No way can you miss John Chamberlain’s recently installed large abstract sculpture “Mermaid’s Mischief” (2009) sitting on the front lawn of Guild Hall, its sea tendrils looping around in Mobius-like swirls of luminescent aluminum-foil lime green. And no way could you imagine what it would have it common with Thomas Moran’s small, elegant, tonal landscape oil on canvas “Glimpse of the Sea, Near Amagansett,” painted exactly 100 years earlier, which had its formal introduction at Guild Hall on June 22. But there they are at East Hampton’s premier center for the visual and performing arts. Chamberlain, who died in December of 2011, lived and worked on Shelter Island, and Moran (1837–1926), Turneresque exemplar of the Hudson River School, whose iconic 1870s paintings of the Rocky Mountains for Scribner’s Monthly brought him fame and fortune, lived and worked just down the street from Guild Hall. Guild Hall Executive Director Ruth Appelhof noted that the Moran, titled “A Late Afternoon in Summer,” owes its new home to Guild Hall’s Collectors Circle and an anonymous donor.
Both artists exemplify Guild Hall’s commitment to celebrate East End artists and the area’s rich cultural history. Chamberlain and Moran also have art critic Phyllis Braff in common. The art historian, writer and Springs resident, who was the invited speaker at the unveiling of the painting, wrote a feature for The New York Times on Chamberlain some years ago. She’s now at work on a Catalogue Raisonné of Moran, “a huge undertaking.”
The playful (and controversial) Chamberlain, which replaced a de Kooning, will be on view only through early fall. The Moran, now part of Guild Hall’s permanent collection, seems an especially fitting acquisition, considering local history. In 1931, five years after Moran died, Guild Hall’s north gallery was named after him.
Phase Two of work on Moran’s house opposite Town Pond is proceeding under the watchful eyes of East Hampton Historical Society Executive Director Richard Barons, in conjunction with The Thomas Moran Trust. The restoration of what’s been called Moran’s “quirky Queen Anne cottage” is part of a resurgence of interest in Moran and his incredibly talented family, including his wife, Mary Nimmo Moran, and Moran’s brothers, nephews and sons. The house, where the Morans lived, was the first artist’s studio in the area.
As Braff noted in her talk, by the time Moran painted “Glimpse of the Sea, Near Amagansett,” he was already famous, his work appearing prominently on calendars all over and his paintings highly influential in stimulating congressional protection of Yellowstone. The early 20th century was a golden time in America—for those who could afford it—attracting wealthy collectors and art patrons who loved classical, European romanticism and who were nostalgic for a pastoral American age they saw was passing, due, ironically, to the rapid industrialization of the country they themselves were fiercely advancing. Moran’s gorgeous oils and watercolor landscapes thus were at once expressive of the country’s thriving economy, manifest by an unspoiled countryside (a lone figure is almost lost in the lush trees, no worker, he) but also, in the idealization of romantic scenes—placid waters, reflecting twilights—hinting at what would be lost. Braff points out that the slightly changed title of Glimpse, which acquired the word “Near” in 1911, was Moran’s way of emphasizing that his intention was to represent the “spirit” of a place rather its specific details.
Although Braff says that a Moran painting reveals itself by signature touches—curved in composition, rich play of dark and light and a glow from built-up of layers of pigment and glaze, she adds that Moran was obviously concerned about forgeries of his work, a growing business, and “Glimpse of the Sea, Near Amagansett” is unusual in that it contains the word “copyright” on the canvas. She adds that the painting also reflects Moran’s later style, marked by a softer quality and more “feathery” brushwork.
The Moran, which will remain in the lobby of Guild Hall for a couple of weeks, is scheduled to reappear in the fall as part of a larger exhibit which will be curated by Braff.