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Land & Sea: fragile treasures

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Loose style: Alfred Birdsey, Bermudian, 1912-1996, untitled, nd, oil on board (Picture gift of David L. White. Collection of Bermuda National Gallery)

With the island under the global spotlight of the 35th America’s Cup, our waters and vistas have never looked so beautiful. It is impossible to ignore that Bermuda is an exceptional setting. Artists have been saying the same for decades, if not centuries. In the current Bermuda National Gallery exhibition, The Power of Art, we address our natural beauty in one gallery space, The Ondaatje Wing, with paintings from the Bermuda Collection. The curated works all speak to the theme of Land & Sea: fragile treasures.

Inspiration for this section of the exhibition came from Before the Flood (2016), a documentary on climate change. In the film, we learn hair-raising facts about the planet’s rising temperature and issues related to industrial pollution, rising ocean levels, bizarre weather patterns and much more.

Within this context, we celebrate the island’s unique biodiversity in a selection of paintings, all of which were generously donated by BNG chairman emeritus David L. White. The artists that we feature here all worked in an American Impressionist style, meaning the paintings are colourful and bright renderings of the land and sea. These artists came to Bermuda to be inspired by the natural surroundings and the island’s special quality of light.

One of Mr White’s favourite paintings from his collection is Ferry Dock, Saint George’s, by Reynolds Beal (American, 1866—1951). In this oil on canvas work from 1940, Beal portrays travellers with their trunks and luggage, waiting on the dock for a ferry with a horse, cart and driver behind them. As an impression of the scene, we cannot discern the figures in great detail, however we can appreciate the excitement of the moment, which is reflected in the vibrant colour choices and the spontaneous, mosaic-like brushstrokes.

In a second painting by Beal, we see St George’s from an elevated perspective, possibly above the existing East End Mini Yacht Club. Ordnance Island in the background is not connected to the mainland and the busy dock area appears much different to today. Differences in the landscape from 1940 are obvious and yet the painter has captured the romanticism of our first town. Beal was a trained marine engineer who had two successful careers — one in ship design and the other in art. In this artwork, he merges the two. We can only wonder how Beal would respond to the contemporary architecture on Front Street.

Many of the artists featured in this gallery space studied at The Art Students League in New York and the Académie Julian in Paris, and painted together at the Old Lyme Artist Colony in Connecticut. One such artist is William Howe Foote (American, 1874—1965). In his oil on canvas Old Bermuda House, 1917, Foote has captured an intense golden light reflected on a rooftop, which appears to be illuminated from within the painting. (Viewers often look up, above the painting, to see if there is a special lightbulb casting this luminosity.) Foote’s interest in, and successful rendering of, the colour white places him in the company of many artists throughout history, from Johannes Vermeer to the French Impressionists. In this painting, Foote has captured the colour array created by the unusual quality of light in Bermuda, a feature that continues to captivate artists today.

Harry Leslie Hoffman (American, 1871—1964) practised alongside William Howe Foote, particularly during the early 1900s. Hoffman was best known for his paintings of the underwater. He was invited by the naturalist William Beebe on two expeditions: one to the Galapagos Islands and another to Bermuda. While visiting here, he documented the gemlike qualities of the ocean with turquoise and purple hues.

Using a very different style in both brushwork and colour choice are paintings by Paul Jean Martel. Influenced by the French Impressionists, Martel created a series of landscapes where the application of colour was essential. His studies of the Bermuda landscape are small in scale, but big on impact. The shimmering light in the artwork suggests a mirage. Let’s please ensure that this is a beauty that remains.

Sharing in a common expression are Joe Jones (American, 1909—1963) and Alfred Birdsey (Bermudian, 1912—1996). Jones was an important 20th-century painter and printmaker who was almost entirely self-taught; he wintered in Bermuda in the 1950s and was instrumental in the development of Birdsey’s loose style of painting. Birdsey was also a self-taught artist. He and Jones experimented with painting styles and imagery. Out of this, and Birdsey’s interest in oriental art, came his characteristic, loose brushwork watercolours. Birdsey had an active art studio in Paget that his daughter, Jo Birdsey Linberg, also a painter, maintains today.

Thus, we come full circle from past to present. The en plein air movement is still very active today and you may, on occasion, see groups of painters near the water’s edge with their easels and supplies. This artistic tradition is an important one to acknowledge and support, both as a capture of what exists and as a promise to our healthy future.

“We come from the nature and we have to understand what it is, because we are connected to it and we are part of it. And if we destroy nature we destroy ourselves.”

— Edward Burtynsky (Canadian artist, b. 1955)

•Lisa Howie is the executive director of the Bermuda National Gallery and Charles Zuill, PhD, is a founding trustee

Anticipating travel: Reynolds Beale, American, 1866-1951, Ferry Dock, Saint George’s, 1940, oil on canvas (Picture gift of David L. White. Collection of Bermuda National Gallery)
Capturing illumination: William Howe Foote, American, 1874-1965, Old Bermuda House, 1917, oil on canvas (Picture gift of David L. White. Collection of Bermuda National Gallery)