for exhibition at the National Academy of Design. But Eilshemius became vociferously eccentric, and developed a vision of his own that conformed to no school or tradition of painting. He began referring to himself as the “Grand Parnassian and Transcendental Eagle of the Arts.” Soon, his increasing eccentricities made him famous in the press but isolated him from his peers and the artistic community. His naïve and frequently melodramatic fantasies only found ridicule, and he largely stopped painting in 1921. He died penniless twenty years later.
Nicholson was that rare successor in a historical line of those very few American landscape painters who, in solitude, passionately executed their personal and often mystical visions of nature — yet who often cared little about self-promotion and became neglectful of their legacy.
— Peter Hastings Falk