James Fitzgerald

James Fitzgerald
Mt. Katahdin Sunset, n.d.
oil on canvas
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Hubert

Response by Dennis Grafflin, History

Returning to New England after the U.S. entry into World War II, and his failed attempt to gain a commission in the Navy, Fitzgerald settled by the end of the 1940s into the schedule that dominated the rest of his life. Spring and summer would be spent on Monhegan Island, where he took over first the studio, and later the cottage, of Rockwell Kent. In October, he would go to the Cobb family camp at the southern end of Katahdin Lake to study and sketch “the bloody hill,” which he came to honor as a spiritual entity. Winters were spent in New York City, working as a custom gilder. Parsimonious habits and devoted patrons made it possible for him to survive as a fulltime painter without having to pursue exhibitions and sales of his pictures.

The subject matter rules out any date before 1948, but Fitzgerald’s oils come overwhelmingly from the last decade of his life, which ended with a massive heart attack on April 9th, 1971, so this work is almost certainly from the 1960s. Close examination reveals that it was done in a technique that he derived from Louvre technician Jacques Maroger’s notorious Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters of 1948, which misled a generation of artists into thinking that the canonical masterpieces of European art had been painted using “black oil,” a disastrous combination of linseed oil with various amounts of lead monoxide and resins, both of which function as harsh drying agents, with effects that are more deleterious of thepaint film over time than those of the turpentine they replaced. Fitzgerald’s method was to combine this with red pigment and brush the mixture on to his painting surface a day in advance, so that the final image could be painted on the tacky red ground thus produced. Given the odd attachment of the fabric to the stretchers, and the presence of another painting on the reverse, this work was probably created while the material was pinned to the studio wall.

But ultimately, what are we to make of this image from the end of Fitzgerald’s complex artistic evolution? Any realistic detail in the eastern wall of the great mountain is lost in a vast shadow that engulfs the forest at its foot, and even seems to boil up into the angry clouds in the upper left. The sickly rubescence of the sunset is reflected in small bodies of water in the foreground, arrayed in one of the triplets that were a favorite compositional device. In the lower right corner, the bifurcated reflection of a tree helps to create a tiny inverted miniature of the painting’s main shape, repetition of which was another formal goal that is conspicuous in many of his works. More surprising from such a consummate technician is the very raw paint handling. In the central lake, heavy impasto is juxtaposed with an area where the weave of the support shows clearly through the scraped-back paint. Sweeping black strokes reinforce the northern profile of the peak, while the crest has been edited in rough little pats butted up against buttery swipes of paint that suggest the possible use of a palette knife. The aggressive disregard for any consistency of finish is echoed by the unconventional framing, that by revealing the raw support beyond the painted area denies us the familiar illusion of looking through a window. This is a landscape painting that doesn’t care if you are in the room or not – like Katahdin, it intends to do its own thing, regardless. It’s a hard painting to love, but given that it makes so few concessions to being liked, only love will do.