Gretna Campbell (1922–1987) was a significant painter who mainly painted landscapes, often large and made at least in part from observation. She taught at Yale and was an important influence on many painters in pursuing painting from nature. I became aware of her work through her son’s, Henry Finkelstein, paintings and her husband, Louis Finkelstein’s painting and writings. I spoke with Henry Finkelstein briefly on the phone who gave me permission to post some images of her paintings here that I scanned from a catalog from the (now defunct) Contemporary Realist Gallery in San Francisco. I am also providing the essay (uncredited – presumably written by the gallery director or curator of this 1996 show – possibly Tracy Freedman or Dana DeKalb)
Regretfully, there has been few images of Gretna Campbell’s paintings or information about her available online, this post aims to help offer a few images of her paintings and what information I could find to help make available this important artist’s work to younger painter’s. I also plan to post on Louis Finkelstein with some of his paintings and writings in the near future.
Louis Finkelstein wrote of her:
“…paints again and again familiar themes, reshaping, rediscovering their content in subtle yet telling adjustments. The shoreline of Cranberry Island, Maine, tidal coves, rocks, trees, water and sky are given an intimacy and presence which is… formed out of a specific feeling about the place…. Her color chords and passages of paint…are devoted to the description of emotion, mood, association – involved with meanings discovered in nature through the transformation of painting language. This… kind of painting, by realizing its own nature, takes the physical and psychological reality of the world into itself.”
Gretna Campbell stated:
“I intend to find out something of the nature of the world through seeing.
Or maybe I only intend to prolong my delight in seeing.”
Maureen Mullarkey discussed her work in a 2004 artcritical article in which she said:
Ms. Campbell came of age among a generation of painters respectful of the achievements of Abstract Expressionism but confident that depictions of the natural world remained timely and significant. She was a realist in the best sense, faithful to the physical pulse of what she observed yet not subservient to appearances.
The apparent spontaneity of the work belies the rigorous studio preparation that preceded outdoor painting. Ms. Campbell drew on site, mapping details of the locale: the juncture of planes, the nodal points of her composition. Transferred to canvas, this initial linear schema was painted over in the studio with broad expanses of color chosen for chromatic interaction with the final paint layers improvised on the spot.
The pleasure of her work is in the variety and complexity of its color and the lush, textural weave of brushstrokes. Details of the local scene-a rocky shoreline, the slope of a field or angle of a trellis- are the raw material for a pictorial architecture built on the reciprocal effects of one color upon another. She worked boldly with brush and palette knife but the result is fastidious and transparent. The gestural energy of action painting enlivens an intimate sympathy for natural settings.
From the Contemporary Realist Gallery Catalog:
AT THE HEIGHT of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which has been referred to as the “Triumph of American Painting,”1 a somewhat younger generation of painters, while interested in and often respectful of their predecessors, formed the conviction that an art based on the depiction of the natural world could make a serious and ambitious statement in the latter part of the Twentieth Century. They did not go back to nature because they had never left it. At the same time they felt themselves to be thoroughly modern. Neither did they feel impelled to embrace abstraction which was then widely touted as an historical (or at least fashionable) imperative, because they had in their own ways assimilated its values. Mainly they wanted a more solid, durable and less willful ground under their feet, and they saw that there was plenty of room for it.
Some of them received a great deal of public attention, some less, although for the most part they were well known and esteemed by each other. Such a one was Gretna Campbell (1922-1987) who exhibited throughout this period, but whose work is just beginning to receive the attention it deserves. If her painting fell between various categories (new realism, expressionism, action painting) it was because it was personal, and complex, developing over a long period of time and based upon a knowledge of the traditions of painting that few of her contemporaries had taken the time or effort to absorb, yet in no sense bound within the constraints of the past.
The novelty of her painting, mostly landscape, was that it was large enough to incorporate a solid and specific structure associated with studio painting, but worked out and finished directly on the spot-an approach hitherto linked to the improvised sketch. Her subjects were principally the trees and rocks and shores of coastal Maine, but she also painted in the south of France, Brazil, Northern Connecticut and Western New Jersey. Where others sought out easily codified motifs she looked for the most complex. Where others went after decorative simplifications of form and color, her expression and choices of motifs were dense, tangled, weighty and spatial.
Campbell’s working process was the reverse of the landscape sketch. Usually she would start with a number of careful linear drawings of the details of a scene, particulars of foliage and rocks and the ways in which local forms articulated one another. These were assembled using only the most rudimentary compositional notes, then enlarged and transferred onto the canvas, retaining all of their specificity. Over this wealth of linear information she would lay in an underpinning of broad areas of color with the drawing showing through. These colors were not the colors of observed nature but rather counter colors for the subsequent upper layers of paint to react against. This procedure fills Campbell’s paintings with subtle vibrations, the nearest comparable expression of which might be the veils, buildups and overlays in Monet’s late Water Lilies.
1 lrving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting, Praeger Publishers, New York: 1970.
Following this extensive preparation, the canvas was brought to the motif and the work of pulling the details into a coherent composition was carried out directly in the face of nature. This was not aimed, as it was in the case of the Impressionists, with catching the effects of a passing moment of the time of day, but rather at weaving all of the elements into a multiply comprehended environment through which the eye could roam at length. All of this lent Campbell’s paintings a distinctive richness of changing focus and movement in and out of space. Her foregrounds extend intimately close to the observer, and then move far back into the depths of woods, or to a distant horizon. Her unorthodox approach of resolving each composition directly on the spot was daring and dramatic. Although her work incorporates the kind of complex structuring one finds in some old master paintings it is always full of fresh discoveries of scheme and emotional content.
Campbell’s dense layering of paint and complex physical handling, sometimes with a loaded palette knife, sometimes with surprisingly free gestural brushstrokes, led some of her contemporaries to see her applying the process nature of DeKooning, Pollock and Resnick to the aims of realistic description. She was a realist in a deep sense… in the sense of Courbet involved with conveying the weight, mood, and physical presence of the natural world; and beyond Courbet, in the sense of Rembrandt, breaking through the norms of classical Baroque and High Renaissance to an intimacy and surprise with the natural world.
Her color is neither traditionally tonal nor impressionistically or fauvistically intense. Instead, just as with the complexity of her drawing, Campbell invented and improvised a scale of internal differentiations of subtle color intervals: grey greens, reds, pinks, browns and violets, all interweaving. Each element has its appropriate differentiation and yet plays a part in the light, air and spaciousness of the whole. One of her concerns with which few painters of today are involved is for differentiation of focus; never is the picture as a whole seen simultaneously… instead one looks first here, then there, moving through the space. This conveys an intimate sense of being there … not like a snapshot, but rather an extended reverie. Those who appreciate Campbell’s work find it a source for long contemplation.
Campbell’s vision could not have been accomplished without the convergence of two factors: the long, deep study of several masters of Western art, and a highly focused and extended working process in nature. The artists she looked to were many. Very early Giotto and Masaccio, then Piero and Bellini. After this Courbet, Cezanne and Constable, Ruysdael, Breughel and Rubens, Van Gogh, Dufy, the Fauves … Renoir, Titian, Veronese, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Giacometti, Altdofer. More than anyone else, Rembrandt. Her study was not of a particular style or a look, but of underlying principles and ideas of pictorialism. It enriched and in turn was enriched by the many insightful analyses which she incorporated into her teaching. Yet her work never looks over-studied, or in any way cramped or academic. Rather, study continually led Campbell to greater freedom and confidence before her subject: the final result emerges unselfconsciously from the working process, never wholly in view until the final touches.
The paintings in the current exhibition are roughly from the last decade of Gretna Campbell’s career and show the daring, energy and virtuosity she had acquired in the course of her development … the grandness of her landscape scale and her psychological intimacy with the actual scene. In Long View and Norfolk, Tree and Storm, painted in the same year, we see two entirely different landscape schemes, the former from the Delaware River Valley, the latter from Western Connecticut. From the following Spring comes Top of the Hill,Wallpack, grand and breezy. Garden is a complex evocation of the immediate surroundings of her summer home in Maine. Fish Point, Horizon is a poetic fragment of almost the same scene, the exception which proves the rule of her complex intentions. Pink Shore, Rose Bushes, Path Toward Evening and two of her largest, Wild Wheat Field and Rose Bushes on the Shore are all prime examples of the coalescence of her pictorial intelligence and her passion for nature.
The trajectory of Campbell’s development and her body of work exemplify the continued fecundity of the realist impulse, and of a rare talent formed by it, as well as the many pleasures and insights which are made available by the sense of continuity with tradition which constitutes a larger modernism than is yet generally realized.