HETZEL Georg Hans
HETZEL Georg Jacob
HETZEL Georg Jacob
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George Hetzel: A Brief History by
Paul A. Chew, Ph.D. Director Emeritus, Westmoreland Museum of American Art
The 19th century American poet William Cullen Bryant could have been describing the paintings of George Hetzel when he wrote: "...pictures which carried the eye over scenes of wild grandeur particular to our country, over our aerial mountain tops with their mighty growth of forest never touched by the ax, along the banks of streams never deformed by culture, and into the depth of skies bright with the hues of our own climate…" Best known for his intimate forest scenes, George Hetzel was born January 27, 1826 in Hangviller, a small village in the environs of Phalsbourg, province of Alsace, France. However, when Hetzel was two years of age, his father made a momentous decision to leave the village of Hangviller to begin a new life with his wife and five small children in the New World.
After landing in the port of Baltimore, the Hetzel family secured immigration documents and began their overland journey north on the National Pike, entering Pennsylvania at the lower tip of Somerset County, then moving on to Uniontown and Brownsville, both in Fayette County. In Brownsville, they boarded a riverboat and traveled the Monongahela River to Pittsburgh, finally settling on a small farm in Allegheny City, now the North Side of Pittsburgh.
As a young man, Hetzel attended public school in Allegheny City and, in time, accepted an apprenticeship to a house and sign painter, an intuitive choice that eventually would lead him to an artistic career. His job was mostly lettering and decorating commercial signs. After about four years of this work, he apprenticed with a painter who used him to help decorate cabins and public rooms on riverboats and to help paint murals for various Pittsburgh saloons.
Hetzel's father realized very quickly that his son exhibited a remarkable artistic talent. Because of this, his father made the decision to send him to the Düsseldorf Art Academy in Germany, an institution that was, at the time, at the height of its influence and considered the leading art school in Europe. Therefore, in October 1847 Hetzel left Pittsburgh and began his formal study of portraiture, landscape, and still life painting. He remained at the Academy until 1849, when the political turmoil that swept Europe in 1848 caused him to cut his formal training short and return to Pittsburgh.
At the Düsseldorf Art Academy, Hetzel received instruction in the fundamentals of draftsmanship and anatomy and sketched from plaster casts of classical sculpture, and later, live models. Following this same instructional model in the landscape painting class, Hetzel first copied from master drawings and paintings, and then drew and painted from nature directly, en plein air. As a second level student, he acquired the technique of mixing oil paints and then painted with oils, copied paintings, and later painted studio models. Hetzel also had the opportunity to become a member of die Meisterklasse (Masterclass), a close professor-student tutorial instruction permitting the advanced student to work on his own composition in cooperation with his professor. Through these various forms of instruction, Hetzel acquired academic skills and formulated a style, which enabled him to paint portraits, still lifes, and landscapes.
The strength of the Düsseldorf Art Academy was in its flexible pictorial language based on the natural observation of its ingenious teachers who were all professionally trained and recognized, talented painters. Careful and accurate drawing provided the basis for a realistic approach to nature. In addition, the Academy insisted on the technique of chiaroscuro (the use of light and dark to achieve mass and dramatic three-dimensional effects). Hetzel's early portraits and still lifes reflect this influence through the highly detailed treatment of the subject matter and the use of strong chiaroscuro to achieve depth and dramatic effect. These same techniques carried over into his early landscapes, an excellent surviving example of which is Trout Stream in the Alleghenies. The strong contrast of light and shadow, the highly detailed treatment of the lichen-covered rocks and the grasses and ripples in the foreground, and the strong diagonal composition not only exhibit the skills and techniques that Hetzel learned at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, but also reflect the highly realistic "true-to-nature" style for which the Academy was widely renowned.
After Hetzel returned to his home in Pittsburgh, he again found work decorating cabins of riverboats. Within a year, he received commissions to do portraits and still lifes, and later, landscapes, always working in the precise, realistic style of academic painting he had acquired while studying in Düsseldorf. During these years, he received enough commissions to allow him to live the life of a professional artist, and he maintained a studio on Fourth Street in Pittsburgh. Founded in 1832, the J. J. Gillespie Gallery on Wood Street became the central meeting place for Hetzel, along with other Pittsburgh artists and various visiting artists. These artists viewed exhibitions of paintings and prints, discussed them from a critical point of view, and then had lunch together. In 1860, Hetzel married Mary Louise Siegrist whom he met during a painting excursion to the Lewistown, Pennsylvania area. They lived with his parents for a number of years in Allegheny City, and in 1864 they moved to Sewickley, Pennsylvania where they raised five children. In 1880, tragedy struck the Hetzel family when their 17-year-old son and their 14-year-old daughter were returning from the Pittsburgh Exposition and died in a violent train accident, which occurred when the passenger train in which they were riding collided with another train. Their eldest son, who was 20 at the time, was also seriously injured but survived.
By 1864, Hetzel had become a prolific landscape painter, and that year he exhibited his paintings at an exhibition of paintings and statuary in aid of the Pittsburgh Fair Fund of the United Sanitary Commission. Held in the Old City Hall of Allegheny, "The Sanitary Fair" opened July 1 and closed July 16. The selection committee chose three hundred oils, watercolors, drawings, and statuary primarily from the Pittsburgh art community for the exhibition. By now a respected Pittsburgh painter, George Hetzel was the largest single contributor with 27 paintings, mostly landscapes.
While on a fishing trip for mountain trout in 1866 with the lawyer John Hampton and the Pittsburgh artist Charles Lindford, Hetzel discovered an area not far from Johnstown, Pennsylvania near the confluence of Paint and Little Paint Creeks called Scalp Level. He was so struck by the beauty of the area that he influenced every faculty member of the Pittsburgh School of Design, where he taught a class in oil landscape painting, to accompany him the following summer to paint landscapes from nature. Thereafter, groups of fellow artists and students, later to become known as the Scalp Level School or the Scalp Level Artists, followed Hetzel to this area on frequent summer sketching trips.
When Hetzel began concentrating on landscape painting in the mid to late 1850s, the American Art movement known as the Hudson River School was dominant among American painters. Acknowledged as the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole came to painting from a love of nature. A philosopher and poet, as well as a painter, Cole was moved by the beauty of the topography surrounding the Hudson River Valley. He was also concerned about keeping this area pristine and came to imbue the unsullied landscape with a religious fervor. He equated the "pure" condition of the land with the purity of a soul close to God, and this became an underlying theme of the artists in his circle. After Cole died in 1848, his mantle passed to Asher B. Durand, who, during the 1850s, was the preeminent American landscape painter and the most influential member of the Hudson River School.
Although Durand emphasized the importance of realistically depicting nature in its minute details, he did not advocate photographic imitation. Instead, he used textural suggestions of rock, moss, and tree trunks as an opportunity to demonstrate a painting technique favoring the application of tactile pigment with visible brush strokes. In addition, Durand advocated a reverence for nature and believed that real artists had an obligation to reflect man's spiritual nature in their representations of the natural world.
Shortly after 1855, Hetzel's landscape paintings began to reflect both Durand's technique and his beliefs. Trout Stream in the Alleghenies reflects Durand's technique in its close up focus, its attention to the minute forms of forest flora, such as lichens, grasses, and fallen branches, and its visible tactile brush strokes. However, the trout stream itself, and in particular, the quiet pool or fishing hole in the center with water quietly gurgling in from the top and softly rippling out at the bottom, is what transforms this painting into an evocation of tranquility and repose and elevates it to the expression of man's spiritual nature that Durand believed was essential for a painter to be a real artist. This device of a central pool or fishing hole appears repeatedly in Hetzel's landscapes from this period, and its use to evoke feelings of peace, quietude, and tranquillity are more a reflection of his personal affinities and interests rather than the product of Durand's influence.
In 1869, Hetzel moved his family to Philadelphia and set up a studio there in an effort to gain a wider appreciation of his work. He exhibited several landscapes that year in the annual exhibition of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, including the painting now known as Rocky Gorge, thought by most to be one of Hetzel's finest achievements. Done in a typical Hudson River School format with a vertical composition of a densely wooded scene and a waterfall serving as a point of focus, this exquisite painting features finely detailed brushwork and even composition. With a dramatic mountain range rising in the background and beautifully framed by dense cool woods and sharp, steep rocks, the scene is tranquil and inviting. Rocky Gorge not only represents the best surviving example of Hetzel's Hudson River School period, but also marks the end of this period in his painting.
In spite of the many artists and commercial galleries in Philadelphia, Hetzel's plans for a new career in a new city did not work out for he brought his family back to Pittsburgh in 1870. He purchased an acre of ground on Washington Street in Edgewood, a suburb of Pittsburgh along the Pennsylvania Railroad, and made plans to build a modest two-story frame house. Edgewood was far enough from the city to satisfy Hetzel's love of nature and its seasons and his growing interest in landscape painting, yet close enough to allow him to take the daily train into the city where he maintained a studio on Fourth Street.
In the 1860s, the preeminent position of the Hudson River School came under challenge by a new and growing movement influenced by the French Barbizon School. The Barbizon School was a French movement named, as with the Scalp Level School, for the area in which the artists chose to paint. More intimate than the paintings of the Hudson River School, the works created by the Barbizon painters were also more "earthy," having none of the spiritual overtones of the American school. However, at heart, the schools were the same in that the Americans were celebrating a newfound, untouched wilderness they knew would be short lived in its glory because of the speed of expansionism. The French were also recording nature, though more as a means of getting back to their roots in the face of industrialization which similarly threatened to change their entire world.
Hetzel gradually came under the influence of the Barbizon School and in 1879 he traveled to France to tour the art galleries and to study the works of these French landscape painters. Hetzel's paintings began showing the influence of the Barbizon School even before this trip to France. Around 1870, he began painting unspectacular scenes, which lacked strong emotional structure and which featured grazing cattle, cow paths on fields, and unimposing trees very similar to the modest, ordinary country images of village lanes, winding paths, grazing cattle, empty fields, and single trees depicted by the French Barbizon painters. The painter became the judge, the interpreter, and the transmitter of the beauties of nature.
Hetzel spent the last months of his life on a farm located in Somerset County. His eldest son had purchased the farm, which included a large white framed farmhouse and some 230 acres on Lower Level Road, a short distance from the city of Somerset. The Hetzel family moved in April 1898 for the fourth and last time. Hetzel was not well in the spring of 1899 and complained of failing health. On a visit to his brother's home in Allegheny City, George Hetzel died of heart failure at 11:30 PM, July 4,1899 at age 73. The career of the most prolific landscape and still life painter who worked in southwestern Pennsylvania during the 19th century had come to an end. However, through his paintings Hetzel's unmistakable love of nature, and especially, his love of the woods and streams of Western Pennsylvania will remain alive for all of us for years to come.
Like many other American landscape painters who began painting before the Civil War, Hetzel's style evolved from a tightly painted, detailed technique generally associated with the Hudson River School to a freer, more painterly atmosphere style generally associated with the Barbizon School. In his later work a slight influence of Impressionism can be detected. This somewhat typical progression of styles was less dramatic in Hetzel's case that it was with other American painters. Even his more tightly painted, highly detailed early landscapes are painted with distinct, readily observable brush strokes, and even his later, loosely painted, more atmospheric paintings are solidly anchored in realism.
None of the external influences on Hetzel's landscape art was as significant as the one internal influence-Hetzel's deeply felt, spiritual love of the natural environment, and in particular, his love of the woods. As our contemporary eyes view the canvases at this exhibition, colored by the issues of the environment which face us, we are aware of how correct Hetzel and others were in preserving for future generations the beauty and dignity of the vast and intimate American landscape. Hetzel left for all of us a legacy described by William Cullen Bryant in his poem To an American Painter Departing for Europe when he wrote the following lines:
"…A living image of thy native land,
Such as on thy own glorious canvass lies.
Lone lakes-savannahs where the bison roves-
Rocks rich with summer garlands-solemn streams-
Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams-
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves..."
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