Charles Warren Eaton will be remembered in American art history as one of the chief members of the Tonalist movement, along with Henry Ward Ranger, Elliott Daingerfield, and others who benefited from the lessons of French Barbizon painting and, more immediately, from the example of the poetic style of George Inness. Guided by his desire to convey the underlying moods of nature, he eschewed grandiose vistas in favor of quieter, more intimate views, which he depicted at dawn or dusk. His landscapes still speak to us in a quiet but consistent way of the beauty of nature and of those unexpected and felicitous moments when the man-made and natural worlds merge into unified and harmonious images.
Eaton was born in 1857 in Albany, New York, into modest circumstances. According to legend, he became interested in art when a childhood friend in Albany showed him his own tentative efforts. In 1879 Eaton moved to New York, where he supported himself as a dry-goods clerk and enrolled at both the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. His constant search for a suitable studio led him to move frequently during his first ten years in the city. There is evidence he may have roomed with his Albany friend Leonard Ochtman prior to 1880, and he later shared a studio with painter Ben Foster.1 Ochtman became one of Eaton’s closest confidants and their warm correspondence began just after Eaton moved to New York. 2 In 1882, Eaton met George Inness in 1882 when the former was enrolled at the Art Students League. Writing to Ochtman, Eaton described a lecture Inness gave one day to his composition class. Inness was accompanied by British artist Hubert Herkomer (1849-1914), who singled out Eaton’s work for showing promise.
Charles Warren Eaton - The Heart of New England, 1905
Eaton’s first few years in New York were difficult. He was beset with health and financial problems and had to maintain his dry goods job in order to pursue nighttime and weekend studies. Nonetheless, Eaton was an adept student, and his first landscape paintings won quick approval from juries, critics, and collectors. By 1882 he was exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, where his first submissions were Days Last Light is Dying Out and An Autumn Day. 3 He scored an enviable success when no less an arbiter of taste than Oscar Wilde bought one of the works, a scene from Staten Island. 4
Soon after moving to New York Eaton became influenced by the art of the French Barbizon School, which was frequently exhibited in galleries in the city, and he developed an interest in the manipulation of light, which he captured in scenes portraying such subjects as moonrises in winter and the fading light on autumn meadows.
In 1886, Eaton was finally able to leave his clerkship. That year he traveled abroad with Ben Foster and Ochtman. Eaton visited France, Belgium, Holland, and London. That June, he was painting in Brolles, near Barbizon, where he made a pilgrimage to the home of Jean Francois Millet. He also visited the nearby town of Grez-sur-Loing, where an informal artists’ colony had been established.
In 1888 Eaton moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey, which is adjacent to Montclair, where a robust and growing art community under the shadow of George Inness had surfaced. In the town and its surroundings, Eaton found plentiful subjects in the woods, pastures, and ponds that surrounded the village.
In 1889, Eaton rented a studio adjacent to Inness’s at the Holbein Studios at 139 West 55th Street in New York. A chance visit by Inness to Eaton’s studio on a day when the younger artist was not in residence piqued Inness’s interest in the work of his neighbor, and he returned the following day to buy one of the paintings. At the suggestion of George Inness, Jr., Eaton for a time shared his studio on Bay Street in Montclair.
Although primarily a painter in oils, Eaton enthusiastically investigated several other media during the first two decades of his career. He was an avid watercolorist, created monotypes, and experimented with pastels. In 1890 he participated in the fourth and final exhibition of the Society of Painters in Pastel.
About 1900, Eaton discovered the white pine forests of Connecticut, near his summer haunt of Thompson. For the ten years that followed, he made the white pine tree motif his primary subject; depicting it in oil paintings, watercolors, monotypes, and pastels. He became so famous for it that he was often called “The Pine Tree Painter.” These works soon secured his reputation as one of the country’s leading landscape painters and nearly all of the paintings that entered public collections during his lifetime represented a variation on the pine tree theme.
In the early twentieth century, Eaton began to spend more of his annual trips abroad in Belgium and Holland. In his paintings rendered on these sojourns, he focused on the picturesque region of Bruges, Belgium, and its nearby countryside, and neighboring villages Sluis, in Holland, and Knokke, in Belgium. After 1910 Eaton began extended stays in Italy, returning to Venice and staying for the first time at Lake Como. In his Italian works, Eaton adopted a modified Impressionist palette, capturing the intense blues of the lake, the reds and corals of the tile roofs, and the greens of the olive and cypress trees under the bright summer sun.
As his paintings of Italy reveal, Eaton seems to have abandoned tonal painting in favor of realism after about 1910. He continued to paint in New Jersey and Connecticut during the ensuing years, but eventually he moved his summer retreat from Thompson to Colebrook, Connecticut, at the opposite end of the state. His late landscapes focused on the nearby countryside around Colebrook. While incorporating the pine tree theme, these works are painted in higher keys than those rendered before 1910, and they depend to a greater degree on topographic specificity and traditional use of perspective.
In 1921 Eaton was hired to paint Glacier Lake, in Glacier National Park by the Great Northern Railroad Company as part of their “See America First” campaign.5 The approximately twenty-one paintings that resulted were among the artist’s last works. Eaton tended to approach the Rocky Mountain scenery from an oblique vantage point rather than confronting the scenery directly. He captured small episodes, showing mountaintops nearly obscured by dramatically attenuated screens of fir trees. In the late 1920s, Eaton again visited Italy, where he produced a small number of works.
While never among the most acclaimed artists of his generation, Eaton achieved a notable degree of success in the course of his career. The title page of his account book includes, in the artist’s hand, a list of his awards: an honorable mention at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900; silver medal, Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, 1901; Proctor Prize, Salmagundi Club, 1901; Inness Prize, Salmagundi Club, 1902; silver medal, Charleston Exposition, 1902; gold medal, Philadelphia Art Club, 1903; Osborne Calendar Prize, 1903; Shaw Prize, Salmagundi Club, 1904; silver medal, St. Louis Exposition, 1904; Inness Gold. Medal, National Academy of Design, 1904; third class gold medal, Paris Salon, 1906; silver medal, Buenos Aires, 1910.
His works may be found in many private and public collections, including the Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, New York; Ball State University Museum of Art, Muncie, Indiana; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee; the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens; the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis; The Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan; the Paine Art Center, Oshkosh, Wisconsin; the San Diego Museum of Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor; the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland; Watson gallery, and Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts.
1For a biography of Ochtman, see Larkin, “Leonard Ochtman (1854-1934),” pp. 11-33.
2 Letters from Charles Warren Eaton to Leonard Ochtman, from October 7, 1880 to July 26, 1890, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut, gift of Mrs. Eleanor Revill (hereafter, Eaton Letters, Bruce Museum).
3 He exhibited annually at the Academy from 1882 to 1933.
4 Lolita Flockhart, “Charles Warren Eaton,” New Jersey Clubwoman 9 (February 1935), p. 3.
5 See The Call of the Mountains: The Artists of Glacier National Park, exh. cat. (Kalispell, Mont.: Hockaday Museum of Art).
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