A Stairway with a View-
Updated: Feb 3
Appreciating Angles and Atmospheres at the Baldwin Stairway in Ithaca-
An essay on art and historical elements by Brian Keeler
It is location, location and location- as the well known phrase goes, which is often used by real estate agents and those looking to buy land or homes. I think of this phrase too as a mantra for choosing a motif for a painting, as the right view can be very helpful in a landscape artist’s endeavors to create successful and meaningful paintings. The downside of this location prerogative, is to instill a goal of too much idealism that could undercut the pleasure of painting. In fact, finding the muse in modest, if not un-picturesque locales is part of the goal, if not the aesthetic in genre painting and many other forms of art. We plein air painters have made this almost a credo in fact, which harkens back to the school of painters known as the Ash Can school, who turned their attention to alleys and dilapidated tenements of American cities in the early 20th century. Actually, this interest in the common place in art goes back much further. For example, we think of the Dutch interiors of the 17th century in paintings by De Hooch and Vermeer or Jan Steen as examples- but still the Ashcan group brouht this to a particularly American expression.
So that is in part my attraction to this wonderful landing on a stairway dating to 1925 here in Ithaca, meaning that it is at once common yet special. The stairway, known as the Baldwin Memorial Stairway was built in part, as a convenience to connect the downtown to the Cornell University Campus. It was inspired firstly as a memorial to a Cornell Student, Morgan Smiley Baldwin who was killed during World War I in France .
Before the stairs were installed, students would traverse a path that led through the nearby cemetery up the steep hill leading first to the Llenroc House, the former mansion of Ezra Cornell. The students were heading toward their classes up at the Cornell campus.
I have painted and sketched here on a few occasions and stopped on others just to enjoy the view. It offers a panoramic vista toward Cayuga Lake over University Avenue, with some wonderful old Victorian Houses visible below. Rooftops can be seen protruding above the trees in the Fall Creek neighborhood as the view stretches toward the lake. On this most recent studio painting, it was a confluence of interesting visual aspects that appealed to me. Some were appreciated when I was there taking the reference photos and others not apparent until I began the drawing, and still others revealed as the work progressed.
The landing, or the overlook that was designed into these stairs by the architect, Bryant Fleming in 1925, is an important part of these stairs. It serves as an invitation to pause and appreciate. The stairs are not just a means to an end, in other words, they offer a place to enjoy the beauty. One could almost say that Fleming made this perch just for artists- a perfect level spot to set up an easel or to sit and sketch Cayuga Lake or look west toward a sunset. But we know it is available to all to exercise the inner muse. As a dancer, I thought it would be a perfect place to do some swingouts, ochos or a sugar push and there's plenty of room for several couples- even a small combo too.
The combination of linear and atmospheric perspectives at work here was part of the appeal of this view. I stood on one of the concrete walls of the stairs to add more angles and lead-ins to the painting. This painting, in fact incorporates one of my favored design schemes, which is the “zigzag” or “Z” device. This compositional arrangement leads the viewer through a design of switchbacks that creates movement and resting spots. The landing itself is one of these resting points. The benefit and appeal to me is that this orchestration of design allows for flow and varied movement. It is at the opposite end of having just one focal point placed smack dab in the center of the canvas. In fact this view combines two and maybe even three such zigzags. I wish I could claim authorship for this, but here it is just the luck of the view. But of course, part of the challenge of the artist is to find and then reveal these constructs. One of these Z’s is the flat design, (graphic design without perspective or depth) the second is in the perspective going back in space and the other is the stairs alternating directions while going down. As one wag has commented, the view is appealing on many levels, all puns intended!
Atmospheric perspective is the lessening of contrasts due to the softening effects of the air and it usally entails the values being closer together (if there are contrasting tones) and this idea is utilized here too. This is what Leonardo invented or popularized and was dubbed sfumato or smokey distances, referred to as sfumato. The clouds were invented here, but created in way that uses a perspective in their arrangement to augment the perspective of the earth. They are rendered with soft edges to further suggest their airiness. Here’s a word that describes both the clouds going back in space as well as the linear perspective. It is “diminution,” and it refers to objects getting smaller as they are depicted further away from us.
I recalled those miraculous visual inventions of M.C. Escher where he created all kinds of amazing conundrums with stairways and perspectives. I had visited Escher’s Museum in Delft and became even more enthralled with his work during that visit. I also learned that he had lived in Italy and was inspired by the medieval hill towns there. One of these is the town of Ravello, perched high above the Amalfi coast, where I have also painted on several occasions.
In this painting it was also the light, the late afternoon light interacting with the geometric stairs, the trees, houses and distant lake that captivated me too. The golden hour light on a clear winter day that brings out the angularity of stone, mortar and slate along with the softness of clouds and the warmth of bare trees that are fused into masses of ochre- these are all part of the allurement. Speaking of the angularity of the stone walls, the bevels on top recalled to me my first shop project back in 7th grade where we made a flower pot stand out of pine- which utilize bevels too. Well some vistas jog our memories in strange ways to dust off distant personal histories.
For the artists who have read my essay this far, here is some additional shop talk that you’ll find interesting. There is a confluence of perspectives at work that makes the vantage point especially conducive. The main system is two-point perspective, with vanishing points off to the sides. But I minimized another perspective system for the sake of parallel vertical lines. This is three-point perspective as a result of the high vantage point. The vanishing point would be way down below the bottom of the canvas. This three- point perspective, would use all the vertical lines to recede in a “V” toward that point. This also happens with the distortion of lenses even with an I-phone but especially with a wide-angle lens or fish-eye lens. (See my sketch near the top of this article.)
The figures in the painting are worth mentioning too. This painting fits in with a series of mine extending over many years of people with their dogs. These are genre scenes, depictions of Americana and the common instances of everyday life. I like the fact that the woman descending is in a bright fire engine red coat, as it is the most intense note of color, also the shadowed wall behind her helps to make her contour the most contrasted area as well. As I see it, she leads us into the scene. The black man with dreadlocks leaning on an octagonal section adds another element as well.
In 2006 as masons were repairing these steps they came across a time capsule of sorts hidden within the stonework. There they discovered a sealed copper box with the momentos and photos of the Baldwin family. In a ceremony in 2006, and appropriately enough on Veterans Day, to honor the memory of Morgan Baldwin, the personal items were resealed, this time in a stainless steel box and put back in the stairs. Perhaps in 100 years, when the steps are again being refurbished, these items will be rediscovered and the history of the people and places will be recalled again.