The White Mountains of New Hampshire lay claim to some of the most dramatic summits and rugged terrain in the northeastern United States. Mount Washington is the tallest of this group of mountains, whose light-colored peaks are at times mistaken for clouds by sailors approaching the coast. Ascending over 6,000 feet above sea level, the temperature and winds at its pinnacle create one of the most severe climates on earth. Vast woodlands, lakes, and streams also serve to make the area one of unusual splendor. As early as the seventeenth century the wonders of this area were attracting explorers as a physical and navigational challenge, and by the end of the eighteenth century, scientists arrived to study the curiosities of the region’s flora, geology, and climate.

Fig. 1: Benjamin Champney (1817–1907)
Picnic on “Artist’s Ledge” Overlooking Conway Meadows, New Hampshire, 1874
Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches
Courtesy of Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N. H.
Museum Purchase: Bequest of Henry Melville Fuller (2002.20.15)

Soon painters and writers followed, driven by a patriotic eagerness to record a young America’s rugged wilderness. Among the earliest painters drawn to the White Mountains was Thomas Cole (1801–1848) who visited the area along with fellow Hudson River School painters Henry Cheever Pratt (1803–1880) in the late 1820s and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) in 1839. Influenced by the Romantic tradition, they explored themes in which man was subordinate to the overwhelming natural world. Cole’s paintings reflect his vision of human presence in a tough landscape where, in his words, “the bare peaks of granite, broken and desolate, cradle the clouds, while the vallies [sic] and broad bases of the mountains rest under the shadow of noble and varied forests.”1

Fig. 2: David Johnson (1827–1908)
Deer in the White Mountains, New Hampshire, 1866
Oil on canvas, 9 x 14 inches
Signed lower left: “DJ.”
Courtesy of Godel & Co., Inc., NY

During the 1830s the well-traveled Bostonian painter Alvan Fisher (1792–1863) visited the area, sometimes joined by Thomas Doughty (1793–1856), one of the earliest American painters to devote himself exclusively to landscape painting. Fisher represented an environment similar to Cole’s in which man is dwarfed by steep cliffs, dark forests, and foreboding skies. Foreshadowing an increasing trend, Doughty’s landscapes preserved a sense of grandeur but were less threatening.

Although these types of portrayals of the landscape and climate as overwhelming forces can still be seen in the work of later White Mountain painters such as Jasper Cropsey (1823–1900), this theme would soon be eclipsed by a focus on man’s ability to live in harmony with the earth.2 This shift occurred as more settlers populated the area in the 1840s and 1850s. Some took advantage of its forests and mineral abundance. Most, however, chose farming as a livelihood, raising wheat in the interval lands and rearing sheep in the mountains.3 With an increasing population during the second half of the century, villages sprang up against the majestic backdrop of the mountains. Artists who had previously painted only wilderness quickly took to this scenic juxtaposition of nature and civilization. Picturesque views showing organized, agrarian landscapes are patent examples of this trend, as is wilderness depicted in such a way as to render it hospitable and to be enjoyed. Motivated in part by national pride to paint American landscapes, these painters showed the country at its most inviting. The images helped to promote the natural beauty of the area and, aided by improved railroads and hotels, scores of visitors began arriving in the White Mountains to experience it for themselves.

Fig. 3: William Hart (1823–1894)
View in the Valley of the White Mountains, New Hampshire, 1857
Oil on canvas, 32-1/8 x 48 inches
Signed and dated lower right: “Wm Hart. 57.”
Courtesy of Godel & Co., Inc., N.Y
Fig. 5: Samuel W. Griggs (1827–1898)
Crystal Cascade Falls, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, 1864
Oil on canvas, 26 x 18 inches
Signed and dated lower left: “S. W. Griggs/1864.”
Courtesy of Childs Gallery, Boston, MA

Another Hudson River School painter who made several sketching trips to the White Mountains in the late 1840s and early 1850s was John F. Kensett (1816–1872), whose paintings meld early and later painting themes, maintaining the grandeur of nature but recording man’s comfort in it. Canvases resulting from these journeys met with a high degree of success and did much to promote the region, as did a widely circulated engraving of his Mt. Washington from the Valley of Conway. On his 1850 trip to the region, Kensett was joined by fellow Hudson River School painter John W. Casilear (1811–1893), also known for his White Mountain views, and Benjamin Champney (1817–1907) whom Kensett had met in Paris.

It is Champney who is generally considered to have most directly influenced the painters who would become the White Mountain School—a group that applied a Hudson River School approach to this New England region. Champney, a New Hampshire native, had been a lithographer in Boston before he gave it up and departed for Europe to study painting. His return to the United States was marked by a warm response to the landscapes he created while abroad. Shortly thereafter, in the 1840s, he began taking regular trips to the White Mountains. He bought a house in North Conway in 1854, where he spent his summers for much of the remainder of his life, inviting other well-known artists to the area, including Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), and William Sonntag (1822–1900), who would gather at Champney’s studio or at Thompson’s Tavern, a North Conway inn, to discuss their work. Champney’s Picnic on “Artist’s Ledge” overlooking Conway Meadows, NH (1874) (Fig. 1) emphasizes the beauty of the vista, rather than the dramatic elements of the topography, and serves to encapsulate his vision of the region.

David Johnson (1827–1908), a leading artist of the second generation of Hudson River School painters, made his first of many trips to New Hampshire in 1851 and, in part because of his friendship with Champney, returned every year between 1863 and 1869. His Deer in the White Mountains of 1866 (Fig. 2) is a testament to his ability to carefully capture the fine detail of his subjects and render them in cool, pleasing tones. In the late 1850s, Scottish-born William Hart (1823–1894) regularly traveled from New York to the White Mountains. One of Hart’s earliest visits resulted in View in the Valley of the White Mountains, New Hampshire (1857) (Fig. 3), which served to show his technical dexterity at conveying emotion. Another New York-based artist associated with the area in the 1850s was Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832–1928), whose depictions of White Mountain topography, resulting from his frequent visits, were highly popular and regularly exhibited in major cities throughout the Northeast.

Fig. 4: Samuel Lancaster Gerry (1813–1891)
Calm Pond (White Mountains, New Hampshire), ca. 1860s
Oil on canvas, 20 x 27 inches
Signed lower right: “SL Gerry.”
Courtesy of Spanierman Gallery, LLC, NY

Many Boston-based artists were active in the White Mountains prior to the Civil War. Samuel Lancaster Gerry (1813–1891) had no formal artistic training but it is known that he traveled abroad in the late 1830s to study the work of the European masters. He visited the White Mountains sometime before 1840 and exhibited the resulting works widely over the course of his career. Gerry’s pleasing Calm Pond (White Mountains, New Hampshire) (Fig. 4) was painted circa 1860. In 1858 the architect-turned-painter Samuel W. Griggs (1827–1898) showed a painting of a White Mountain subject, the Pemigewasset River, in an exhibition in New Bedford by Albert Bierstadt, with whom it is thought Griggs studied. Over the next two decades he painted views of other well-known streams, mountains, and towns in the area, including 1864’s Crystal Cascade Falls, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire which presents his view of this celebrated waterfall below Mt. Washington. Here, his straightforward, confident brushwork emphasizes the smooth contours of his subject (Fig. 5). Alfred Ordway (1821–1897), who, along with Champney, Gerry, and Griggs, was a founding member of the Boston Art Club, worked in the White Mountains as early as 1851. A regular visitor to the area, he often stayed at the Kearsarge House in North Conway, where tourists could purchase his tranquil landscapes of the local scenery.

Fig. 6: Winckworth Allen Gay (1821–1910)
Echo Lake, Franconia, NH, 1857
Oil on canvas, 16 x 22 inches
Signed and dated, lower left
Courtesy of William Vareika Fine Arts, Newport, RI

In 1853, shortly after his return from a trip to Europe with Champney, Winckworth Allen Gay (1821–1910) accompanied Champney to North Conway. A frequent visitor to the White Mountains after that, Gay became associated with the Franconia  Notch area where, in West Campton, artists had begun gathering in the late 1850s. Gay’s Echo Lake, Franconia, NH, dating from 1857 (Fig. 6), exhibited in the same year at the Boston Athenaeum, closely details the features of the mountains that tower above the water and the changing clouds overhead. A sense of the grand scale of the scene is provided through the presence of a solitary figure paddling a canoe.

Fig. 7: E. W. Hall (dates unknown)
View of the White Mountains from Conway, 1860
Oil on canvas, 8 x 14 inches
Signed lower right, dated 1860
Courtesy of Roger King Fine Art, Newport, RI

Artistic representations of the White Mountains created during the Civil War give little indication of the conflict.4 Elisha W. Hall, a National Academy exhibitor, was active in the White Mountains during the early 1860s (Fig. 7). Although his birth and death dates are not recorded, it is known that he had a studio at a utopian society in Eagleswood, New Jersey, and regularly exhibited his paintings in New York. Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837–1908), after training in Boston and Newburyport, began working in the White Mountains during the first half of the 1860s. He was particularly active in North Conway where he painted and studied with Champney, Bierstadt, and Gabriella White (1843–1932). The fact that several of his White Mountain paintings were reproduced as popular chromolithographs reveals the esteem in which they were held. Late Fall, White Mountains, NH, circa 1860s (Fig 8), demonstrates Bricher’s interest in the effects of light and air. The contrast between the hazy quality of its water and mountains and the more sharply delineated shoreline and trees in its foreground attest to his mastery of atmospheric perspective.  

An influx of artists arrived in the White Mountains during the years following the Civil War. Creating realistic depictions of the topography informed by the earlier renderings of Durand, Kensett, and mostly Champney, it is these painters who comprise the informal and broad-based White Mountain School. Several factors contributed to its form­ation and make its moniker appropriate. In addition to painting the same locations in a similar style, these artists took advantage of a proximity that all­owed for an exchange of ideas. They also enjoyed a ready market for their work from both tourists and city dwellers eager for rural images as a contrast to their daily lives, and they had the opportunity to exhibit their work both locally and in urban centers.5 Among the countless artists to paint the White Mountains during the last third of the nineteenth century several stand out, including Frank H. Shapleigh (1842–1906) who, after receiving artistic training in Paris, made his first visit in 1866. From 1877 to 1893 he spent his summers at the Crawford House in Crawford Notch, where he produced numerous mountain views. English-born Edward Hill (1843–1923) began his artistic career as a decorative painter in western Massachusetts and moved to New Hampshire in 1864. In the mid-1870s he began painting landscapes while visiting the Profile House in Franconia Notch and would continue to work while staying at local hotels into the 1890s, where he would sell his prolific work to visiting guests.

Fig. 8: Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837–1908)
Late Fall, White Mountains, NH., ca. 1860s
Oil on canvas, 9 x 16 inches
Courtesy of Questroyal Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, NY

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century a dramatic shift in aesthetic values occurred. As artists became more interested in exploring light and atmosphere, interest in distinct topographic features such as those found in the White Mountains diminished. The White Mountains themselves became less of an inspiring wilderness and more of a popular resort. Compounded with the advancement of photography as a method of visual representation, images of the White Mountains became less interesting to the artistic community. Although the White Mountains would continue to be visited by artists seeking to record their natural beauty, these artists’ efforts were not substantial enough to form the basis for a new artistic tradition.6

Erik R. Brockett is an independent scholar specializing in prints and fine art.