Dwight William Tryon And His Early Spring

Morning by Dwight William Tryon (Courtesy to Peabody Institute)
Morning by Dwight William Tryon (Courtesy to Peabody Institute)

Only to the persistent lover and close companion does nature reveal her beauty, only to one who no longer looks upon her as a stranger does she yield the secret of her charm —- Dwight William Tryon

March should not have been so cold and snowy in New York. But finally, Brooklyn smells the aroma of spring. The trees of Prospect Park are still patches of gray. Yet the perennial green of the long meadow, seemingly convenient for city planning, destroys the essence of the veritable resurrection of nature. If Autumn is the season in which monotonicity disintegrates into a symphonic splendor of colors, early spring is the time when moderated harmony embraces traces of vitality yet to exude. Thus among all seasons, it is the most sensitive and of the finest quality.

Dwight William Tryon certainly enjoyed the cold air and the trembling nature on the verge of resurrection. His most celebrated pictures are of the awakening nature, with “contours of the trees that show through the budding branches”. In those pictures, There are not many dark colors yet, the nuance and delicacy of embryo leaves require an infinite palette of colors: the grass is not pure green and the sky, not pure pale blue, and everything is opalescent, like morning dew, absorbs colors of the surroundings. On the other hand, the genteelness in those paintings is hardly of Victorian nicety, because the vivacity of spring freshness was painted on top of the thawing dirt, whose color is a somber mixture of different browns,  keeping the balance between contemplation and exuberance, the two aspects of the season.

Like other tonalism painters, Tryon lived half a year in the countryside as a fisherman and returned to New York City to resume painting in winter. He once said” the less imitation, the more suggestion and hence more poetry.” But such a statement in the values of painting from memory may disguise the fact that he was just too happy to paint in the countryside. Some painters of his generation moved to the countryside to paint plein-air or at least seek inspiration. Tryon, however, moved to Dartmouth, MA simply for a living.

November Evening by Dwight William Tryon (Courtesy to Smith College Museum of Art)

“The value of memory sketches lies in the fact that so much is forgotten! In time we must learn to leave out in our finished pictures these things which we now leave out through ignorance or forgetfulness. We must learn what to sacrifice.”  Tryon not only kept the book “William Hunt ‘s Talk About Art” but also marked the previous passage.  Under the skyline of his studio at the Harperley Hall Apartment, he could paint more than just a gaggle of souvenir images because the country lived through his heart. In fact, he was so attuned to the native soil that he once commented passing from New England to New Jersey was like entering another world. Such evidence can be seen in his distinctive depiction of dawn and dusk. Seldom slashes of orange and red were portrayed at the horizon to signify the dusk. His aptitude and instinct for the impacts of the seasons and times on the twilight and daybreak are both precise yet cultivated.  Take his “Morning” painting (1907, oil on canvas) as an example, the sky was lit by the rising sunlight under the remote hills. The hazy yet unified light emphasizes the group of trees in the middle ground whose indistinguishable budding can only be felt through the density of light coming through the eastern sky. On the other hand, “November Evening” (1924, oil on panel), a painting from his last stage, glorified the last warm sunrays in the barbed rural area. The strong and ominous light always feels religious, penetrating through the branches with some sharp forbidding edges.  Tryon didn’t live till another late Autumn.

It is hard to attribute Dwight William Tryon to only one school or group in the late 19th century. Compared to tonalism painters, Tryon lacked the  Swedenborganian spiritualism and near-violent spontaneity of brush strokes of George Inness. The mood in his paintings would be too evasive compared to that of John Francis Murphy whose “compositional only” (based on his own words) paintings of darkened nights with troubled skies are more emotionally stirring. Bruce Crane had a similar artistic sensitivity and value schemes, yet Tryon never favored the brutal colorless late Autumn and winter scenes of New England. Overall, since the late 1880s, Tryon had mostly transgressed from “painting in Barbizon mood” to painting the sensual and sensitive nature, which requires a much lighter palette compared to those used by the majority of tonalism painters.

Some scholars have called Tryon one of the few quiet impressionist painters. The most similar-minded would be Leonard Ochtman who also painted from memory in his studio with a more impressionistic palette. I disagree.  As an accomplished colorist, Tryon is more controlled and refined compared to the succinctness and neatness in those of Ochtman. In other words, if a poetic colorism lies between the two extremes of contrived mannerism and optical precision. Tryon would lean left while Ochtman close to the right. At his most, Tryon would never paint a harsh shadow under the daylight. For him, the light is always suffused and the sky is abundant in colors, thus shadows are just another bluish patch in the fields. Ochtman would not refuse the opportunity of depicting the contrast of light and shadow of summertime (as seen in his painting in the Smithsonian American Art Museum).  The distinction between the notions that natural beauty exists in all time and seasons as for Ochtman and that only exists in the cultivated minds like that of Tryon marks that the latter would never join the group of impressionism.

The taste of Charles Lang Freer, the most important patron of Dwight William Tryon, can shed light on assessing the artist’s style and association. Freer, an avid Asian art collector and the founder of Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, preferred four contemporary painters: James Whistler, Abbott Thayer, Thomas Dewing, and Dwight Tryon. Among the four, Tryon was the only true landscape painter. He admired Thomas Dewing’s works and personally collected his paintings. In decorating the mansion of Charles Freer in the 1890s, Tryon was willing to paint two landscape paintings (Spring and Autumn) with pale and limited colors to support Dewing’s centerpiece “Summer” which is lush and elaborate. The three paintings, based on some critics, exhibited a great degree of harmony even though they differ in subject matters. To some extent, Tryon’s landscape can be viewed as Dewing’s poeticism without female figures.

Dawn—Early Spring By Dwight William Tryon (Courtesy to Met)
Dawn—Early Spring By Dwight William Tryon (Courtesy to Met)

Whistler’s influence on Tryon would be hard to assess. Although it was probably Tryon who persuaded Freer to buy the Peacock Room, the artist neither believed in the value of expatriatism nor showed great interest in urban nocturnal scenes. The exposure to Asian art through Charles Freer didn’t leave a noticeable mark on Tryon’s artistic style; if it happened that both Mr. Freeer and Tryon linked the artwork with orientalism, it was simply because the charm of Tryon’s painting comes from the same meditative characteristics in Asian art that poses the challenge on the intelligence and the sympathy of the viewers.

Tryon outlived his art. In early 1913, right after his second solo exhibition in New York was the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Sixty-Ninth Infantry Regiment Armory. Suddenly his art looked archaic and out-of-fashion. The restless minds in the Gilded Age once yearned for suavity and intimacy now looked at art as a way of social reform. Nowadays, his name is still the least known among the four artists that Freer favored the most.

I have seen the works by Tryon from both galleries like QuestRoyal and Spanierman and museums such as Brooklyn Museum (Luce Center for American Art) and Newark Museum. Recently, I have just finished the book “An Ideal Country: Paintings by Dwight William Tryon in the Freer Gallery of Art” by Linda Merrill. It could be my Asian background that I have found a strong affinity with the art of Dwight William Tryon. On this early spring afternoon, I feel my mind in repose after reading. Behind the opal pigment comes the spring air: crisp and chill, reverberating the restlessness under the ground.


The book “An Ideal Country: Paintings by Dwight William Tryon in the Freer Gallery of Art” by Linda Merrill is excellent.

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