At the door front of Impressionism

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“High Bridge” by Henry Ward Ranger, c 1905, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The last visit to the Luce Center of visible storage at the Met proved to be a fruitful one. It was there that I saw Henry Ward Ranger’s “High Bridge” in person. This is a picture that I have seen in the book but was still amazed by its beauty and its size. George Frazer commented when displayed in the gallery the painting reminded him of “one of the most beautiful Claude, and the Turner and Constable. However, it is none of these, but rather a magnificent modern picture.”

Ranger, among a group of tonalism artists at the turn of the century, was more cosmopolitan in subject matters. Urban or rural, the landscape under his brush is always shimmering under warm golden-brown light. Wolfgang Born described “High Bridge” as a work “distinguished by a soft luminosity and broken colors that transcend his Barbizon period.” If Barbizon is more or less associated with the rural landscape, which is not suitable here, then the way Ranger utilized the varnish in his pictures could align him with other tonalism painters; however, this picture also impregnates a spontaneous vigor as if the impression of the urban scene was fully captured with a direct personal response, speedy sketch skills, and enthusiastic energy, much like impressionism, but only better: because its charm ripens through ages, a promise from the master of paint and glaze. Regarding to Ranger’s late style, born thought he “seemed at the threshold of impressionism, but there he stopped.”

At the left bottom of the frame, I spotted some blue paint, the same as used in depicting the Harlem River in the picture. Apparently, Ranger was still fine-tuning the painting when the canvas was put in the current frame. Yet now the canvas was placed behind the glass, which made photographing in the already-dim-lit room extremely hard. The glass must have been added much later, when conservators found out that-re varnish Ranger’s work not only may remove paint off the canvas and thus destroy the integrity of the work, but also betray Ranger’s own intention, in his own words: “If there is such a thing as the projection of individuality through the Valley of the Shadow, I shall be awaiting Mr. Restorer on the other shore.”

Yet Ranger was not a scientist. How much the colors have deepened cannot be fully measured, but putting a UV-filtered glass can at least slow down the aging effect, which otherwise may change the hue of the river from blue to green, as the case in some Turner’s paintings.

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