In 1920, Harold Weston, a young painter who had survived polio, set himself up in a small cabin in the Keene Valley in the Adirondacks, an area amid the dramatic High Peaks of Vermont’s western view across Lake Champlain. Like Thoreau, in semi-artistic seclusion, Weston was nurtured by his natural surroundings. Weston sketched and painted extensively during this period. From his plein-air work done on mountaintops and in remote sites, back in his studio, he created vibrant, textured, modernist paintings.
Besides his vivid paintings expressing emotional responses to his experience of his surroundings, Weston also wrote. He kept thoughtful diaries and, later in his sojourn, he composed beautiful letters to the woman he courted and who would become his wife, Faith Borton. Weston’s 1971 book, “Freedom in the Wilds: A Saga of the Adirondacks,” drew on this period of his life.
“Harold Weston: Freedom in the Wilds,” an exhibition of Weston’s paintings and words, opened last week at Shelburne Museum and continues to August 25. The exhibition features artwork from the beginning years and final years of Weston’s long career — his Adirondack paintings and sketches from 1920-1923 and, from four decades later, selections from his abstract Stone Series 1968-1972, his final body of work.
The exhibition also presents sketchbooks, personal papers and correspondence illuminating Weston’s life and views on nature and art. The artwork and other objects are on loan from numerous private collections, institutions and the Harold Weston Foundation.
“This is our view from Shelburne,” explained Tom Denenberg, director of Shelburne Museum, standing amid Weston’s paintings including “Sunrise from Marcy” and “Sunset Over Baxter Mountain.”
“Freedom in the Wilds,” Denenberg said, “offers an indoor version of a hike in the Adirondacks.”
Weston, born in Pennsylvania in 1894, had summered in the Adirondacks in childhood. After Harvard, he was drawn back to the mountains. Stricken by polio in his youth, he used a cane to walk, but persevered to get to the mountaintops and remote spots that beckoned.
Bold colors, broad brushstrokes and the rough, unvarnished texture of Weston’s Adirondack paintings bring viewers to the region’s mountains, lakes and skies. His paintings evoke the wilderness and forces of nature there, including glacier-scraped peaks, forests, ponds and waterways. His dramatic skies interact with the land, a relationship in nature without the hand of humankind.
In “Sunrise from Marcy,” early rays of the sun bathe the sky and outline mountain peaks, as the mountains’ western slopes are still in shadow. In “Giant Mountain Sunrise,” long bands of abstracted stratus clouds seem to gently embrace the snow-covered landscape.
“Sketch for Noonday Sun,” oil paint on cardboard painted en plein air in 1922, and its follow-up sibling oil painting, “Noonday Sun,” again capture this interaction of sky and land. The pair also gives viewers a glimpse of Weston’s process — the quick outdoor work leading to the larger-scale, more detailed and nuanced painting.
Weston had a major exhibition of his Adirondack paintings at the Montross Gallery in New York City in 1922. Many of his paintings from that show are in Shelburne and, remarkably, are reunited with their original frames, handcarved from pine, assembled, and gilded specifically for each artwork by Weston.
“The time Weston is showing, the 1920s, is a time of high modernism. There was much discussion about how to best display a work of art. Does the work of art include the frame? Is it the painting itself?” said Katie Wood Kirtchhoff, Shelburne Museum associate curator. “Weston addressed this by creating these big, glowing, gilded frames.”
After his Adirondack years, the latter ones with his wife Faith, Weston’s rich art career and life took him in many directions. That included extended periods in Spain, France, Greece and Washington D.C., where he painted a 22-panel mural for the General Services Administration.
An activist for social causes, Weston founded Food for Freedom. A longtime advocate for art and for forging relationships between artists and institutions including government, Weston played a key role in efforts that led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation that established the NEA, he gave the signing pen to Weston.
Later in life, Weston turned increasingly to abstraction. “My recent work, though sometimes still imaginatively realistic or even slightly surrealistic, has turned more and more to abstraction,” Weston wrote in 1961. “These are not pure abstractions (but) they originate from some observed or felt natural form or movement of the sea, clouds, stones, worm chewed stick, piece of wall fungus growth, or anything else. They have but one major objective: to express through juxtapositions of form, color and suggested movement whatever an inner force requires me to paint at that time.”
The paintings of Weston’s “Stone Series,” 1968-1972, were inspired by a collection of grey rocks streaked with white calcite bands, known as “Iberville Shale.” The fluid swirls of these large gouache paintings evoke connections with nature, movement, and even geologic time.