GEORGE HENRY HALL (1825–1913)
Catskill Mountain Laurels, 1888
Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 20 in.
Signed, dated, and inscribed (at lower left): Geo. Henry Hall / Palenville 1888
EX COLL: the artist; to sale, Ortgies & Co., New York, November, 8, 1888, “Oil Paintings by George Henry Hall, N.A.”, no. 56; private collections, until 2017
Catskill Mountain Laurels is the work of a master of still life, painting at the height of his powers and conjuring with his brush a favorite flower of the American East, the state flower of both Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a tall bush related to the evergreen family that carpets forests from Maine to Florida through the Appalachian Mountains, extending as far west as Louisiana and Indiana. It is the dominant shrub of the Catskill escarpment that rises steeply above the west shore of the Hudson River. The laurel offers a profusion of flowers from late May through late June. Hall would have needed to go no farther than his front yard to find blooms to paint. It was a temptation he found no reason to resist. In 1875, ’80 and ’82 he showed pictures of Mountain Laurel at the Century Association. In 1882, Hall sent a canvas titled Catskill Mountain Laurels for exhibition at the National Academy of Design available for sale for the substantial sum of $350.
The present arrangement of Mountain Laurel is specifically inscribed and dated, front and back identifying it as a work from the Palenville studio of 1888. In November, of that year Hall organized an auction in New York City of his studio inventory “offered . . . for sale in consequence of the artist’s intention to return shortly to Europe for a year or two” (Ortgies & Co., “Catalogue of Oil Paintings by George Henry Hall, N.A., November 8, 1888). Number 56 was “Catskill Mountain Laurels,” most likely the present work. Hall’s delight in his subject is palpable here. The exuberant pink and white flowers, displayed on branches with their distinctive leaves, crowd and spill from a handsome blue and grey stoneware vase. A plain table top and dark background serve to highlight floral display. The picture demonstrates Hall’s ability to adapt his style and subject matter to changing tastes and interests. The work is painted in a brushy, atmospheric, and painterly style, very different from the earlier Pre-Raphaelite approach. These are flowers not as they might be found in nature, the preferred conceit of the 1850’s and ‘60s, but as they would have been found on a Victorian table top, gracing an interior with their life and color. Hall’s artistry immortalizes these flowers, as vibrant today as when he gathered them from his Palenville garden in 1888.