Peter Sculthorpe, Radiance. Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches.

Peter Sculthorpe’s Masterfully Detailed Paintings Capture the Bucolic Beauty of Rural America 

By Benjamin Genocchio

“I am a fan,” says gallerist Jim Alterman, talking about Peter Sculthorpe,   
the legendary painter of atmospheric rural scenes 
and one of America’s most popular landscape painters.  

Peter Sculthorpe in his Delaware studio.

The exhibition is accompanied by an 80-page full-color catalog. Available for purchase, $35+ shipping. Call 609-397-7700 to order.

Jim Alterman has known the artist for almost 20 years and in that time has had the pleasure of owning hundreds of his artworks through his eponymous gallery, Jim’s of Lambertville. On April 20th, the gallery will be opening a retrospective exhibition of more than 130 of the artist’s paintings and prints, "Peter Sculthorpe, Modern Day Master: The Retrospective," accompanied by an illustrated catalog. 

Sculthorpe, 75, has spent the last 50 years painting his vision of the American landscape. Born in Ontario, Canada, he studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia but, he says, knew “right away” a career as an academic painter was “not for me.” 

He left Philadelphia and established a home in Chester County, Pa., and began to immerse himself in the historic stone barns, streams, and countryside of the Brandywine Valley, where he still resides. His subject matter later expanded to include Maine and coastal Canada.

Peter Sculthorpe, Broad Run. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches.

He painted his monumental landscapes in watercolor initially, a tricky medium in which the artist works backward from traditional painting techniques. In watercolor, working wet on wet, the artist paints from light colors to dark because of the difficulties of overlaying light water-based paint over darker paint — it pools into a muddy mess. Sculthorpe soon moved to oil paint because, he says, “it enabled more detailed work.” When asked whether he has used acrylic paint, he answered, “Yes, but it dries too quickly, so you can lose control. Oil paint stays pliable and wet for a long time.” 

Peter Sculthorpe, Saint Regis Sunset. Oil on canvas, 24 x 60 inches.

Peter Sculthorpe, Blizzard. Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches.

Peter Sculthorpe, Bicycle and Barn. Watercolor, 14 x 20 inches.

Sculthorpe is often compared to fellow American landscape painter Andrew Wyeth, though his work is more colorful and his subjects are varied. He met Wyeth in the early 1970s after the painter visited Sculthorpe’s first exhibition at a small gallery in Chadd’s Ford, Pa. where Wyeth lived. “Andrew and some local characters came to see my show, and then about a week later he called the gallery and asked if I would be interested in coming over and spending the day with him to talk art and drink some good bourbon. I couldn’t believe it,” Sculthorpe says. ”It was so inspiring and humbling at the same time.” 

Sculthorpe credits Wyeth with helping him to understand how to look at the world. “It is hard to put into words,” he says. “It was inspiring to meet him as a personality, a famous artist, but more as a man. I was already a fan of him as a painter — the work is curiously achromatic, with little introduction of color. It is also bitterly real. But his attitude really struck me. He took me for a walk around his property and showed me where he and his wife had restored an old Revolutionary War mill back to the original. He had a fabulous attitude about life. It taught me if you have a good attitude, life is going to treat you well.”

Left: Peter Sculthorpe, Shetland Day. Oil on panel, 8 x 8 inches.  Right: Peter Sculthorpe, Jack. Oil on linen, 8 x 8 inches. 

Peter Sculthorpe, A Sultry EveningOil on canvas, 15 x 30 inches.

Peter Sculthorpe, Black Head at DawnOil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches.

Sculthorpe approaches his landscape subjects with a mentality that can only be described as love. He is an artist with obvious and honed technical skills coupled with a subtle, preternatural sensitivity to the natural world. He is a master of light and shadows, energizing his simplified, solitary rural scenes with watery reflections and searching, atmospheric skies that are dramatic and romantic but never nostalgic — they are too real for that. He paints what he sees, filtered through memory with the aid of a sketch or photographs and with attention to the minutest elements. His paintings somehow make you feel like you are there, with him, facing the actual landscape.

Sculthorpe paints nearly every day in his studio in Rockland, Delaware, on the border of Pennsylvania and a stone’s throw from Chadd’s Ford. “I might do half an hour or six hours of work, it varies from day to day depending on how interested I am in the painting,” he says. He used to work on multiple paintings at the same time, but today he finds himself concentrating on one painting at the one time. “The paintings recently have been excruciatingly complicated and so they take me longer to paint. I am demanding more from myself. I've had so many one-man shows and stopped doing that, so I am not under the gun to produce. I am, more, these days, painting for myself.”

Peter Sculthorpe, The Longhorns. Oil on canvas, 21 x 30 inches.

Sculthorpe says that, as he is getting older, he finds the best time to paint is around dinner time. “It sounds weird but that is the best time, I just get embedded in the work.” He also has a fondness for the soft, diffused glow of moonlight and will head out of doors to sketch a scene. “I have experimented with the moonlight atmosphere and there is something different and special. Blue sky or gray sky, you can’t do so much. The luminescence of moonlight is weaker and not as defined and so edges and shadows of things are fuzzy and so the landscape has a different feel to it, a different mood.” 

Peter Sculthorpe, Spring House in Moonlight. Watercolor, 24 x 29 inches.

Peter Sculthorpe, Off Season on the VineyardOil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches.

Peter Sculthorpe, Off Burnt Island. Oil on panel, 8 x 8 inches.

Architectural structures in a rural landscape dominate his imagery. “I never was that interested in figures in a landscape. Maybe a horse or rider, it wasn’t something that needed to be included — you take it for granted the structures are built by people and there is a human scale to them.” The stone structures he paints are also connected to place and to land. “I am fascinated with stone masonry and early domestic American architecture using indigenous materials. I am Canadian, from southern Ontario. The place I come from is the only other place I know that has stone buildings with not much wood on them like you find in Chester County, Pa. The link is amazing to me.” 

Alterman’s retrospective includes 120 oil paintings and 16 lithographs from all periods and of all subjects, though mostly the imagery captures scenes from Bucks and Chester Counties. Peter Sculthorpe, Alterman says, "is one of the most universally appealing artists ever to adorn the walls of my galleries. Whether it be weekend gallery strollers or seasoned art collectors, everyone loves his paintings." Peter's labor-intensive technique is clearly evident in the sharp details of every stone, shingle, plank, and branch. In his art, nature becomes extremely inviting and relatable. 



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