Updated: May 13
An essay on the visual expressions of bridges and boats- Brian Keeler
As the idea for a new exhibit coalesced around the alliterative title of bridges and boats, I was pleasantly reminded that I have made more than a few paintings on these motifs over the years. Other artists throughout history have also found these themes worthy of portraying.
What is the appeal of these subjects with such a long and productive run? They are often paired easily together. Well, for starters, painting along rivers and streams where bridges are located can be a pleasant experience and just the picturesque possibilities are inviting and appealing. We can invoke the spirit of Constable and Turner painting the bucolic British countryside with cattle grazing along gently flowing streams, soft atmospherics and white billowy clouds. Sounds good yes? And worthy of contemplating while applying pigments and perhaps having some Keats poems read to us.
I have made special efforts to seek out some of the same bridges that famous painters of previous eras have portrayed. Thomas Eakin’s views with scullers and bridges on the Schuykill River come to mind, as I too (and many others) have found this river and its boaters and bridges visually inspiring. Corot in Italy is also an important exponent of the genre of painting that I have found common cause with. His views along the Tiber River in Rome and further north, at places like Narni, have attracted me as well.
Speaking of Italy, the Italian word for bridge is ponte and it is related to the religious title of a Pontiff. The Pontifex Maximus was the chief priest in Ancient Rome, and it is interesting that there was no division between the political and spiritual. This term, like so much from ancient Rome was just adapted and incorporated into Catholicsm- as with the language of the Church, Latin was conveniently utilized. We assume that the Pontiff and bridge corollary is to indicate that the spiritual priest was to act as a bridge between the human and earthbound to the deity and ethereal.
I will take a closer look at Corot here, as I have found his motif’s in Italy to still be inspiring. For example the Ponte Fabricio leading over to the hospital on the Tiber Island is one of Corot’s most iconic images. Its geometric portrayal of the angles in the bridge, tower and buildings seems to presage modernism and the work of Cezanne. The warm hues and unaffected honesty of this portrayal with the well-observed draftsmanship suggests the directness and authenticity of Corot recording his visual experience. Since the early 19th century there have been changes to this view and one cannot get to the exact spot where Corot situated his easel, (I’ve tried.) Still the view from downstream is very similar to that observed in the 19th century by Corot. The bridge, also referred to as Pons Fabricius in its Latin name, goes back to 62 BC and is touted as Rome’s oldest.
Entertaining the symbolic and metaphoric with boats and bridges we can enter the poetic. Thomas Cole comes to mind, as he often included a lone boater in his canvases of the Catskills and the creeks and rivers he depicted. His cycle of four large canvases in the circular room in the NGA in DC, take the theme of figures in boats directly into the allegorical. These remarkable canvases are titled “The Voyage of Life” and each canvas represents a certain time in our journey. Cole regarded landscapes as vehicles to express moral and religious values to inspire our own virtue. As his spiritual advisor, Louis Noble said. “…he wishes his canvases at the same moment to speak a language eloquent of God and man and human life.” These large canvases in DC portray a pilgrim’s journey on the river of life starting in a golden boat and culminating after various travails with the arrival of the river at the ocean of eternity.
So as in the course of portraying the beauty of the Susquehanna, or Brandywine or Schuylkill Rivers do I speculate about such lofty principles as deity and the spirituality of flowing water? Well, usually not directly at the time, as the process of painting entails more pragmatic concerns of conveying the motif. Still, these in-field studies done in nature do represent a type of communion and connection to the elements and by extension, connecting to the spiritual essences and underpinnings. And of course there is the motive and goals of our creative endeavors. If the aspiration is to commune, connect and express a higher source and essence, then so be it. This intention must surely be significant and inform the expression.
The word, "pontificating" is usually used in conversation in a pejorative manner to suggest crusty, pompous and ossified bloviators. Of course the overly-dogmatic come to mind as well. We think of and some aspects of church-going and religious practice, such as reciting a liturgy as being all about dogma and rules, while missing the spiritual aspect. So that is why I’ve titled this essay “De-pontificating” to suggest my urge to cut to the chase and avoid the pedantic.
How about trolls and bridges? While reminiscing about bridges I am recalling my mother’s penchant for owning and buying Saabs, as did our town doctor, Karl Peterson back in the 1960’s. These Swedish cars were quirky front-wheel drive units, and had other unusual attributes like two-cycle engines, electric touch-sensitve gear shifts and the supposed (internal cat) that would make them roll back on their feet, or in this case, on their wheels. Some of the early Saabs also had frontward opening doors, which would catch the wind if opened while moving and force these little cars into the opposing lane or off the road. These doors were abandoned in favor of conventional doors in later models. But, in relation to bridges, Saabs were quipped in a marketing strategy to be made by trolls in Trolhattan. Trolls of course, are the mythical curmudgeons that lived under bridges.
Many of the bridges in Italy have a special charm. Some that I've painted go back centuries. For example, the Ponte Milvio in Rome is where Christianity had an important military victory with the army of Constantine defeating Maxentius' forces there in 312 AD. I've not painted this one yet. In Venice, there are dozens and dozens going over ancient canals, all with a rich history. One in particular with a floating vegetable market, has been the source of a couple of my paintngs- both plein air and studio. There’s a card shop nearby that touts the fact that Katherine Hepburn fell into the canal here during the filming of a movie. Gondolas and modern motorized delivery boats, coverge with the ancient buildings reflected in the canals to make for a great mix of boats and bridges. Venice and its waterways can be regarded as an impressionist's jackpot- with the abundance of fluid reflectivity and light. One of the prominent bridges Venice, the Rialto, is attributed to a design by Michelangelo and John Singer Sargent did a wonderful painting of Gondolas underneath that captures the evanescent reflected light glinting up on the arches. Sargent also did a memorable watercolor of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice- where the condemned were lead to their demise and hence sighing.
Outside of the Umbrian town of Todi an episode unfolded while painting with a fellow Ithacan, Bill Deats years ago. We referred to it at the time as the “Pontecuti Shakedown.” The name of the town and bridge there is Pontecuti. We were finishing up our plein air works when the owner of a shop approached Bill and offered to purchase his work, which included a view of their store. And out of the alleyway sprang a duo of uniformed code enforcers. They accused us of marketing our work illiegally and were about to fine us and the proprietor of the store. At least we think this was the offense, as my Italian at the time was not so good, and they spoke no English. A long harangue ensued between the store owner and the officers. Finally, a magistrate was called down and he convinced his agents that they were being overly zealous in enforcing the codes. The event was setteled, and Bill and I drove off across the brigde with our new paintings heading for the sunset towards Orvieto in search of a new motif.
So with American bridges and waterways, my painting of these subjects are based mostly here in Pennsyvania and New York and I have found quite a few to portray. There are some from Maine and New England however. There are several in the Wilkes-Barre area and Harrisburg too as well as those around my hometown Wyalusing. And the Schuylkill, Delaware and Brandywine Rivers near Philly have supplied the muse too. On the Brandywine I painted a wonderful old concrete bridge with a full moon rising during the Wayne Plein Air fest. Oh yes, the most remarkable bridge of all is the Nicholson Viaduct, a bridge for trains near Tunhannock, PA. This massive concrete structure towers over the quaint village like a behemoth harkening visually back to those ancient Roman aqueducts. This bridge has inspired several canvases. One of the large originals of this bridge was in the collection of a restaurant near Scranton, called Patzel's, now closed.
And not to give short shirft to boats- as they have been often times painted together by myself and others. I started my own boating career at a young age with a small boat on the Wyalusing Creek and later graduated to kayaks. I still find great enjoyment in kayaking while combining with painting. Water under the bridge, a Bridge Over Troubled Waters and many other mentions in song and poem including one by my father called "Susquehanna Moon" all help to show us the beauty and symbolic in boats and bridges.
I am recalling some of the magnificent paintings of maritime boating scenes and those expressing extreme pathos. In regards to pathos, there is one large oil in The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin of a funeral ceremony with the grieving leaving shore on one of the Aran Islands. They are in an old rowboat on a grey day on a shoreline that I recognized from a visit to this craggy island off the west coast of County Clare. The sadness is palpable. Then there are Turner's dramatic expressions of boats in storms and violent seas that express the turbulence of seafaring with a limited palette. One such work is the painting in the NGA in London, titled, "Dutch Boats in a Gale." He supposedly had himself strapped to the crow's nest of a ship during a violent hail storm so as to experience the forces of nature at sea first hand.
To view a video of a work in progress for this exhibit on bridges and boats- a painting of the Beebe Lake Bridge (shown below) and the lake on the Cornell Campus in Ithaca, NY- check out this link.