William Coventry Wall At Treadway Auction

"View on the Allegheny River" by William Coventry Wall, c. 1854 at Treadway Auction

“View on the Allegheny River” by William Coventry Wall, c. 1854 at Treadway Auction

On June 6, Treadway, along with the Cincinnati Art Gallery is having its annual art pottery & glass sale. In particular, Rookwood pottery takes much of the stage for both quantity and quality.

One of the lots (Lot 571) is a landscape painting of “View on the Allegheny River” by William Coventry Wall. Painted around 1854, the picture is fairly large (28.5″h x 42″w). On the back of the canvas, one label shows it was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1855.

More interestingly, the label also gives the locale of the scene. According to the label from Vixseboxse Art Gallery in Cleveland, OH, the picture depicted the spot where George Washington crossed the river on a raft in January 1754. Thus under the pastoral tranquility, W. C. Wall paid homage to the founder of the nation and demonstrated the harmony between progressive civilization and the expansive nature of the once West Frontier.

Washington’s experience of crossing the Allegheny River, however, was far from restful. Western Pennsylvanian’s January has always been harsh. At the age of 22, Washington volunteered as the emissary to Ohio River Valley to warn the French to leave British Lands. After St. Pierre’s polite refusal, Washington’s back journey to Williamsburg turned out to be a winner’s nightmare. Not only the French Indians almost shot the group, but also the Allegheny River was filled with turbulent rapids and swirling ice chunks. Their raft, made onsite, crashed and tumbled. Washington barely saved himself by holding a log and sleeping with his frozen clothes on a small island in the middle of the river. Fortunately, the river was frozen the next morning and Washington arrived in Williamsburg on January 15, 1754.

Washington and Gist Trying to Cross Allegheny River in January 1754

With the fading memory of the American Revolution and heroic figures, the grandeur landscape became the new artistic voice of patriotism and national pride in the second quarter of the 19th century. W. C. Wall, with his meticulous brushstrokes and staggering light — two main characteristics of the Hudson River School, was nevertheless less impressed by nature itself. Quite often, he depicted the changing landscape of the hills and riverside of Ohio Valley with dams, factories and residences. In one particular case, he painted several pictures of a destructive fire in 1845 which devolves 24 block area of the city and 2/3 of the total wealth. (The paintings won him both financial and artistic success.) On one hand, the picturesque Ohio Valley, with milder hills and meandering waters, lacks the dramatic vantage points of Hudson Valley that inspired artists with the panorama views; on the other hand, the rapid civilization and industrialization of the region during the first half of the 19th century must have a dazzling effect on local artists. As a town with a population of 1565 in the year 1800, Pittsburgh, with its abundant petroleum, natural gas, lumber, and farm goods grew into a tremendous industrial city within 50 years. By 1857, Pittsburgh’s 1,000 factories were consuming 22,000,000 bushels of coal yearly and employing more than 10,000 workers. The transformation of the landscape and the changing of the lifestyle of the people commanded much of W. C. Wall’s time and energy. In the Carnegie Museum of Art where artworks are displayed based on the year they were created, more than two paintings by W. C. Wall were exhibited at different rooms. “Crossan Country Home on the Allegheny River (near Verona)”, painted in 1865, is a picture of idyllic rural beauty. Unlike the luminism paintings where waters are tranquil like mirrors, the reflections of the houses, rafts and cows are blurred in the seemingly perpetual pastoral living. However, a painting of “The Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Company” in 1884, displayed in a different room, features rows of chimneys with black smoke up in the air that would leave environmentalists nowadays shrieking. In my mind, among all Scalp Level School painters, W. C. Wall’s attitude toward industrialization seems ambiguous. He painted faithfully regardless of whether it is about urban debris (after the great fire) or primitive forests. He composed the painting in traditional landscape format, and in the case of black smoke on the verge of breaking the balance of horizontal design, minimized the urban and industrial intrusion so that they look assimilated into nature.

"Pittsburgh after the Fire from Boyd's Hill" by William Coventry Wall at Carnegie Museum of Art
“Pittsburgh after the Fire from Boyd’s Hill” by William Coventry Wall at Carnegie Museum of Art

Never trained formally, W. C. Wall utilized all the faculty and struggled to present his vision of humanized nature. In this particular lot, his signature style is evident in every detail. The early autumn has chilled some of the mountain leaves, but not enough to stop wading and fishing. The sky, with Western Pennsylvania clouds, is championing the gradation of hues. Although the atmospheric perspective is not convincing, the golden light, suffused from the sky and water, is painted with poetry and sensibility. A close-up shows he painted individual leaves and blades of grass with a desire of perfection. I used to only see one side of his paintings: the sharp linearization and the stylized depiction of mountains that were common among amateurish artists; now I begin to see these works as an artistic triumph over technique inefficiency, a quintessential American optimism that emphasizes on empirical trial and error problem-solving methodologies. In particular, just because W. C. Wall might not fully insert his personal interpretation of nature into the canvas, he, more than other artists of his family, relied more on what is provided in the scenery, thus leaving us a treasure of landscape with marvelous historical accuracy.

The estimation of the lot is 500 to 1000 dollars, which is probably too conservative. The availability of W. C. Wall’s paintings is very limited. Of the few existing records, his similar paintings were sold for around 10,000 dollars in Christie’s and Skinner’s 10 years ago. In fact, Geo was told by a staff from the auction house that there were so many phone bid on this lot that phone bidders are now recommended to commit to bid at least twice of its high estimation to get a slim chance, which I still doubt.

Curiously, at the foreground of the painting, one of the fishermen is holding a fishing pole, scintillating at dusk light. Was Wall referring to the pole that Washington once used to push the raft on that cold wintry day?

2 thoughts on “William Coventry Wall At Treadway Auction

  1. Hi i was glad to see this post. I was just inherited a w. c. Walls painting. The canvas has a hole in the middle but his signature is still in tact snd readable. It also is dated 1858


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