New Exhibition —- Scenic Views: Painters of the Scalp Level School Revisited

Westmoreland Museum of American Art (WMOAA) dedicates another exhibition “Scenic Views: Painters of the Scalp Level School Revisited” to the western Pennsylvania region starting from Nov 9 to Feb, 1 next year (see the Nov 2, 2008, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article “Profile rises for landscapes from Scalp Level School” by Mary Thomas about detailed information of the exhibition).

This time, the museum is celebrating their 50th anniversary by assembling paintings from private lenders, other museums, and their collection. An exhibition can stimulate research, show, forum and public interests in the topic and thus increase the market value of the artists. Scalp Level painters, except George Hetzel, who is often associated with Hudson River School, have not reached the same market value as their contemporary fellows along the east coast. In a recent article of The Magazine Antiques, Barbara Novak is credited with bringing the Hudson River School to an unprecedented level of public awareness and appreciation through her pioneering book published in 1969. The “American Tonalism” exhibition held at Metropolitan Museum of Art and Montclair Art Museum in 1999-2000 brought another American school in life and their market values increasing ever since. So how would the current exhibition at WMOAA impact the future of Scalp Level? That’s something I would be interested in as we move into the future.

Here are some of my thoughts

1 Exhibitions in Museums
Scalp Level paintings are not widely displayed in major museums. Most museums collecting and exhibiting their paintings are in the Western Pennsylvania area. The current limited availability in major institutes does provide one advantage: One can do much of his research or seeing the majority of works in public within the Ohio Valley area.

The West Wing of the first floor in WMOAA exhibits permanently the best examples of the school. Southern Allegheny Museum of Art features a painting of George Hetzel on their website, but I didn’t see their permanent collection during my visit to Loretto branch last year.

Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) groups the paintings by the decades during which they were created. Therefore, a few of Hetzel’s paintings, one still life of K. F. King and several paintings by William Coventry Wall are all separated. CMOA probably has a much larger collection of Scalp Level paintings. Nevertheless, the scope (from Medieval to Modern and from different continents) and the strength (after 1900 especially after the 1940s) of the collection make it less likely to add more regional-related works into tight, permanent space.

The grand lobby of the Carnegie Music Hall next to the museum is a great place to examine Scalp Level artworks although the lighting is not designed for art appreciation. Even worse, like most of the paintings collected when Pittsburgh was still a smoky manufacturing city, these paintings are all behind the glass, which sometimes makes the painting hard to see. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed the opportunity of examining them closely without being disturbed by the pesky museum staff. (Among them, a deep autumn forest painting by A. S. Wall is my favorite. )

The Heinz History Center in strip district of Pittsburgh also has some Scalp Level paintings in the collection. Because the center is focused on the cultural heritage of Pittsburgh region, a lot of paintings are not on view.

Butler Institute of American Art is a gem in the Ohio Valley. The depth and breadth of its American collection will rival any national level museums. It is there I saw one of the best Jasper Lawman paintings: a harmony of a rural scene: mundane but pastoral, exceptional composition and colors.

These places are also great for research purpose because each of them have important archives and documents. A good start would be Carnegie Public Library, which is much easier to access than museums. I went through their archived documents of Scalp Level two years ago. Among them, there are critics articles from a local newspaper dated as far back to 1900’s as to 1980’s.

2 Auctions and Galleries
Eric and I have been watching the auctions of Scalp Level paintings for a while. George Hetzel and Charles Linford come into the market once a while. I have not noticed the active change of ownership for other painters. It may be because my biased alertness to the painters who I know more. I didn’t look hard enough for the auction records of other painters in this case.

George Hetzel is the only painter among Scalp Level school to achieve national fame. Although still more affordable compared to Hudson River School painters such as Cropsey or Kensett, a painting by Hetzel can easily fetch more than 10,000 dollars. One of our friends who is a vigilant collector told us his paintings sometimes ask for $100,000 in the market.

Our experience proves such an upswing trend. Two years ago, when an interior wood painting by George Hetzel came to an auction in Maine, we were stunned that it was sold for 11,000 dollars (hammer price), almost eight times as high as its estimation. (Interestingly, a painting by George Inness in the subsequent lot fetched the same amount of money.) Later, Maine Antique Digest summarized the lot as a mistakenly estimated. We have also seen a spring blossom scene painting offered by Aspire Auction, which, according to the same friend, was very unusual. I was not convinced to see the signature even with a magnifying glass, which according to the auction house was possibly due to the over cleaning. It was sold much lower than the regular market value eventually. Later, we saw the same painting in its newly-gilded frame was hanging in an upscale retail gallery in Shadyside, with a price tag of more than $20,000.

Concept Art Gallery is probably the most reliable auctioneer source to resort to if one is destined to own a painting by George Hetzel. And nowhere else can one witness the rising price of paintings by George Hetzel better than at this auction house. In this year, two paintings were offered by Concept Gallery; one fetched $22,000 while the other went to $42,000. Just three years ago, three paintings by George Hetzel were auctioned on Nov 5, and the highest was $11,000. (It is noteworthy that in the same year one of his paintings in Concept Gallery was sold above $50,000 because of its exceptional quality.) *

Charles Linford can sometimes be found in the auction houses on the east coast such as Freeman’s in Philadelphia or Skinner’s in Boston. Linford lived in Philadelphia for quite a long time and possibly frequented New York and Boston. In his Philadelphia times, he exhibited in Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and befriended with Thomas Eakins who left an imposing portrait of Linford whose weary looking gives hints of his coming end of life at a fairly young age. Linford’s paintings are almost invariably interior forests. In a September auction last year offered by Concept Gallery, painting on wood panel was sold for $1800. Later on, another similar painting also on a wood panel was sold by Skinner for $1200. Both are small, heavily soiled, with surface crazing and some paint lift; nevertheless both are charming and exemplary. The most recent auction records show that there is a higher appreciation of Charles Linford’s untamed woodland beauty: In September 2008, Alderfer auctioned one of his paintings for $4000, and Concept Gallery sold a horizontal format painting last month for $3750. In both cases, the estimated price was still between one to two thousand, and in both cases, the realization beats the estimation by around 2 to 1.

The Wall family doesn’t appear in the auction houses quite often. At his best, paintings by William Coventry Wall recalls the style of luminism: tightly controlled river view under a magnificent light. One of his painting offered by the Concept Gallery three years ago was sold for $12,000. I have not seen auction records by A. S. Wall yet. As an influential person to Carnegie Institute, I am sure that some of his paintings will come to the surface eventually. I have also seen some paintings by Jasper Lawman in some auctions, but they were not his typical works.

Besides auction houses, there are a few galleries around Pittsburgh with Scalp Level paintings in inventory. Gilliand Fine Art in Ligonier, PA has been dealing with Western Pennsylvania Art for two generations. It collaborated with WMOAA in the past and still serves as the best source for scalp level paintings. Another gallery – Artifacts – located right off the West End Bridge has a few Scalp Level paintings.

3. The Painters
It is said that George Hetzel and Charles Linford together founded the rural retreat in Scalp Level, a place near Johnstown, PA. The school was not defined by the style as is Hudson River, American Barbizon or Luminism. Instead it is defined geographically by such a group of painters (mostly from Pittsburgh) who made their trips to Scalp Level to find the natural beauty which was diminishing in Pittsburgh at that time. Similar regional school also appeared in Old Lyme, CT and New Hope, PA where painters, attracted by the local scenery, painted together.

Among them, George Hetzel was trained academically in Dusseldorf, German. From some existing drawing (some are actually figures) of his early training time, one can sense that he mastered great skills at fairly early age. Over his long career span, he gradually loosen up a Hudson-River-School-like detail-oriented style and adopted to a more tonally harmonious one, but nevertheless he never gave up a more scientific, rational approach, similar to that of his contemporary Dewitt Clinton Boutelle from Bethlehem, PA. His rendering of nature reminds me of Asher Durand because forest under his brush is both realistic and poetic. It is no joking that with paintings by George Hetzel one can study the vegetation of Scalp Level before Johnstown was flooded, which terminated the summer trip for the school. It is no accidental that one of the book about Hudson River School actually chooses one of his major works (now in WMOAA) as the cover illustration. However, unlike the Cole or Church, Hetzel found the interior of forest as much captivating as the panorama views of the Ohio Valley. He is a keen observer: quite often, the interplay between light and shade not only enhances the depth of the scene, but also tells the time of the day. Under his brush, Scalp Level may seem to offer less excitement than that of Catskill, NY; but its restrained tranquil scenery is timeless and transcendental.

Each member of Wall family is different.

William Coventry Wall is the eldest. One can easily get tired of his meticulous details in his tightly controlled pictures. My favorite is a small painting in CMOA. “Pittsburgh after the Fire from Boyd’s Hill” was painted in 1846, an early but important work in his career. The dominating orange-red color of debris and walls has an almost psychological effect on viewer’s eyes. The panorama view is a jarring contrast between roofless houses lined repetitively and relentlessly in an unnatural patten and the formless hills on the other side of the river. The slightly exaggerated color of the burnt wall anticipated his rich pallet of autumnal scenes decades later. But while the minutiae and exacting style in depicting mountains may seem primitive in those landscape paintings, in this small urban picture however, the orderly rhythms formed by the pointed walls and chimneys and the painstaking rendering of the remains from the scorching flames under another layer of warm sunlight link the viewers with his own sympathy for the unexpected loss and suffering.

A. S. Wall is my favorite painter among the Wall family. Alfred Wall was appointed by Andrew Carnegie as one of the original members of board of trustee of Carnegie Institute but didn’t serve long before he died. His style is more painterly compared to his brother. It would be great to put his paintings next to those by Charles Linford to show a similar style, more intimate and looser, that began to gain the momentum after the civil war. Once CMOA showed one of his watercolor pictures, I was amazed by its simplicity and refined suggestive mood. Unlike Hetzel, A. S. Wall often depicted human traces in the landscape: barns, crops or straw-thatched houses. For a painter who grew up in Mount Pleasant, it is not the humanized nature that he is afraid of – which must be abundant throughout Western Pennsylvania area; it is the industrialization and machine age that he and his fellow were escaping from.

Based on the biography, one of the members of board of trustee for Carnegie Institute, the son of A. S. Wall, A. Bryan Wall had no formal art lesson except from his father and his uncle. Although coined as a sheep painter, I have seen the picture of the portrait that he painted for Henry Frick which fits quite well for the society portraiture standard. Like Carlton Wiggins, A. B. Wall found his true romance in the warm textured and docile temped animals dimly lit in nostalgia light. In his numerous shepherd scenes, there is a sense of accomplishment of landscape design through his direct brush stroke, vivid, free yet effective. If A. S. Wall, by eliminating the rich palette that his elder brother used, achieved a tonal impression echoing French Barbizon style, A. Bryan Wall’s directness advanced the painterly style in Scalp Level school to impressionism, instead style of his times.

Among all Scalp Level painters, Charles Linfod is my favorite. I have not found any reference about his early life, but his paintings certainly reflects the French Barbizon style. Since he spent years living on the east coast, it is possible that he had seen imported French paintings by person. His interior forests bear similar composition as that of Diaz de la Pena; but his colors are more somber and close to that of Rousseau. Consistently, he favored an overall warm brown color for earthy atmosphere and in general took a lower position for a more intimate foreground. The sky, opening up at certain area, casts just enough light for the magic wood interior. If William Coventry Wall painted the scene while George Hetzel painted the nature, then Linford painted the mood that make one feel more than see. Maybe Scalp Level looked no different from other western Pennsylvania state parks nowadays; but in the vision of Linford, every tree is magic and sentimental that demands looking and contemplating.

Like A. B. Wall, A. F.King was another second generation of Scalp Level school. But I have not seen a convincing landscape painting by King. His light was too tried, and his brushstroke too tight. Years ago, I saw a large-scale painting by him in Eclectic Gallery on Ohio River Blvd. Its overwhelming tranquility almost borders stylish stillness that are common in primitive landscapes. But such calmness becomes his biggest strength in his much-acclaimed still-life paintings. “Late night snack” displayed CMOA is one of my favorite in the whole museum. The lucidity of the glass, the cloudy texture of the beer and tiny holes in the biscuits gives beholders an illusion that the satisfaction of delicious food can come from the visual joy. Unfortunately, King outlived his contemporaries, which means for an artist living out of the fashion. Ironically, when A. B. Wall sat on the board of trustee to select permanent collection for Carnegie Institute which devoted a museum to old masters of tomorrow, King, by sticking to the tradition of tightly controlled Landscape and still life in the vein of Hudson River school and Raphael Peale was forgotten in his last few years.

Jasper Lawman is another painter among the Scalp Level School, who reflected a more European tradition. Like the French Barbizon painters, he often incorporated human figure as an integral part of the pictures. But the human figures under his paint, are not laboring in the fields, instead, they possess a kind of attitude of repose and ease. Thus, his paintings look light and fresh, unique among Scalp Level painters.

I am in no position in discussing Woodwell, but certainly he is very versatile, and some of his paintings look almost impressionism. I will also skip other painters such as Eugene Pool or a few second generation painters whom I know little of or whose paintings I have only seen one or two in person.

4 The Critics
In the Post-Gazette article, it was commented by the director of WMOAA, Judith O’Toole, that the complete infrastructure of the museums, dealership along the east coast branded the Hudson River, a national school. (In comparison, the first art museum in Pittsburgh was established from the first Carnegie International in 1896.) It is true that artists probably could achieve their fame easier or higher in big east coast cities. However, I disagree that Scalp Level would be raised to a national level even if those painters had been painting there.

Cole, Durand and other painters are the first American painters who brought the American wildness into the view of the public. Even though their subject matters are limited to the scenes along the Hudson, the grandeur of the scenery, the optimism that is shone through the canvas carries a national appealing and pride at its time. Their paintings, almost universally painted in panorama, sent an unquestionable message that God has blessed the country with unrivaled beauty and abundant resources. Thus, Hudson River School, with a mission of edifying the public and elevating the status of the homeland, were boasted and praised not only for their exceptional techniques, but also their moral discourse offered silently yet unequivocally.

Scalp Level school did not start their first trip until the end of the civil war, at least one decade later than when major painters of Hudson River school began to stun public with their enormous canvases. By the end of 1890’s, Pittsburgh was a giant machine for steel and glass manufacturing. Instead of embracing the American wildness that was everywhere in the first half of the 19th century, Hetzel and his likeminded fellow saws the Scalp Level an outlet from eroding urban mundanity and thus were more inclined to walk into the forest than to look down at the mountains. Their paintings are more personal. However although the viewers are intrigued by the otherworldly beauty, a reminiscence of the past grandeur, they were conscious what has been displayed is painters’ mecca forest, not accessible to the general public.

Secondly, it is common that a regional school bears a recognizable style. Old Lyme at one time was the center of American Tonalism. New Hope represents a group of Pennsylvania Impressionists. But the painters in Scalp Level School differ greatly in their artistic style. If it is not because of the regional preference, it is hard to believe someone, who likes A. B. Wall, will also collect his uncle’s paintings. Not only is the style unable to descend along bloodline from its first generation, but also individual had also gone through style changes in their careers. King’s late period still life paintings roughen up and reject the convention of nicety. In his later life, Woodwell used large solid color blocks in some plein-air paintings that would not challenge the notion that he is a member of Scalp Level school.

This also answered the question asked at the very beginning of the blog? Will the market values of Scalp Level increase to the next tier in the next few years? In my mind, the answer will be yes and no. The Pittsburgh region has not seen an increase of affluence or people. The art and antiques that are associated with the region, hence would not change dramatically. The sharp increase in the recent auction records is partially caused by the fact that the availability of artworks is still limited and major works are yet to be discovered. The Post-Gazette article said paintings that have been in artist and collector families for decades are entering the market for the past few years as the original owners gradually die out. If this is true, more scalp level paintings will appear in the market and the market may stabilize before the price surges up to balance the demand and the supply.

But more importantly, the market for individual painters may probably go through different route. In a lukewarm market, the medium ranged category is affected more than two extreme end. Therefore some may not see the rise of appreciation in monetary value, while others will keep the steady pace with more research, publication available.

*Note, all attributed works were not considered in this analysis.

5 thoughts on “New Exhibition —- Scenic Views: Painters of the Scalp Level School Revisited

  1. Such an interesting post. I first heard of the Scalp Hill Painters in the P-G article. Your post adds such much more detail about the movement and many of artists of that group. Thanks!


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