Landscape depicting Massachusetts
Landscape depicting Massachusetts

Victor de Grailly
French View from Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts (and the Oxbow, Connecticut River) Oil on canvas
Museum purchase with funds provided by the 1072 Society, 2013 and the Susan Phillips Museum Acquisition Endowment

By Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions

One of the most significant American landscapes of the early nineteenth century is Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm––The Oxbow, done in 1836. This large painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reflects the artist’s awareness of the American wilds being transformed by the forces of progress. Cole contrasts the distant valley’s well-tended farms and steam-powered trains with the foreground’s untamed wilderness, dominated by a blasted tree. The artist’s umbrella and other paraphernalia are packed and ready to be taken back down the bluff to civilization before the threatening thunderstorm erupts. The spectacular view of this curl in the Connecticut River was reason enough to depict this vista but Cole was equally taken with the possibility to reflect upon this young nation’s settlement and growth. Many historians have noted that Cole’s image was in fact a visual commentary on the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The image by Cole makes for an interesting comparison with the present painting, completed a few years later by the French artist Victor de Grailly, one of three known versions by the artist. The others are in the collections at Smith College Museum of Art (ca. 1840) and Mead Art Museum at Amherst College (ca. 1845). Though famous for his Hudson River School-style landscapes of the United States, de Grailly likely never traveled to America. Inspiration for this work and his many other American landscapes was the 1840 London publication American Scenery, containing detailed descriptions of American landmarks and tourist destinations with engravings after the artist William Henry Bartlett.

Although little is known of de Grailly’s life, it appears he pursued two distinct artistic careers. A student of the neo-classical painter Jean Victor Bertin, de Grailly was an active participant in the Paris academic salons for almost fifty years, exhibiting Romantic paintings inspired by Camille Corot for which he was awarded two medals. Outside the salon competitions, he produced a group of very marketable American landscapes, often, as in this case, in multiples. Though de Grailly was not the only painter to capitalize on the popular views in American Scenery, he was among the most successful. His receptive American audience is evidenced by the fact that his Hudson River School work was exhibited in Baltimore, Charleston, and New York between 1845 and 1858.

Since de Grailly’s canvas was intended as a popular scenic view it has less of the underlying allegoriy of Cole’s painting. Unlike Cole, who depicts the raw natural setting of the overlook, de Grailly features a park-like setting inhabited by a group of fashionable figures on an outing wearing top hats and sweeping full skirts. In the distance we view a flourishing and well-established valley crowned by a bright sky spotted with voluminous clouds. De Grailly’s image characterizes the New World as an idyllic place of order, reason, and prosperity––something that would appeal to both a European’s fantasy of America and to the enthusiastic aspirations of his optimistic American clientele.

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