The Sheep of His Pasture

Elliott Daingerfield (American, 1859-1932). Midnight Moon, ca. 1906. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 36 in. (76.5 x 91.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, John B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 07.272 (Courtesy to Brooklyn Museum)
Elliott Daingerfield (American, 1859-1932). Midnight Moon, ca. 1906. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 36 in. (76.5 x 91.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, John B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 07.272 (Courtesy to Brooklyn Museum)

In my visit to the Brooklyn Museum on Sunday, I went to the Luce Center for American Art. There, quietly hung behind the glass, is one of my favorite paintings by Elliott Daingerfield.

If Whistler and Inness are two giant pillars of the Tonalism movement, they, with their followers, represent two different aesthetics: The former stressed the formal arrangement of forms and flattened color tones and his followers such as Xavier Martinez, Leon Dabo or Thomas Dewing showed a more cosmopolitan taste and were more sympathetic to European contemporary. Inness, however, never gave up the traditional pictorial space and forms. His followers such as Alexander Wyant or John Francis Murphy adopted loose brushstrokes and layers of translucent or opaque paint  and favored more indigenous landscape of “Walden Pond”.

In fact, I never like the “ism” coined to different periods. The evocative tonal effect can be achieved through a variety of techniques, media or subjects. In the case of Elliot Daingerfield, the pupil of Inness and the first author to write a biography of his mentor, he is more or less an outlier within the circle. Early in his career, he was tutored by Inness and adopted the style of the French Barbizon school, to which he returned late in his life. But in his middle career, he was also influenced by Ralph Blakelock and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Like his mentor Inness, he advanced the landscape from personal reflections of intimate feelings to mysticism and the spiritual. But unlike his mentor, he departed the Walden Pond for religious imaginary, which is mainly associated with his art today.

“Midnight Moon” was probably painted in 1906, one year after Daingerfield finished the mural for the chapel at St. Mary the Virgin in New York City. The Last quarter moon surrounded by clouds recalls the mystic atmosphere in those of Ralph Blakelock. The marsh land shrouded within mist and haze and the prominent somewhat eerie-looking tree has the same dream-like quality in those of Ryder. If Blakelock eternalized the silent beauty of moon behind trees while Ryder froze the actions to give a mystified storytelling, Daingerfield’s “Midnight Moon” lied in between: it was neither muted nor vigorous. The group of sheep glazing along the river bank perhaps pertains an additional layer of religious meaning as Jesus said “I am the good shepherd; and I know mine own, and mine own know me …. and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Geo in general dislikes paintings with religious overtones. Daigerfield once said: “Art is the principal flowing out of God through certain men and women, by which they perceive and understand the beautiful. Sculpture, architecture, pictures and music are the langauges of the spirit.” His numerous mystic figures, even though set with atmospheric backdrops, are allegorical in the first place and may not attract the younger generations. Yet in this particular landscape, I was mesmerized by the simplistic design and eccentric color tones. The sheep harmonize the civilized landscape and bring the consciousness and comprehension to the dream-like land. In the flow of mist and cloud, in the ever-changing silvery moon-light, “sheep in pasture” presents an artistic vision of a spiritual paradise which can be obtained through imagination, perception, and devotion.

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