Saturday, March 12, 2016

Oh Panama! on the Hudson River

Recently, taking advantage of glorious, spring-like weather we visited the Hudson River Museum. Having worked on some "period" interiors lately I thought the historic home connected to the museum would provide inspiration.

Central Wall by Jonas Lie
What I didn't expect was to thoroughly enjoy an exhibit of paintings done en plein air at the construction site of the Panama Canal! The exhibit features the work of Jonas Lie, a Norwegian-born, American Impressionist who studied art at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union and the Art Students League. In 1913 he spent three months sketching and painting the mammoth mud hole that would become the Panama Canal.

Not a classic painting subject...and not typical of my art interest, for sure. So what makes these paintings so wonderful? While mud and machinery might not inspire artistic creation in most of us, Lie was intrigued by this monumental task and his paintings celebrate the strength, ingenuity and determination needed to complete it. His powerful paintings are a fitting tribute to this immense project and those labored to complete it.

Heavenly Host by Jonas Lie
Construction of the canal was a deadly endeavor with more than 27,000 lives lost due to tropical diseases and extremely dangerous working conditions. Jonas Lie's painting Heavenly Host depicts buckets of soil and cement being lifted out or lowered into the canal but the title may also allude to the many souls ascending to meet their maker.

This series of paintings also brought Lie's work to the attention of a larger public. The Panama Canal was an engineering marvel beyond the imagination of most. Jonas Lie captured the audacity of the project in no uncertain terms. As a result, his paintings were purchased by museums as prestigious at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a group of 28  pieces went on national tour.

Biographical notes at the Hudson River Museum say that Jonas Lie was -
"Recognized by his peers as a scientist and a poet for his depictions of New York City, Lie’s canvasses were both historical documents of technological progress and dramatic interpretations of the urban environment. The thirty known pictures he made of Panama are lively and colorful, capturing the spirit of that endeavor as well as its heroic quality and monumental scale."

His large, bold, energetic paintings are inspiring and exciting to behold. And while the questions of what to paint or how to get motivated is a common among artists, clearly inspiration can be found in mud and malaria. Lie committed three months of sketching and painting under very difficult circumstances to illustrate the majesty of this work.

© 1917 USA poster with artwork by Jonas Lie
Lie's paintings were also used on posters  designed to garner support and boost morale for the war effort. This one, published at the beginning of WWI, is on display in the exhibit where there is also a good overview of the political climate of the time.

The paintings are large and these photos don't do them justice. Go see for yourself!

Oh Panama! Jonas Lie Paints the Panama Canal will be on exhibit at the Hudson River Museum until May 8th when it goes on tour once again.

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