The Old is New Again: 19th Century Painting Revived

A Jackson artist is reviving the landscape painting of the 19th-century white mountain school.

"Within a small area there's an incredibly diverse amount of natural beauty. You have the pastoral, peaceful on the one hand and the other, wild, sublime, almost frightening nature. It's really unique to see these things so close together." That, says Erik Koeppel, is why artists are drawn to the White Mountains, and have been since the mid-19th century when they came by stagecoach and later by train to paint.

They came in such numbers - more than 400 of them - that their work became known as the White Mountain School.

"Basically, all of the important artists of that time, including those from the Hudson River School, came to paint," says Koeppel. The village of Jackson, where Koeppel lives and paints, was at the crossroads of the paths the artists took to get to the mountains. Two of the important artists would settle in New Hampshire - Benjamin Champney, in North Conway, and Frank Henry Shapleigh in Jackson (see Koeppel's painting

The work of the White Mountain School artists inspired him to revive the tradition of 19th-century American landscape painting. "The essential idea of my work," he says, "is that the ideals of the artists of that time, their approach to the landscape, were correct and still relevant today."

That approach, he adds, involves "more than just the one moment in time. It's a poetic and philosophical and spiritual reality that I'm trying to capture in paint." And that goes far beyond replicating what he's seeing - he wants to replicate the memory of his experience.

Like the artists of earlier times, he doesn't complete his painting outside. With a sketch in hand, he goes to his studio to "re-create his recollection, to capture the whole experience of what he had seen."

Thomas Cole, the founder of American landscape painting, described the process as allowing "the veil of memory to sift away the superficial information about the landscape and leave behind the spiritual experience."

"The camera captures what a place looks like," Koeppel says. "The human experience of that place is something different."

Although the revival of 19th-century landscape painting has started small in NH with Koeppel and his significant other, Lauren Sansaricq, they are encouraged by the growing movement, and are involved in activities to bring 20 to 30 young landscape painters to study nature in Jackson this summer on the Hudson River Fellowship residency.

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