Welcome to The Unintended Curator, where I hope you will enjoy a few stories about art, artists, and the creative process. If you like what you see, please feel free to share with your friends.
A few years ago, one of the college advising publications floating in the wake of our twin’s college search reminded future scholars of the value of flexibility with the following stat: the average college graduate will be working at a job unrelated to their degree by age twenty-seven. In short girls and boys: be prepared for life-long learning. Sobering, as this might have been to 18-year-olds raised on goal setting and pinnacle achievement, looking back from my academic perch I realized I was no exception. Even though the wisdom of my major (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and minor (Education) still see active application, several years ago I had moved into something for which neither degree anticipated in its course of study: curating an 800+ collection of art at a college-preparatory boarding school.
When I graduated from University, I only wanted two things: to paint, and to do something to support my ability to paint. Such is the focused naiveté’ of a 21 year-old, but marriage, five children, and a 30-year mortgage aside, it was the act of falling in love with teaching that moved the needle from going solo in the studio toward a never-ending quest to bring learning to life. I found gateways to student growth in sharing not only my own artistic journey, but in facilitating as many first-person encounters between the students I was privileged to teach, and the artworks, artists – and even a few critics – capable of being brought, enticed or dragged into our classroom. And the best part about this? I’ve never been happier as an artist.
Such journeying calls to mind an 1856 painting by Thomas Worthington Whittredge, a Springfield, Ohio native most closely aligned with America’s Hudson River School painters. Whittredge, before his 21st birthday, had apprenticed as a house painter, a sign painter, trained as a Daguerreotypist, and worked as a studio assistant to the painter Chester Harding, while on the side studiously learning portraiture and landscape painting. He, of all people, would know a little bit about finding one’s way in the world. The Pilgrims of St. Roche, on loan to the Culver Academies from the Michael Huffington Collection, came at the end of a seven-year sojourn in Dusseldorf, Germany, where Whittredge found support to study and paint. It was an environment steeped in the heady Romantic influence of the Barbizon school.
The painting is an open vista, seen from a high point overlooking the Nahe Valley in Germany. The St. Roche Chapel, a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years, sits in Rochusberg, just outside of Bingen, near the meeting of the Nahe and Rhine rivers. St. Roche, the historical figure, might have passed through this region. He lived in the 14th century, the son of a noble who, at his parents passing, took the mantel of the Third Order of Franciscans to travel and minister to plague victims. He traveled from his birthplace in Montpelier, France to Rome. Earning a reputation as a healer, he is reported to have personally contracted the plague and been healed himself. Returning to Montpelier after many years absence, Roche, a nobleman changed by experience, was unrecognized in his hometown. Mistaken as a foreign spy and imprisoned by his own uncle, St. Roche died after five years of suffering. Prayers for his intercession for the sick sprouted up almost immediately, and in several locations, shrines were established, the St. Roche Chapel, outside of Bingen, being one of many.
It is hard to know which aspect of the painting impressed Whittredge more in planning his composition. Was it the simple procession of pilgrims or the expansive landscape, with the Rhine in the distance? It is clear each is integral to the scene and, in many ways, support each other. The pilgrims proceed on a path leading, eventually, to the village below, the spire of St. Roche Chapel peeking through a parting of the trees. We see among the pilgrims every age and social standing. There are old, young, paupers, and rich, all walking – except for one prosperous rider – toward the Chapel. Some, even with the end in sight, are pausing to stop and offer prayers at a wayside shrine to Virgin and Child. This journey of faith is important, but we must remember that Whittredge arrived in Europe already versed in the Hudson River School’s use of the American landscape to reveal a sense of divine destiny. Therefore, we should not miss two elements of the painting placed within close proximity as they reveal both a Barbizon sensitivity to rural life and an American awareness of limitless possibility.
In the lower right, we see a gurgling stream beginning its way down the hill, toward the valley of the Nahe, and just up and to the left, sits a tired mother holding her infant to her breast. If pilgrimage is the well-walked nourishment of faith, then the journey of life is a gift ripe with potential, one that springs from the soil to follow the terrain down mountains, across valleys, becoming great rivers, flowing on and on with human possibility and purpose. Such is the American dream. Such is the heritage we carry. Make the most of it.