Striking exhibit at the Hunter delves into the intersection of art and poetry
"Art is the principle flowing out of God through certain men and women by which they perceive and understand beauty. Sculpture, architecture, painting, and music are the languages of the spirit.” –Elliott Daingerfield
At the beginning of this exhibit at the Hunter, “Seeking the Spiritual: The Visionary Art of Elliott Daingerfield,” my eyes were immediately drawn to the intense brush strokes and wash of blue in one particular nature scene.
Characterized by aggressive bold swirls of layered blue-black and white water splashing against weather-beaten muddy brown rocks, The Lone Cypress (c. 1912) thrusts upwards and away from the elements, watched over by the sun, a red ball of fire sinking through the grey, foggy clouds.
A deep tempest of stormy waters emerges in many of his paintings during this time period. By contrast, my gaze was also captured by the piercingly calm clear white moon reflected on the landscapes of the more reflective, serene paintings like A Fantasy (c. 1912).
This exhibit features 48 paintings, pastels, and drawings created between 1887 and 1920 and depict nature, the sacred, and allegorical art, all of which Daingerfield believed were animated by divine forces that exist beyond the physical world.
He’d one day be one of the highest selling artists of his time, with The Genius of the Canyon bringing in $15,000 in 1920. As for the beginning, Elliott Dangerfield was born on March 26, 1859 on the eve of the Civil War in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. At 21 years of age, he moved to New York City, where he worked for the rest of his career. In 1884 Daingerfield began working with George Inness, a man whose art had been an influence in Daingerfield’s work. Rejecting the demoralization of the human spirit he felt was inherent in the Industrial Age, he began exploring mystic symbolism in his imagery.
After the death of his first wife Roberta in 1891, Daingerfield’s works took a more pronounced turn towards transitions to the afterlife. Contemporary commentators have reflected on Daingerfield’s ability “to grasp the spiritual significance of a scene and give it a worthwhile imaginative embodiment.”
This viewpoint is masterfully demonstrated in the painting Daingerfield dedicated to his wife. The Mystic Brim (c. 1893) catapulted Daingerfield into the realm of symbolist painters, whose works captured the artists’ inward visions about their physical realities, particularly individual experiences of the sacred. This work signaled the beginning of a trend Daingerfield would use throughout the rest of his career; he began writing poems to accompany his most profound works.
He ventured further into the realm of symbolism with his allegorical use of nude women. Daingerfield believed that viewing nudes in paintings was not an erotic experience but a spiritual one, a glimpse of the divine in human form. I was struck by the use of the color red in many of the paintings at this time.
The pop of color leapt off the canvases, which still used the characteristic brown scenery and blues of the ever present waters. The depth of these paintings was multidimensional, with subjects not only in the foreground and background, but several levels in between, which made the eye dance around the painting with anticipation.
Daingerfield traveled by railroad to the Wild West in 1911 and 1913, and in that time made seven paintings of the Grand Canyon. The Genius of the Canyon (c. 1913) is identified as Daingerfield’s most influential work and signified a departure from the crisp (often blue and green colored) detail-oriented style of the Impressionist painters to warmer, more intimate colors and subjects.
A nude female in the foreground rests on a red blanket on the brown canyon rim. Her black hair flows down towards the hint of blue water visible through the rocks below. Atop the canyon in the distance beyond, a grand temple and a walled city survey the scene, as described in Daingerfield’s accompanying poem:
Stripped from the Earth her crust
In sea revealed the carven glory of the inner world
Templed, domed, silent
The while the genius of the canyon broods
Nor counts the ages of mankind
A thought amid the everlasting calm.
The everlasting effect this exhibit had on me was indeed an individual inner experience. The duality of nature and spirituality was not only aesthetically pleasing but also evoked an emotional response—I felt empathy for the characters and their environments and left with a feeling of deep calm.
If you truly “seek the spiritual”, you will be impacted to emotional depths by this exhibit.