Barnet, Simpson, and Babb:
THE CANVAS- JUNE 2008
By Carl Little
A Bower, a Beach, a Bend in the River
Channeling Seurat at Old Orchard Beac
Joel Babb has painted a variety of Maine motifs, ranging from Bath Iron Works to gorgeous woodland scenes painted near Sumner in Oxford County. He is as comfortable rendering the marvelous architecture of the Customs House in Portland as he is tackling a crowd taking the waters at Old Orchard Beach.
Babb is not the first painter to find material in Old Orchard. In 1941, Marsden Hartley visited the town and made sketches of muscular French Canadians that were later translated into some of his most memorable figure paintings.
Like his predecessor, Babb is drawn to the seaside for its figural possibilities. “The people you see at the beach are just wonderful—all ages and sorts and body types and personalities,” he notes. He also finds the strong sunlight and color intoxicating “when you really get into it.”
In preparing to paint Old Orchard Beach (1989) Babb walked the length of the strand taking photographs of the people and the setting. Working from these photos, he created a large composite drawing, which included selected figures and visual elements, such as the pier. The painting is built from color harmonies—the artist refers to “a family of reds,” “tints” of viridian green, and “a yellow theme.” The colors are worked together and varied in intensity to achieve the atmospherics of distance.
Babb is a great admirer of pointillist Georges Seurat’s masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886) as well as his bathing pictures. In his own way, he channels the French master, creating an engaging human panorama. It’s Sunday at Old Orchard Beach with Joel.
Will Barnet, Transcendent
In the early 1970s, Will Barnet began to spend summers with his family in Maine, at their home in Chamberlain, a village on the Bristol Peninsula overlooking outer Muscongus Bay. These seasonal visits, the artist has written, provided a return “to the visual heritage of my youth—the sea and the transcendental history of New England.”
Those sojourns inspired his Women and the Sea series of paintings, several of which have become icons of American art. Sanctum (1976) is one such classic, a vision of New England that conjures an earlier century when women waited for their loved ones to return from the sea.
The wooded spot Barnet depicts could be any embowered outlook on the coast of Maine. The nine women, faceless among the dark trees, are clone-like, stylized forms with matching shawls, long dresses, and Emily Dickinson hair. Four sets of hands offer the only expression, each a kind of signal. What appears to be a dog curled up on the uneven ground adds a touch of domesticity.
The dictionary defines sanctum as “a sacred or holy place” and “a private place where one is free from intrusion.” The title adds to the mystery of the canvas: From what do these women seek sanctuary? Is this the cathedral of nature of which the transcendentalists wrote?
Barnet’s paintings have been reproduced so much that one might overlook them, yet we can understand their appeal when studying a painting like Sanctum. It’s the evocative perfection of a palette tuned to Maine weather, the blue-gray sky descending to a horizon straight as a string, and the women on the shore, ghostlike in their vigil.
Gretchen Dow Simpson’s Sheepscot Experience
Since coming to Maine as a 12-year-old, Gretchen Dow Simpson has explored the state, with a special focus on the islands. Drawn to architecture, she found sharp-angled houses on Vinalhaven and Islesboro. She also painted rowboats on Monhegan, one of which graced the cover of The New Yorker (to which Simpson contributed more than sixty covers in the 1970s and 1980s).
Simpson lives and works in Providence, not far from her alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design, but she makes yearly visits to Maine in search of subject matter. On a trip in August 2007, while driving from East Boothbay through Edgecomb on the Eddy Road, she came around a corner and saw, in her words, “the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.” The sun was setting on the Sheepscot River, and she pulled over to drink it in.
Simpson works from photographs (she was a professional photographer earlier in her life). She took many pictures that August day and then returned to the same spot in November and again in January, dusk being her preferred time. “I am fascinated with the change in flora and fauna in relation to the way the light reflects on the river and in the sky, interacting with the trees,” she explains.
From those encounters Simpson began a series of paintings, now numbering twelve (she plans to start another cycle based on visits this summer). Maine IX (2007) is among the most romantic of the lot. The sun casts a chiseled spear of light across the river water. We stand at Simpson’s shoulder, glad she took the time to stop and show us the view.
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