John William Hill painted this tranquil scene entitled Canal in 1865, a decade after his introduction to Modern Painters by English aesthetician John Ruskin. Ruskins literature, first published in 1843, challenged artists to gain a more profound understanding of nature by painting earnestly and en plein air: Paint the leaves as they grow! (1). Hill, as an American acolyte of Ruskin, helped to found the Association for the Advancement of Truth
in Art in 1863 under the leadership of English expatriate artist Thomas Charles Farrer.
|The group, also known as the American Pre-Raphaelites, favored the application of watercolor in an exacting manner in order to provide faithful transcriptions of nature. Seeking new modes of expression, these artists had a predilection for brilliant color and minute detail through sustained on-site work (2).
Hill captures this reverence for nature by using carefully layered strokes of watercolor to depict the highly nuanced and sunlit landscape. The mill, figures, and animals are depicted as accessories comfortably nestled within the landscape, thereby emphasizing the romantic and pictorial quality of their autumnal surroundings. The mountains in the distance are rendered with soft washes of blue and yellow in continuity with the foreground, and are veiled in an atmospheric haze.
An interest in American watercolors by collectors and critics was stimulated by an immensely successful exhibition of English watercolors shown at the National Academy of Design in 1866. That same year, The American Society of Painters in Water Colors was founded, and Hill was among their first exhibitors; his extensive work in this medium made him a pioneer amid the burgeoning interest (3). Hill also exhibited intermittently with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design, the latter to which he was elected an associate member at the age of twenty-one.
Hill was born in England and moved to Philadelphia with his family at a very young age. They relocated to New York in 1822 and he was apprenticed to his father, John Hill, an important American printmaker, for seven years. By 1836 he made his home in Nyack, New York and was employed as a topographical artist for the New York State Geological Survey. From the late 1840s to 1855, he traveled widely throughout the United States and created a series of city views in watercolor to be published as lithographs. He passed away in Nyack in 1879.
Provenance: From a private Connecticut collection to the gallery.
1. John Ruskin, Modern Painters.
2. Patricia Junker, An American Collection: Works from the Amon Carter Museum (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2001), 70.
3. Barbara J. MacAdam, Marks Of Distinction: Two Hundred Years Of American Drawings And Watercolors From The Hood Museum Of Art (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2005), 76.