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The expatriate years of Henry Roderick Newman - watercolor painter
Magazine Antiques, April, 1996 by Royal W. Leith

When Henry Roderick Newman departed for Europe in 1870, he hardly could have imagined that his stay there would be permanent. Since his meticulously detailed landscapes had fallen out of fashion with the demise of the short-lived American Pre-Raphaelite movement, he decided to leave New York to study at the atelier of Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904) in Paris. Gerome's training emphasized figural drawing and painting, skills in which the young, self-taught Newman felt woefully inadequate.(1) The onset of the Franco-Prussian War shortly after his arrival and a disappointing experience with Gerome spurred Newman to move from France to Italy, where he lived until his death forty-seven years later.(2) Although Newman is known today mainly because of his membership in the small but influential American Pre-Raphaelite Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, his most accomplished work was done during his expatriate years. During his peak period, between 1875 and 1900, he produced significant works on three continents while establishing himself as the most important American watercolorist working abroad.

During his first two years in Italy Newman worked mainly in Venice, struggling to attract patrons with fairly conventional scenes of canals and fishing boats. In 1872 he turned his attention to Florence, which proved to be an appropriate subject for him [ILLUSTRATION FOR Pl. III OMITTED]. The city had decisively influenced John Ruskin, whose Modem Painters (1843-1860) had inspired Newman to pursue a career as a painter in the first place. It was also the repository of works by predecessors to Raphael such as Giotto, Masaccio, and Fra Angelico, all of whose paintings appealed to Newman for their simplicity and truthfulness to nature. Unlike their English counterparts, American Pre-Raphaelites did not imitate the religious subject matter of the early Italians. Newman, for instance, became a specialist in painting ecclesiastical architectural masterpieces, such as Leon Battista Alberti's church of Santa Maria Novella, Giotto's campanile, and Filippo Brunelleschi's cathedral dome. In rendering these sacred subjects in painstaking detail, his paintings represent a unique marriage of the American and English approaches to Pre-Raphaelitism.

In 1876 Newman sold a view of the Florentine church of San Pierino di Buon Consiglio to Sophia Augusta Brown, and a year later he sold a view of the piazza and facade of Santa Maria Novella to Sarah Choate Sears.(3) Charles Herbert Moore (1840-1930), a friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite, showed the latter to John Ruskin, whose admiration for it ensured Newman's fame, and soon he was established as one of the leading American artists working in Europe.

Ruskin influenced the painting of two other genres for which Newman also became well known - flower pictures and views of endangered historical landmarks. Both demonstrate the artist's concern with the power of art to capture ephemeral effects - of both man and nature. The region around Florence abounded with wildflowers, and Newman's landscapes typically included anemones or irises in the foreground or a blossoming olive branch or rose vine stretched across an upper corner. Among Newman's most distinctive works are those in a series of watercolors (executed primarily between 1875 and 1884) that show flowers in their natural setting, close up and life-sized, but with a wide field of vision that emphasizes their surroundings [ILLUSTRATION FOR Pl. IV OMITTED]. Newman's delicate brushwork in these extraordinary pictures maintains a privileged intimacy with the subject. Ruskin acquired several of the studies and one small fully finished view, recording in his diary on September 20, 1880, that he was "cheered by Newman's Florentine paintings."(4)

Ruskin encouraged Newman to embark on a series of watercolors depicting Florence's Mercato Vecchio (old market), which civic authorities had condemned as part of a program of urban modernization. He commissioned Newman to paint the doorway on the south side of the cathedral, and the artist claimed that he had to persuade restorers to postpone their work until he had completed the picture. Ironically, the "kindly barbarians who had condemned the doorway to restoration"(5) subsequently abandoned their work on it.

Newman's specialization in Florentine architecture and flowers brought about a fundamental change in his compositions. The tight confines of Florence and its majestic churches and the tall slender stems of the local wildflowers were more appropriately depicted in vertical pictures than in the horizontal format he had used previously, and nearly 80 percent of his known paintings dating after 1874 are vertical.(6)

About 1880 Newman began an ambitious series of large paintings in which he combined his interests in floral, landscape, and architectural subjects.(7) Despite their larger scale, they are executed with no less detail than his smaller pictures, which he also continued to paint, working at a rate that permitted him to complete only one or two large pictures a year [ILLUSTRATION FOR Pls. II, VII OMITTED].(8) Italy [ILLUSTRATION FOR Pl. V OMITTED], painted at La Spezia, on the Mediterranean, depicts a foreground of roses, grapes, and olives spilling around a portico recalling Italy's glorious classical history, with a view across the Bay of Lerici to the "ruins of the convent at which Dante left the manuscript of the 'Inferno' when he fled into France."(9) Nearby is Casa Magni, home to Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley during their stays in Italy (it was in the Bay of Lerici that Shelley drowned after being lost in a storm). For this grand portrayal of Italy's natural splendors and paean to her contributions to literary history, Newman received twenty thousand francs,(10) a high price indicative of his growing prestige. While in La Spezia, Newman began his second major oil painting, The Gulf of Spezia,(11) which he worked on intermittently for several years. His difficulty selling the painting and its mixed critical reception, however, reinforced his commitment to watercolors, and he never again worked in oils.

The construction of the Aswan Dam between 1898 and 1902 resulted in the flooding of the island of Philae during the winter months, causing Newman to shift his base of operations in Egypt. About 1900 he began to concentrate on the enormous temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, although he made several more watercolors at Philae, which he passed each year before the annual flooding. In these he took particular care to record the dark water stains left on the monuments, thereby both adhering to his credo of truth in art and lodging a subtle protest against what he considered the tragic destruction of ancient Egypt's most beautiful remains.(24)

In general, Newman found Abu Simbel a less sympathetic subject than Philae. The balance between mass and detail that had appealed to him at Philae leaned too much toward sheer mass at Abu Simbel. His final masterpiece, The Temple Door at Abu Simbel [ILLUSTRATION FOR Pl. X OMITTED], painted in 1900, is as much a study of the subtle modulation of light on rock and sand as it is of the temple itself.

Newman continued to make his yearly visits to Egypt until at least 1915. Although until the end his work remained brilliant in color, exact in scale, and reverential in execution, his style began to loosen about 1907: his stippling became easily detectable to the naked eye, and pencil lines are visible against bare spots of paper. On December 1, 1917, he died of shaking palsy,(25) "after a long illness," according to a brief English notice in Florence's daily Nazione della Sera of December 3, 1917.

Newman had remained a Pre-Raphaelite for more than fifty years, far longer than virtually every other English or American artist who was drown to that slow and laborious style of painting. Even during his lifetime, some considered his work old-fashioned, and by the time of his death during World War I the art world was rapidly changing. His work was soon forgotten, but it is justly being revived and celebrated today for its breathtaking craftsmanship and beauty.

An exhibition of Newman's work, entitled A Quiet Devotion: The Life and Work of Henry Roderick Newman, will be on view at the Jordan-Volpe Gallery in New York City from April 26 to June 7.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group


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