For a pocket of time, Mount Washington was at the center of the art world.
Artists traveled from afar to North Conway to capture the Northeast’s tallest mountain in pencil, ink or oil, and as a result, there’s an enormous mass of artwork depicting the 6,289-foot peak — much of which decorates the Currier Museum of Art’s latest show, “Mount Washington: The Crown of New England,” on view through Jan. 16.
“During the period the show covers … the White Mountain region goes from basically an unexplored, uncharted wilderness with a few settlers to the most popular tourist attraction in the United States for a number of decades,” said Andrew Spahr, director of collections and exhibitions at the museum. “And the interest in the images, stories and literature about the White Mountains reflects that — the huge volume that was produced about Mount Washington is just amazing.”
The show’s big — it takes a while to walk from one end to the other — and represents years of work.
Currier staff had made tentative plans for a White Mountain-themed show years back, but it was delayed for many reasons, including the 2008 museum expansion. It returned to the budget about three years ago, Spahr said.
In preparation, Spahr toured the Mount Washington Observatory and spent time with its staff and at its library and weather museum. Many pieces are on loan from the observatory and regional institutions. Spahr had hiked the White Mountains before, but he was surprised by some of the things he learned, and he thinks museum patrons will be, too.
“People may think they know about Mount Washington, but there’s just such a rich history in all these areas — art, science, tourism and adventure. So much has been published. There have been so many images, and there’s always something new to discover,” he said. “It’s the largest show the Currier’s ever done in terms of the number of objects and the amount of space it takes up in the building.”
Painters travel to North Conway
The show contains 40 paintings and a selection of historic prints, vintage photographs, scientific reports and guidebooks. They’re organized chronologically and span the 1820s to the late 1870s.
In the first room are some of the paintings that put Mount Washington on the map — pieces by Hudson River School artists like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, John Frederick Kensett and David Johnson, plus acclaimed painters like Winslow Homer and George Inness.
One of the most famous is at the very beginning: “View in the White Mountains,” painted by Cole in 1827, which first attracted the artist community. Later, “Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway,” painted by John Frederick Kensett in 1851 after a trip to North Conway with his friend, fellow artist Benjamin Champney, helped garner an even wider audience, when the American Art-Union made a print of it that went out to about 13,000 subscribers.
“Within one year, interest in Mount Washington basically skyrocketed because this image was reproduced as this print. It went all over the East Coast and the art world,” Spahr said. “So this really catapults the whole idea of artists coming to North Conway to paint.”
Along the walls, viewers will find these paintings (and prints, drawings and images). They depict the White Mountains at all angles, from the summit houses and peaks to the valley looking up at steep notches and picturesque waterfalls.
The exhibition also tells what it was like painting the region those early years — artists sometimes hiked miles to find the perfect view.
It wasn’t long before the mountain reached international audiences. “An Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains,” painted by Jasper Francis Crospey in 1857, showcases New Hampshire foliage, and when Crospey brought it to England, people questioned the colors; luckily, he’d kept a scrapbook of pressed autumn leaves as proof, earning him an audience with Queen Victoria, Spahr said.
One of the last paintings in the show is Bierstadt’s enormous 10-foot-wide “The Emerald Pool,” painted in 1870. The stop in Manchester is its first time in New England since its creation.
Why Mount Washington?
“If you talk about the mid-19th century, America’s just starting to find itself as a country, and very few people had been out West,” Spahr said. “Other than Lewis and Clark, many people hadn’t seen the Rockies or Yosemite, so those were the kind of things that were yet to be documented or promoted. … They were looking for symbolism in the Eastern landscape, and Mount Washington was one of the things that was right there and readily available.”
It was also pretty accessible. The Crawford Path leading up the mountain is the oldest hiking trail in the United States, laid out in 1819. By 1861 you could ride a carriage to the summit, and by 1869, a train — which was also the first of its kind in the country.
“Sylvester Marsh was a New Hampshire native and businessman who patented the mechanism used for the cog railway. … The earliest locomotives were made at the Manchester Locomotives Works here in Manchester,” Spahr said.
Its above-treeline terrain made the site a place of interest for scientists, too (and sometimes, scientific projects called on artists to illustrate the latest research). Spahr was particularly interested in the pictures documenting an expedition the winter of 1870-71 — the first Mount Washington overnight excursion. They display an ice-capped mountain and crew members lying on the ground to measure wind speed.
“At the time, the public thought it was a silly enterprise. They didn’t understand what the need for gathering the information was,” Spahr said. “But if they could begin to understand meteorology, they could begin to develop ways to predict storms, which would be advantageous economically — it could help in predicting storms for shipping at sea, and also in predicting weather for farmers.”
By the end of the 1870s, Mount Washington began to dwindle from artist interests; painters began looking westward and dabbling in impressionism.
Still, almost 200 years later, the mountain gets about 250,000 visitors a year. One of the Currier’s goals is to show the art world’s role in those numbers.
“For anyone who’s interested in Mount Washington, [the show] provides some cultural context as to why and how Mount Washington became such an iconic image and idea in the public imagination,” Spahr said.