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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Walter Launt Palmer: Painting the Moment at the Albany Institute of History & Art

Wheat and Poppies, 1889-90 pastel on paper
Everybody knows the blockbuster show of the summer is Van Gogh at the Clark - all the more reason you should check out the work of his Albany contemporary, Walter Launt Palmer, on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art through Aug. 16. Born into an artistic family in 1854 (Vincent was one year older), Palmer started early and enjoyed a long, successful painting career. At first he held to the Victorian mode, but by the 1880s he was a full-on American Impressionist, no doubt influenced by the same movement that brought us the ever astonishing Van Gogh.

Library at Arbour Hill, 1898 oil on canvas
This comprehensive exhibition of Palmer's three significant series fills the big upstairs gallery of the Institute, which owns most of the paintings presented here (a select few are borrowed from private collectors). It begins with early still life and nature sketches, revealing a very skilled hand that would later be put to the particular task of painting lavish interiors. Two of those highly detailed works that he was regularly commissioned to make depict rooms in the house that gave Arbor Hill its name (now known as the Ten Broeck Mansion) and, with their dark, Victorian air, show why Palmer eventually stopped this pursuit - it was ruining his vision.

Venetian Scene 1890-1900
watercolor and pastel on paper
Transitioning through better interiors painted in England, Palmer re-emerged into the light, and an extremely adept landscape and cityscape painter was allowed to blossom. The influence he acquired during extended visits to France and, especially, Venice led to a finely tuned sense of atmosphere that at times recalls the Luminists (George Inness, for example) but also reveals Palmer as a latter-day Hudson River School painter (he was tutored at an early age by Frederic Edwin Church). There are several mountain views included in this exhibition, and they are as good as most produced by the members of that great group.

Catskill Clove, 1880 pastel on paperboard
Eventually, Palmer became known as a painter of snow scenes, which he executed in a range of modes featuring subtle shades, surprising colors, and the intensity of his final frosted fantasy (shown at the end of this post). One reason I like these paintings is that they remind me of Salem, N.Y., painter Harry Orlyk's vividly colorful explorations of snowy landscapes, and it's gratifying to feel there is a continuous chain of regional artists going back through the centuries.

Winter Twilight, 1903 oil on canvas
In usual Institute fashion, Painting the Moment is amply labeled with informative details about the artist, his times, and not only the pictures themselves, but the people and places they depict. This adds to the overall experience of the exhibition as a window on Albany's past as a significant center of wealth and power.

It's worth noting that the Albany Institute is also featuring Triple Play, a trio of baseball exhibitions that will hold the attention of fans and non-fans alike for hours. It runs through July 26.

The White World, 1932 oil on canvas

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