Art Review: Wild Waves and Quiet Streets: 2 Artists Working From Memory

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He traveled to Paris, London and Düsseldorf, but his most important trips were to Dresden, Germany, where in 1835 and 1836 he met Romanticism’s biggest star, Caspar David Friedrich, through the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl, who became his mentor. Balke returned several more times to Dresden over the next 16 years and spent 1843-44 painting beside Dahl, who is represented here by five works. Two other contemporaries weigh in with single canvases that mostly show how sure and unfussy Balke’s hand was. And an especially awe-inspiring sight is a two-part map of Norway, showing its wildly crenelated coastline, which was made around 1850 by Peter Andreas Munch, Edvard Munch’s uncle.

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Peder Balke’s “Northern Lights.”

Credit
Peder Balke, The Hearn Family Trust

Some of Balke’s best large paintings may have come in the late 1840s, suggested by the hallucinatory “Seascape,” in which a crown of mountains seems to float above land, sea and clouds like a vision, and “The North Cape in the Moonlight” — a gentler, larger, earlier version of the show’s first painting.

Balke enjoyed substantial success but in his final decades devoted most of his energy to founding a suburb, eventually known as Balkeby, outside Oslo, for artists and workers. It burned down in 1879. Still, during these final decades, he did some of his best work: usually painted on wood scraps from the construction of Balkeby that he sanded down and finished in white. Then using only black paint, he brushed, daubed with his fingers, scratched through or wiped away to achieve an astounding range of grays and light effects. These miraculous little things alternate between photographic precision and Whistlerian atmospheres, as in “Seascape.”

Chappel was an artist-worker who might have qualified for a house in Balkeby.

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“Buttermilk Pedlar,” an oil on slate paper from the 1870s, is one of 27 paintings by William Chappel in the “City of Memory” exhibition at the Met.

Credit
William Chappel; Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W.C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps, and Pictures

All 27 of the paintings here are oil on sheets of slate paper measuring just over six inches by nine inches and seem to depict New York from about 1806 to 1813. If that’s true, Chappel was a very observant child with a photographic memory, who might have benefited from artistic training but did perfectly well without it.

With beautiful colors, a soft consistent light and lively clouds, Chapell’s stage-set-like scenes alternate largely between rows of houses and views down long streets and are mostly sparsely populated. New York is remembered as far quieter and cleaner than it probably was.

The scenes depict vendors selling baked pears (in Duane Park), hot corn and buttermilk, and little baskets of strawberries hung on a long pole. There are night watchmen trudging through the snow and a lamplighter with his ladder and lantern. Looking at them, you feel the wide-open spaces of unsettled Manhattan, especially in one painting that shows a house raising. Charming and precise, they form a valuable, rare, if somewhat Romanticized, visual document of New York in the early 19th century before photography. The show also includes a map from around 1808 of Lower Manhattan, with the sites that Chappel painted marked by red dots.

The consistency of Chappel’s style from picture to picture is impressive, as is his instinct to document a bygone era and its trades; this is why his paintings are sometimes used to illustrate histories of the city. Despite using paint and a brush, he can seem like a precursor to the photographers Eugène Atget, who recorded a Paris that was disappearing at the turn of the 20th century, and August Sander, who set out in the 1920s to record people representing all the trades and professions of Germany.

Chappel was racing against time and the changes wrought by people; Balke painted images of relatively timeless nature in all its grandeur and indifference. But what you remember is the palpable tenderness each brought to the task.

Correction: June 3, 2017

An art review on Friday about two shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Peder Balke: Painter of Northern Light” and “City of Memory: William Chappel’s Views of Early 19th-Century New York,” misstated the titles of two works by Balke, a Norwegian artist. The works are “The North Cape” (1853) and “The North Cape in the Moonlight” (1848), not “The Cape North” and “Cape North in Moonlight.” The review also misstated when Balke first visited Dresden, Germany. It was 1835-36, not 1833. And the review misstated the number of Balke’s contemporaries who are represented in the Met show. There are three, not four. (They are Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and August Cappelen.)

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