DescriptionWILLARD LEROY METCALF (American, 1858-1925)
October Afternoon - Vermont, 1922-1923
Oil on canvas
26-1/2 x 29-1/4 inches (67.3 x 74.3 cm)
Signed lower left: W L METCALF
Metcalf estate stamp (verso)
Milch Galleries, New York (frame bears Milch Galleries label);
Estate of Mrs. Mary Whaley, Short Hills, New Jersey;
William Doyle Galleries sale, April 4, 1979, lot 147, illustrated in black and white;
Private collection, New York, 1979 to present.
E. de Veer and R.J. Boyle, Sunlight and Shadow: The Life and Art of Willard L. Metcalf, New York, 1987, p, 143, ill. cat. no. 178 (black and white).
In 1922 the American Impressionist Willard Leroy Metcalf began a series of ambitious mid- to large-scale paintings of the New England landscape around Chester, Vermont (including the majestic North Country of 1923 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Indian Summer, Vermont of 1922 in the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas), which would occupy him for the rest of his life. The present work, October Afternoon - Vermont, belongs to this extraordinary body of Metcalf's late-career landscapes-arguably his greatest-that possess an intensely emotional, but confident, broken brushwork, and a subtlety of color unprecedented in his previous efforts.
Metcalf's burst of painting activity beginning in February of 1922 followed directly on the heels of a miserable two-year period for the artist, when personally and professionally he was falling apart. In 1920 he was forced to confront the truth that his second marriage was failing, and he began moving around restlessly among the familiar places in Connecticut he had previously lived in and painted-Falls Village, Woodbury, Leete's Island, and even Kent, where his first wife and her new husband (the man she had left Metcalf for) resided. Nothing made him feel any better, and nothing managed to lift his sagging spirits, not even painting.
Nonetheless, during this dark time, in October of 1920, Metcalf came to discover the landscape around Chester, Vermont. The terrain of this region of southeastern Vermont had somehow previously escaped his notice, despite the fact he had lived and worked just up the river in the Cornish, New Hampshire artists' community, an enclave which included his friends Maxfield Parrish and Homer Saint-Gaudens. The towering, but undulating hills of Chester afforded vistas across rich green valleys to other swollen rises, and inspired Metcalf to pick up his brush for a bit. His initial stay there was brief, though it did yield four or five paintings. It was not enough for a one-man show at the Milch Galleries in the spring, however, and during the following year, he painted very little. What he did do was drink heavily. Late in 1921 his binges escalated and at one point, as Bruce Chambers so clearly put it, "He found himself in Boston, with no idea how, when or why he had arrived there" (B. Chambers, "Willard Leroy Metcalf: A Partial History of the Renaissance," in Willard Metcalf, 1858-1925: Yankee Impressionist, Spanierman Galleries, New York, 2003, p. 48). Someone, perhaps an acquaintance, was concerned enough to contact the artist's New York dealer, Albert Milch, who rushed up to Boston with an ultimatum: stop drinking or lose representation with his gallery. Metcalf gave up the bottle and the painting resumed with a marvelous new vigor and direction, with the hills of Chester as powerful inspiration.
For a period of ten months (February through November 1922), sixty-three year-old Metcalf painted in Chester, Vermont, outside, in the manner of the French Impressionists. He produced more than 15 paintings, which had a larger artistic vision than anything he had ever done. His conceived his paintings as great sweeps of countryside, rather than snippets of scenery. There was a new heroism and monumentality to the work, which can be felt in October Afternoon - Vermont. The painter Frank Benson, one of Metcalf's last surviving friends from The Ten (the circle of American Impressionists who exhibited together), joined him in Chester during October 1922 for companionship, and doubtless also for encouragement.
When Metcalf exhibited his 1922 Chester landscapes at his one-man show at Milch Galleries in 1923, critics were quick to note that they possessed something new. They had gained in force and simplicity of design, and had become considerably less sweet. Financial success followed critical success. In 1924 Milch awarded Metcalf another one-man show, which drew even more praise than that of the previous year. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, not known at the time for its interest in contemporary painting or Impressionism, purchased North Country for its permanent collection. Metcalf kept painting, and his works kept improving.
At this point in his career, Metcalf most deeply admired the work of John Twachtman for its broken brushwork and Tonalism. Indeed, as October Afternoon - Vermont clearly demonstrates, Metcalf fully grasped the significance of Twachtman's low-contrast aesthetic, albeit with a palette of greater chromatic saturation. In October Afternoon, Vermont, the hues have the same value, and because they exist at the same level of intensity, this creates the effect of a shimmering atmospheric light. Damp turning leaves and grassy fields seem to be radiating warmth underneath the hot sun of an Indian summer sky. The hills and spindly trees are artfully cropped to suggest the viewpoint of someone wandering just over a rise and happening upon a stunning intersection of field and mountain and sky.
Not long before he suffered the heart attack that ended this late, poetic phase of his life, Metcalf wrote a letter to his daughter Rosalind, trying to put into words the place of painting in his life and what he strove to say with it. The language is as fresh and unguarded as his best painting: "My desk here looks as though a cyclone had struck it. Letters and bills piled up - waiting to be attended to - and I've been so busy with my painting, I've simply put it off...I am, as usual, ashamed at such gross procrastination...particularly when, like me, one has thoughts for hardly anything but the making of, the giving everything in one's soul and being over to the endless effort of putting paint on a canvas with a miserable little brush - and endeavoring to make it express thoughts and dreams that will perhaps reach out and say something to someone, something that will make wandering souls stop and look - perhaps awaken something in them that may make them think of beautiful things, and so perhaps happiness. Oh my dear - it's a long journey this painting game - and such a hard and continued effort - if one has an idea, such as I have, and the desire for perfection."
This work was sold under the title Autumn Landscape in 1979 to the current owner, and was possibly exhibited as Late Afternoon in October, no. 23 (no dimensions recorded) in the Willard Metcalf exhibition staged at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from January 3 through February 1, 1925.
Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000.
Unlined canvas in original frame. Painting is in fine original condition with no restorations visible under UV examination. Impastoed areas well preserved.
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