Dr. Mark Thistlethwaite, the Kay and Velma Kimbell Chair of Art History at Texas Christian University gave a lecture at the Amon Carter Museum of Art entitled, Americans at (and Beyond) the Water’s Edge. The lecture is part of a Wednesday afternoon series running from August 23 to November 29. The museum describes the series thusly: “Explore artworks in the Amon Carter’s collection and consider the various ways and reasons why artists have depicted Americans in their urban, rural, and wilderness environments.”
Today’s lecture described the emerging relationship Americans have had with our waterways and coastlines with an emphasis on drawings and paintings from the 1870s to the early 1900s.
In this post, I share a few insights from Dr. Thistlethwaite’s lecture regarding a handful of art works featured during the lecture.
Further, it dawned on me during my drive home that as a photographer, I have likely documented life on the water in Fort Worth more than any other artist within the last few years. (As the official photographer for Rockin’ the River, Sunday Fundays, Fly Fest, and the Fort Worth Fourth, I have taken over 40,000 photographs of life along the Trinity River since 2013.) I’m not claiming to be an artist of note. At all. But documenting life on the water here in Fort Worth–that I have done. Please kindly read on.
Winslow Homer, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) (1876)
Painted during the country’s centennial, Homer’s work looks with nostalgia on the past toward a more innocent time…certainly the time before the Civil War, which had ended only 11 years previously. Placing children in paintings was a nod toward innocence–an effect Stephen King exploits for different purposes in the horror movie It now playing in theaters. In contrast, there is no monster in the natural paintings of this era. Nature is subdued. Thistlewaite noted that while the painting features movement–the pulling of the rope, the undulation of the waves, the force of the wind–there is also a stillness as this moment gets frozen in time. The Trinity River is calmer, usually, so the closest I might have come to capturing movement on the water might be the shot below of a performer during the 2015 Fort Worth Fourth. The shift in these images is not just one of advancing technology, but also from participating in a group effort to being a solo act to entertain an over-stimulated population.
Homer Winslow, The Fishing Party (1869)
A few years after the Civil War, fishing was beginning to emerge as an acceptable and accessible sport for women–a “refined diversion” as Dr. Thistlethwaite described it. Lighter fishing equipment was becoming available, publications such as Harper’s Weekly were featuring images of women fishing, and formality was slowly becoming…less formal. Meanwhile, in 2017, Erin Wilde, host of the morning show on Hank FM in Fort Worth, fishes the Trinity River during Fly Fest 2017:
William Ranney, Duck Hunters on the Hoboken Marshes (1849)
This painting captures the thrill of the hunt as the “feeling of the moment.” Interestingly, the painting was criticized during its display at the American Art Union’s annual exposition because the color temperature was too summer-like and not representative of when ducks should be hunted, which is later in the fall. That should part was becoming more important as a sportmans’ code of conduct was developing. Along these lines, this painting shows hunters violating another code. Instead of shooting ducks as they flew away (i.e., “on the wing), the hunter is sneaking up silently on sitting ducks.
While I have no hunting photos along the Trinity River to share, I did capture these dogs that were also eager to exit the boat:
John Kensett, Coast Scene with Figures (1869)
There’s a lot to take in with this painting, but the narrative that jumped out to me immediately was mansplaining. Just seemed so obvious as they guy is pointing. As a photographer, I have made a conscious effort to portray women as powerful and capable, as seen in the two images below taken this year at the Panther Island Pavilion:
Another theme in the Coast Scene with Figures is the vast size of nature compared to humans, a theme driven home mainly by perspective. In the first image below, I used perspective to place the woman and her dog within the larger natural context of the Trinity River. In the second…just a cell phone image…I applied the same treatment to subordinate AT&T Stadium in Arlington to the small body of water in the foreground. In the third image, the Trinity River is finally free of the crowd of 75,000 at this year’s Fort Worth Fourth.
Winslow Homer, August in the Country (1859)
To me, this illustration is about documenting all of the many things that happen when a group of people get together for recreation. When an artist captures a social event as a moment in time, the work speaks volumes about how that social group thought and lived at that moment in history. In August in the Country, we see the emerging popularity of the shoreline as a site for recreation. We see men and women beginning to spend more time together in informal social situations. In the photos below taken in Fort Worth, what will these images say about the way WE thought and lived in 2017?
As with the detail-rich illustrations that ran in the Harpers Weekly publications, I also like to include detail, though I’m also likely to isolate subjects for closer study.
While most of the historical paintings and illustrations of life along the water feature people ignoring the viewer, I will sometimes ask a group to look at the camera.
There are more selfies today than in 1870.
In the end, we now have MILLIONS of digital photos featuring America’s love affair with water recreation. But if something happens…and those digital files get wiped out…then future generations might be looking back at the Harper’s Weekly illustrations from the 1880s to at least get a sense of what our life today must have been like. And that, might not be such a bad thing.
In the meantime, you can check out more images from along the Trinity River here.