OGDEN MINTON PLEISSNER (1905-1983) was one of the premier American landscape painters of the twentieth century. Favorably compared to luminaries of the Realist tradition such as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, and equally at home on a rainswept Venetian canal and bustling Parisian boulevard as he was on a mist-laden Canadian river or sunlit Wyoming alpine lake, Pleissner employed his impeccable skills at composition, draftsmanship, and the use of light and color across a broad range of North American and European vistas; his World War ll battlefield illustrations and wilderness-based ‘field and stream’ sporting art are recognized as exemplars of the subject-matter, and his 1938 oil, The Rapids, was the breakout composition of Copley Fine Art’s “Sporting Sale 2010” auction with a selling-price of $345,000, far exceeding its $60,000-$90,000 pre-sale estimate.
Pleissner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 29, 1905, the son of parents who held the arts in high regard, especially music; his father, George Bradford Pleissner (1887-1948), was an importer of woolens from Europe. His mother, Christine Minton Pleissner (1882-1952), was an accomplished violinist who had studied her craft in Germany. Her desire was to be a concert violinist, but after bearing two children - Ogden had a sister, five years younger than he - her goal was reconfigured to membership in local quartets. Though neither side of Pleissner’s family tree bears witness to other artists, Pleissner’s instincts and interest in drawing date back to early childhood. In a wide-ranging interview conducted shortly before his death with his biographer, Peter Bergh, Pleissner recalled an incident that occurred when he was about five years old and living in Brooklyn, at which time his mother “had just had the stairway redecorated with scenic wallpaper that had gondolas and boats and things like that on it. . . . This work had just been done and my mother went out one day and I got hold of a crayon and put people in all the boats going up the stairs. I got a terrific licking for my efforts. That was probably my first adventure into the world of fine arts.” Personal experimentation formed the basis of his initial artistic development, though at one point lessons were arranged for him from a man his parents knew: “Fred Boston was an old guy who had a studio up on Fulton Street,” Pleissner explained, “and so on Sunday mornings I used to go up there and paint ‘still-life.’ I was supposed to be taking lessons from him but he slept all the time and I would paint apples and pears and a few pots and pans. At the end of the morning Fred would wake up and say, ‘very good,’ and I’d go home.” Pleissner also obtained some instruction in art at the Brooklyn Friends School, from which he graduated in 1922 and which provided him with the only formal academic education he was to receive. The school, founded in 1867 by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and still in existence today, is one of the oldest continuously operating private primary schools in New York City, and its embrace of the Society’s core values of moral integrity as well as respect and tolerance of other cultures and races instilled in Pleissner qualities that would come to play a pivotal role in his adult world-view. Moreover, during this period Pleissner’s life and future artistry were forever affected by summer excursions toDubois, Wyoming, which, in Pleissner’s view, were actualized because “the family thought I looked kind of ‘peaked’ and I was not very husky so I guess they thought it would do me good to go out there and get out-of-doors and do things I liked to do: fishing, camping, and the like.” Beginning in 1921, he spent two consecutive summers packing through Yellowstone National Park with a group of 15 to 20 other teenage boys, and a third summer spent on a dude ranch where Pleissner was afforded the opportunity to do some drawing and sketching of Native Americans. Though his parents had wanted him to apply to Williams College following his graduation from the Brooklyn Friends School, Pleissner talked them out of it, and spent the years 1923-1927 attending classes at the Art Students League in New York City, which suited him perfectly. Said Pleissner: “The Art Students League was a wonderful place. You went there to paint or draw, and if you wanted to take instruction and learn you could, or you could just sit in the cafeteria and talk with the students. Tuition wasn’t very much, and my parents supported me while I was there and I lived at home.” At the Art Students League, Pleissner studied with George Bridgman (1865-1943) and Frank DuMond (1865-1951). As a young artist, Bridgman had studied with Jean-Leon Gerome at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. Later, as a teacher, he set the standard at the time for his instructional methodology in anatomy and drawing from plaster casts, which emphasized the need for a young artist to acquire skills that would enable him or her to render the human figure in a realistic manner; with just a few strokes of his brush Bridgman could deftly display interlocking masses that amplified bulk forms to represent movement, a technique which Pleissner was to later employ to great effect, particularly in his sporting art. Norman Rockwell, a former student of Bridgman’s, stated that Bridgman taught him a rigorous series of technical skills that he used throughout his life; other noted artists to benefit from his teaching included Will Eisner, Gifford Beal, and Emile Gruppe, and Jackson Pollack’s sketchpad was known to feature work from Bridgman’s books. Of his time spent with Bridgman, Pleissner said: “I remember I studied with (him) for one or two full days a week for several years. Somebody told me when I went to art school that I had to start by drawing plaster casts. So I entered the Antiques class and used to do Venus de Milo and everything like that. I remember we had a two-week pose on the Winged Victory on a full sheet of Ingres paper. I had (it) down to a ‘T.’ God, I had it all. It was very pale and I didn’t lean on the charcoal too much. I had every crack in it, every little chip. It was really beautiful, I thought. Then Bridgman came along and said: ‘Very good, but you haven’t got the action on the figure that you should have, the action between the ribcage and the pelvis.’ He took a chamois and dusted the whole thing off, and then took a big black piece of charcoal and drew all over it. Nearly broke my heart. But he was a damn good teacher.” Frank DuMond, Pleissner’s other primary influence at the Art Student’s League, taught at the school for 59 years, becoming one of the most renowned and beloved teachers in the history of American art. His role as an educator often overshadows his own artistic career, but art historians have rediscovered and favorably reappraised his Impressionist landscapes and innovative use of colors to create shadows. Rather than molding his students (who included John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Norman Rockwell) to paint in his own style, Dumond encouraged them to draw from life experiences, advice he himself took to heart. In a self-revealing observation offered in 1951, Pleissner spoke of how DuMond’s methods affected his pupils’ work: “His philosophy on teaching has never been one dealing with the mere manipulation of pigment on canvas, nor with keeping abreast of each new “ism” that appears on the horizon, but with timeless fundamental principles. He has most eloquently shown his students that the true source of inspiration and learning is not alone in the painted work of the masters, but primarily in life, the very life they are living.” During the summers DuMond ran an artists’ camp in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which Pleissner attended, affording him his first experience with subject-matter that would eventually constitute a significant portion of his sporting art: Atlantic salmon fishing. It was during one of these summer sojourns that Pleissner met the woman who was to become his first wife, Mary Harrison Corbett of Portland, Oregon, who had been traveling in Europe and had stopped in Cape Breton on her way home for a visit with Dumond’s daughter, Elizabeth. She and Pleissner were married on October 12, 1929, a union which lasted until Mary’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1974.
Following the completion of his studies at the Art Students League, and now with a wife to support, Pleissner drew upon his early experiences out West and conceived a series of sketches and illustrations of cowboys and Native Americans, taking them around to Scribners and other magazines, where, hindered by the economic devastation brought about by the Great Depression, he found no takers. The same result occurred at a number of New York galleries, where Pleissner had brought several of his paintings for consideration. Persistent in his efforts, Pleissner was eventually helped along by Harlow MacDonald, the owner of a respected Fifth Avenue gallery, who agreed to place one of his paintings in the gallery window. The painting was purchased the next day, and several more sold quickly as well. Shortly thereafter, in 1930, the MacBeth Gallery offered Pleissner a one-man show, initiating what was to become a longstanding relationship between Pleissner and the gallery. Also that year Pleissner accepted a job teaching drawing and painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a position he held until 1934. The job at Pratt “kept the wolf from the door,” confessed Pleissner, who at this point was selling his paintings for fifty to one-hundred dollars. “There were times,” he admitted, “when the bank account was pretty much right down to nothing.” Working almost exclusively in oils during this period, Pleissner embarked on a series of paintings whose subject-matter was the tree-lined neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, the aesthetic intent being to “get the feeling of spring coming to Brooklyn with the magnolia trees in bloom and warm sun hitting the buildings.” One of these paintings, Backyards, Brooklyn, was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1932, making Pleissner the youngest artist at that time in the Museum’s collection. Another painting dated to this era which represents a vital part of Pleissner’s oeuvre is Still Life, painted when he was only 22 and the first painting of his to be accepted by the National Academy of Design for exhibition. (Because it was such a seminal work, Pleissner was extremely attached to this painting, which in later years was prominently displayed in his Vermont studio.) During these years the bulk of Pleissner’s output was produced in a small, sparse studio in the Washington Park area of Brooklyn; eventually he moved his working quarters to Manhattan, explaining that “it got so that I couldn’t get anybody to carry pictures over from Brooklyn to the galleries. I had an old man by the name of Halleran who had a little truck who used to take them over but he up and died. I couldn’t find anyone else. I tried to carry them on the subway but that was a little too much.” Despite Pleissner’s life at this time being firmly rooted in the city, it was his and Mary’s summertime journeys to Wyoming, Nova Scotia, and New England that provided the impetus for the creation of many of the paintings that would go a long way toward establishing his reputation. Most of these warm-weather excursions - which continued until the onset of the Second World War - were spent at Charlie Moore’s C-M Ranch located in the majestic, trout-filled Wind River Mountain range in Wyoming, with Mary helping out at the ranch while Pleissner took the guests fishing when he wasn’t painting. It was Moore who had organized the Yellowstone Camp for Boys where Pleissner had experienced his first taste of the West as a teenager, and Pleissner, who admired Moore greatly, learned much about being an outdoorsman from Moore’s tutelage. At the ranch Pleissner met many of the avid sportsmen and art-collectors who later became vital patrons of his work, inviting him to paint commissioned landscapes at their fishing camps in Canada, waterfowling clubs along the Atlantic coast, and quail-hunting plantations in the American South. Many of his most beautifully lit and colored Western vistas were executed during these summers at the ranch, including Lost Lake, Wyoming (featuring a glacially-carved, emerald blue pool of water where Pleissner lamented “a fish that looked like a whale” once followed his fly right up to the shore but refused to take, and where the two anglers in the tableau are dwarfed by the majesty of nature); Clearing, Wyoming (an early application of one of the dramatic shades of lavender that he would employ to profound effect); Glacier Country,Wyoming (in which a bluish-white impasto coating brings mountaintop waterfalls to life); and the nearly impossible-to-render depiction of two twisting, curving ancient alpine trees, Pinon Pines. “The few summers we didn’t go out West,” Pleissner explained, “I spent painting in New England and in the (Canadian) maritime provinces. Mary’s mother owned a little house near Marriot’s Cove, close to Chester, Nova Scotia, and we spent two summers there.” Important works produced during these northern summers, some of which highlighted sailing vessels whose draftsmanship rivaled the best eighteenth and nineteenth century maritime/naval artistry, include The White Schooner, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; Schooner “Bluenose” In From The Banks; Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia (a solemn, spartan rendition of a Puritan-style seaside village); and Town Harbor, Chester, Nova Scotia. Several noteworthy efforts conceived in New England at this juncture in time actually were painted in the fall, and included October, Essex, Connecticut and Autumn, Lyme, Connecticut, with the gold and ochre hues of the latter picture's brittle leaves contrasting sharply against the clear blue sky. Reminiscing about these early New England oils, Pleissner touched upon an essential component of his mature artistic vision: the effect of the various forces of nature on en plein air painting: “You can see a subject that is very placid and quiet one day, and then the next day it is torn apart with thunderclouds. It’s the weather that makes the subject, and the time of year. You can see something in the spring and there is nothing to paint, then in the summer there is, or vice-versa. This is the thing that is so interesting about New England, the change in the seasons. I really prefer to paint in the later part of fall and in the early spring when everything isn’t all the same color green.” As the decade of the 1930s progressed, so did Pleissner’s reputation, aided by the aforementioned purchase of Backyards, Brooklyn by the Metropolitan Museum and by a successful, follow-up one-man show at the MacBeth Gallery in 1933, as well as the inclusion of seven of his paintings in Charles Phair’s Atlantic Salmon Fishing (New York: Derrydale Press, 1937). After leaving the Pratt Institute, Pleissner took a prestigious teaching position at the National Academy of Design, staying for two years (1935-1937), with his departure (to concentrate exclusively on his painting) coinciding with his being elected an Associate by the Academy, which bestowed upon him the title of full Academician in 1940. In December 1941, after returning from a day of waterfowling activities on the Great South Bay of Long Island, New York, with his friend and patron Maurice Wertheim, Pleissner received word of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, as America’s war effort entered its initial phase, Pleissner was commissioned by the U.S. Office of Emergency Management to visit various war industries and produce a group of paintings depicting the work in these plants. (The pictures are now part of a government collection called Soldiers of Industry.) Later that year, he was contacted by Life magazine, which was interested in having him cover the war for them; while waiting for his security clearance to be processed, Pleissner received a telegram from Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Force and an admirer of Pleissner’s work, who asked him if he would accept a commission in the Army as a war artist. General Arnold planned to establish an Air Force Museum after the war, and believed that Pleissner would be the perfect artist to portray the use of aircraft in war for inclusion in the museum. Pleissner, 37 years old at this time, consented, and was commissioned a Captain in the U.S. Army following completion of officer training school in Miami, Florida. His assignment: The dank, fog-enshrouded airfields of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, where American airmen were doing battle with invading Japanese forces. (The Aleutians were the only U.S. territory besides Pearl Harbor to be attacked during World War II.) Until this time, Pleissner had worked almost exclusively with oils and had painted very few watercolors. But the weather in the Aleutians required him to work fast and in a medium that would dry quickly by the heat of a tent stove, making watercolors rather than oils the logical choice. Recounting his prior history with the medium, Pleissner explained: “I always liked watercolors and admired those beautiful ones by Homer and Sargent. A friend of mine in New York at the Salmagundi Club asked me why I didn’t paint watercolors. I said I didn’t know how, and he said all you had to do is to keep your board a little slanted so when you wash the color onto the paper it runs downhill. That was my only lesson in watercolor painting.” Arriving on Amchitka Island amidst “a mass of white clouds and fog,” Pleissner immediately got to work, producing hundreds of small sketches. After three months in the Aleutians, the U.S. Congress voted against further appropriations for Army war art, and, heeding the advice of a sympathetic Colonel who warned him that if he remained he might be reclassified and stuck in the Aleutians for the balance of the war, Pleissner flew back to Washington, placing a call to Life magazine and asking them if they still wanted him to work for them (under a little-known directive that allowed men with a special talent to be put on inactive duty in order to help the war effort). A positive response was forthcoming, and it was arranged that Pleissner would remain with the Army Air Force as a war correspondent employed by Life. While he was in Washington the Corcoran Gallery gave him a well-received one-man show of the Aleutian sketches, and during the course of the next year Pleissner employed those sketches as the basis for over forty large pictures of the war effort and living conditions in the Aleutians. Some of these grittily realistic depictions of life in this murky, perennially overcast environment include New Arrivals, Valdez, Alaska; Fighter Strip, Amchitka, Aleutians; War Hawks at Amchitka; Crash Landing, Aleutians; Fighters, Aleutians; and the famous Fighter Returns from Kiska (an island occupied by the Japanese). Elaborating on the hazards these American airmen faced, Pleissner said: “Well, as far as I know, we lost a lot of planes up there . . . the weather was so terrible and those fellows would go up on a mission or a patrol and the weather man said it was all right, but ten minutes after they took off everything would be socked in. The pilots would fly around and around until they finally ran out of gas, then they would belly-land the plane on these side hills. Most of them would walk away, but of course some of them were killed.” After viewing these Alaskan watercolors at a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1944, America’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was moved to say: “The series of paintings done in the Aleutians by Ogden Pleissner are wonderful studies of rain, gray skies, snow, and shadows. They have the feeling of cold and gloom which so many men write about from there. You could not have more interesting subjects than are portrayed in the many portraits, and they are treated with evident sympathy and interest . . .” Following his stay in Washington, Life sent Pleissner to England. He was stationed with the 8th and 9th Air Forces and during a two-year period traveled throughout England, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Pleissner’s assignment was first to cover the fight for supremacy in Europe, and then to paint the places where Americans had fought and died, before time and the work of men expurgated the brutal reminders of battle and before memory transformed the historic battlefields themselves. His experiences during the war had a profound effect on him; indeed, there are those who believe he was never quite the same man or artist following his return, with his work exhibiting a far more somber palette than before. Commenting on many of the devastated locales he visited, Pleissner noted: “It would have been much easier for the people to move somewhere else and start all over again.” Pleissner’s innate humanity, augmented by his time spent at the Quaker-run Brooklyn Friends School, is evidenced in paintings such as Cemetery Above Omaha Beach (with its poignant background placement of an elderly couple laying wreaths in a shelled civilian graveyard) and Casualties in Normandy, the latter painting’s origin recounted thusly by Pleissner: “Just after the Normandy invasion I was driving down the road in my jeep and I heard loud jazz music coming from behind a hedgerow. There was a graves detail detachment working there, and though I didn’t want to go in and have a look I thought I’d better. There were lots of bodies laid out and they all had a strange, sweet smell. Just like a field of new-mown hay. Whenever I drive through the valleys here in Vermont after the hay has been cut I remember this picture and this place. There were these guys in there handling all of this. God! They had a radio blaring all kinds of jazz music. Then these trucks would come in with another load of bodies and they’d dump them off and hell, it was terrible, just terrible.” But Pleissner never allowed his emotions to interfere with his mission; art critic Henry McBride of the New York Sun, reviewing an exhibition of wartime art held at the MacBeth Gallery in November 1944, wrote: “What wins the war for us is the immensity of our equipment and what wins acclaim for the artist is the way he organizes this immensity into understandable drama. Any layman unacquainted with big battles might have been pardoned for confusion upon being set down in the midst of such a gigantic enterprise . . . but not so this Ogden Pleissner. He never flinched.” Other notable paintings from Pleissner’s wartime experience include Bombers Over Exton Hall, England; B-26‘s, U.S. Airbase, England; The Cliffs, Normandy; Cathedral in St. Lo, France; Sherman Tanks Passing German Prisoners, St. Lo, France (a profound meditation on the arc of war and history, juxtaposing amongst the cloud of dust and rubble captured German troops walking in one direction with American Sherman tanks moving in the other); Anzio Harbor, Italy; Siegfried Line, Aachen; Schoolhouse in Reims, France (where the Armistice was signed); Bastogne, Belgium; and Palais de Justice, St. Lo, France. Of the Palais de Justice watercolor, Pleissner recalled: “That’s a lot of memories, that picture. . . . I was sitting there doing this painting, and all of a sudden I heard footsteps coming up in back of me. There was nothing alive at all up there on this citadel except a few crows flying around. I heard these footsteps and I thought: ‘Here comes some SS trooper, gonna do me in or something,’ but instead it was a great big MP, Military Policeman. Hand grenades hung all over him, and a tommy gun, and pistols and everything. He came up and looked over my shoulder and said: ‘Hey, buster, this isn’t any place to be f - - - - - - - around with art.’ I said, ‘But I am a war correspondent.’ ‘I know that,’ he said, ‘but can’t you hear those explosions? Those are German 88s coming in here.’ So I got hold of Gary Sheehan, the guy that was up there with me, and I said, ‘We’d better go home.’ ” Pleissner ultimately produced over eighty paintings for Life magazine, which, following their initial publication, were donated, along with hundreds of other paintings by dozens of artists, to the Department of Defense, with most of them now hanging in the corridors and offices of the Pentagon, West Point, and the Air Force Academy. Despite the horrors he witnessed, Pleissner was nonetheless very much intrigued by the the landscapes he encountered in Europe, saying, “I saw so many things over there, when I was in France especially, that were not particularly hit by the war, and I thought that they would make wonderful subjects to come back to and paint one day.” Fatefully, he and Mary were to return to the continent nearly every year for thirty years following the war, resulting in the creation of a significant and artistically mature segment of his oeuvre.
While composing his early New England landscapes, Pleissner had become aware ofhow the changing seasons and gradations in weather could profoundly alter and effect his subject-matter. As his aesthetic evolved, so did his understanding of light; how objects and landscapes are revealed differently in various lights, affecting not only the appearance of what one sees, but also how one experiences it and consequently is made to feel. He was not averse to reconstructing reality to benefit his composition and fit a particular mood that he was trying to convey. Though he accurately and literally applied his highly-developed skill at anatomical movement in his sporting scenes, his vision went far beyond ‘photorealism,’ and was more complex than many observers gave him credit for. His goal was not to produce a reproduction of a place but a painting of it. Branches, rocks, trees, waterways, and a smattering of humans were translated into lines and forms that he tensely interrelated and balanced to make the composition dynamic and dramatic. Expounding upon this idea of the primacy of light, Pleissner said: “I suppose one thing that I am most interested in is the effect of light, which changes from day to day. The effect is different on a nice, sunny day than it is on a dark, dreary one. In early morning and evening there is another effect. I think light has a lot to do with the mood of a painting, the mood of people, and so forth. I try to get the way light reveals a form. You can take a certain cubical form and put one kind of light on it and it is one thing, put another kind of light on it and it becomes something else.” Pleissner’s reference to cubism is noteworthy in that he was never considered to be part of the Modernist movement that was so popular in the early part of the twentieth century, yet he goes on to say that, “I guess I am a cubist in a way. Everything we look at is the basic form, you might say, of a cube. Take a tree, for instance: there’s a top to it and sides and a million leaves; however, the form of the tree is what a great many landscape painters do not get. They put on all the leaves or the effects of the leaves, but they don’t create any form or bigness or solidity. I think that if I had a class (which, interestingly enough, he did, for several years) one thing I would insist on is that the students would have to see the quality of a form, a cubical form. If you take a tree and drape a large piece of silk over it, you can see that is has a top and sides like a cube.” Moreover, though often characterized as a traditionalist, Pleissner’s world during his early years was intertwined with the avant-garde artists of the day, with his work shown alongside such modernists as Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, Max Weber, and Edward Hopper. Known to frequent museums and galleries in New York and Europe, Pleissner nevertheless insisted that he did not find it particularly helpful to analyze the work of other artists, explaining, “I find that I can learn a lot more about what I am doing by going outside somewhere, in nature, and walking through the fields and climbing the mountains or walking down a street and looking at a thing as such rather than going through the hands of another artist. I love to look, and get the biggest kick from a good Constable, Turner, Homer, or Monet, and so forth, but I really don’t learn a great deal from a picture.” Despite his participation from an early age in outdoor activities that often involved, indeed required, the company of other men, Pleissner was by nature a solitary artist. “I don’t go out sketching with other people for the most part,” he admitted. “Stow Wengenroth, the fine lithographer (and Pleissner’s friend since childhood) was the only one I ever went out with.” Wengenroth, who had a studio in the same building as Pleissner in New York, was also the only person with whom Pleissner discussed and criticized his own work. “As far as professional critics are concerned,” Pleissner said, “I don’t think they give you anything constructive. I think they really don’t know what they are talking about half the time,” adding, “A lot of abstract art I frankly just don’t understand. So much of the art world is ballyhoo that has been built up by writers, critics, and art dealers who are simply showmen and promoters.” However, Pleissner did admit that, “quite a few abstract paintings I find very interesting colorwise, and in the way the artist has used linear effects to pull one form against the other,” and that, overall, his own art was treated quite fairly by the critics.
Pleissner’s post-war European landscapes - though not as well-known as his sporting art - are considered masterfully composed embodiments of particular places and moments in time and, more importantly for Pleissner, impart an array of shifting moods. “You can say that a picture has a sense of place,” Pleissner explained, “but in a painting, a landscape, to me it’s the mood conveyed that counts. Constable, Homer, and George Innes convey a sense of place in their pictures, yet there is something else that goes far beyond that.” Furthermore, Pleissner felt that “neutral colors and brilliant colors will create different moods. You can take the same motif, the same subject, at different times of the day or different times of the year. Some days, it will appear to be very contrasty and brilliant, and the colors will be bright. Another day fog will roll over the scene or it will be early morning or later in the afternoon or evening. Then everything will meld together and you will not have the powerful effect of contrast, and a different, softer mood will prevail.” While in Italy, Pleissner concentrated primarily on canal scenes, with the misty opaqueness of The Gondolier partially obscuring the view of the Santa Maria della Salute. Other watercolors from his Venetian trips feature the multi-hued sky of Piazza San Marco and the ominous yet eerily mystical cloud formations of After the Rain, Venice. He considered Portugal, especially the Algarve region, one of “the most beautiful places” he had ever visited and “a wonderful place to paint,” and while there he managed to freeze in time the old-world lifestyle (including the traditionally-attired populace) which persisted through most of the twentieth century, composing a perfectly proportioned lineup of primitive, high-bowed boats modeled after the vessels of the ancient Phoenicians in The Estuary, Lisbon. His watercolors done in France not only capture the everyday lives of ordinary Parisians in snapshot form, but include, inside their larger framework, many miniature still-lifes set amongst the expertly rendered windowsills. Of the violet-tinged Tuilleries Gardens, perhaps his most famous Parisian watercolor, Pleissner said: “I went out very early and saw this morning sun coming up and the long shadows it cast across the great walk of the Tuilleries. There were all these chairs that had been used the day before with just this one man sitting there reading his morning paper, and I thought it would make an interesting picture. There was a lovely effect of color and light so I painted it.” Other notable works produced in France include The Portal, Paris; The Visit; Spring Flowers; and The Open Door, in which a young girl, her back turned to the viewer, stands in the foreground holding a basket, hesitantly peering into the blackness of the partially opened door of a commercial-garage. In the 1970s Pleissner and his wife visited Ireland and Scotland, and Pleissner loved “the starkness and dramatic quality” of Ireland, spending a grey, overcast summer in Connemara, along the sea. The isolated, melancholy nature of this landscape, enhanced by Pleissner’s use of color to depict the distant hills and clouds on the horizon, was evidenced in such efforts as The Shepard, Connemara; The Foot Bridge, Connemara; and Distant Showers, Connemara. While hunting amidst the ancient stone structures on the moor in Northumberland, Scotland, Pleissner composed Loader on a Grouse Moor. Following its completion he took the painting to the Hirschl and Adler Gallery in New York City. “They asked me,” he recollected, “if I had any idea of who might be interested in it and I gave them a few names. They also put an ad in Antiques magazine illustrating the picture in color. One of the people I had suggested bought the picture right away and there were over ten serious inquiries from the ad. I should have run right home and painted ten more just like it.” Many of Pleissner’s post-war landscapes were executed in the southern United States, with several derived from trips to Florida and Georgia, where Pleissner painted representations of the exotic flora and fauna unique to these locales. Of The White Heron, painted on St. Vincent’s Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida, Pleissner said: “The island’s owner wanted me to paint some pictures down there, and we did a little duck hunting. I remember I shot a few ducks one morning and they fell out in the back of the blind and I let them stay there because there were a lot of birds flying. After a while I thought I’d better go pick them up and to do so I had to wade out in water about up to my waist. The ducks had disappeared, I looked around but couldn’t find a single one. I didn’t know what had happened to them until I got back to the house and my friend said, ‘Oh, the alligators probably ate them.’ I didn’t go in there again. I said to hell with the ducks after that.”
In 1947, Pleissner built a home and studio in Pawlet, Vermont, which became his summertime base of operations until the death of his first wife Mary in1974. “Mary and I came up for several years before that just for quick visits, near Woodstock,” Pleissner recalled. “We came over to Dorset to see some friends and fell in love with this section of the country. We had spent seventeen previous summers in Wyoming, but found it was too far away. We thought that we would like to have a place that we could get to easily from our home in New York. I wanted to be closer to the city, the galleries and art world,” adding, “Why do I live in New England? Well, where else would I live? I don’t want to live out in the middle of the West. I think the New England states have beautiful weather and lovely landscapes with all kinds of subjects to paint. I was always a New Yorker, and very active in the art world . . . New York is the capital of the art world and I guess at heart I am just an Easterner.” Despite all his innate skill, reaching the standard he set for himself proved to be an elusive proposition, fraught with doubt and occasional self-negation: “All I know is that it is a very frustrating occupation being a painter,” Pleissner confessed. “It certainly is for me because you have this white canvas or piece of paper up there in front of you and you think: ‘Oh, boy! This is going to be a wonderful picture, this is going to be a masterpiece.’ Then you work on it and work on it until finally you don’t know what to do with it anymore and then it lets you down. It always seems to let you down. There are very few pictures that I have done that I think are just great, that I don’t have to do anything more with.” Continuing on this theme, he admitted: “I’ve done a lot of pictures and I’ve burned up a lot of them too. I remember one time in Pawlet I burned up 216 pictures. Mary had a fit! They weren’t any good, or were only half-finished oil or watercolor sketches that I’d start and then the light would change or something and I’d lose interest in them. They never jelled and lot of them were finished and they weren’t any good. Artists do a lot of bad pictures, and I don’t keep everything I do.” But Samuel B. Webb, one of Pleissner’s closest friends, held a view of Pleissner’s skill and demeanor more commensurate with that of others who knew him well: “Ogden was a tireless worker and his own harshest critic. He was one of the most modest men I have ever known, and had a keen sense of humor. On occasion, I asked his opinion on some palate knife painting which I failed to comprehend in any way. The most derogatory statement I ever heard him make about a fellow artist was: ‘I am afraid that there won’t be much paint left on that canvas in fifty years.’ As an amateur art collector I am captivated by his skillful design, drawing, bold treatment of light and shadow, and above all his matchless use of color. I have seen field sketches done at noon in bright sunlight. The finished picture will be bathed in evening light. Perhaps he felt the brilliant sunlight for that particular scene was too harsh. He handles a frozen duck marsh or a drenching day on a Paris street equally well.” Added Donal O’Brien, another close friend: “Ogden Pleissner was one of those special friends who added a unique dimension to the lives of those who knew him. You were stretched and expanded when in Ogden’s company. . . . Ogden brightened things up. When he was around things were a little sharper and a little clearer. One of my hunting partners like to say, ‘Only a man who has owned a really great gun-dog knows what one is, and what he’ll someday be missing. Some voids never get filled.’ ”
Despite the notoriety accorded him as a result of his battlefield paintings and his North American and European landscapes, Pleissner’s name, in many art-collection circles, summons up visions of his preeminent sporting art. In Pleissner’s eyes, he considered himself, first and foremost, “a landscape painter, a painter of landscapes who also liked to hunt and fish,” a statement whose veracity is supported by the fact that only ten to fifteen percent of his total artistic output is outdoor-sports related. Still, many of the commissioned paintings requested during his lifetime came from collectors who wanted Pleissner to visit their fishing camp or hunting lodge and produce a representation of sporting activity in their own natural ‘backyard.’ Even before the war, Pleissner took on many such assignments; on one occasion, he was invited to the St. Anne River by Maurice Wertheim, the president of Wertheim and Company, who owned one of the finest private collections of French Impressionist paintings known to exist. The two men were headed up to the river on a train when Wertheim received a telegram. “He was elated!” Pleissner remembered. “He had just bought a self-portrait of Van Gogh with a bandage over his head, painted right after he had cut his ear off. He got it at an auction in Switzerland, for this was a ‘degenerate’ picture that Hitler had kicked out of the country. This was just before the war. He didn’t say what he had paid for it, but later on I saw in the Art News that a New York collector had paid $27,000 for this picture. What it’s worth now, God only knows.” (Wertheim left all his pictures to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.) Throughout his extensive travels, Pleissner brought not only his painting paraphernalia but also his sportsman’s equipment, explaining thusly: “I go places that I would never go if I weren’t carrying a fowling piece or a fishing rod. I’ve seen things and experienced things that are interesting and great fun and paintable. I would never see these things if I didn’t have a shotgun in the crook of my arm or my flyrod in hand.” The wall labels from the Shelburne Museum’s 2007 exhibition, “Ogden Pleissner: On the Water,” posited that, in part, Pleissner’s lifelong love of outdoor activities breathes life into these compositions, with his images finding their inspiration in a sportsman’s sensitivity and enthusiasm toward the landscape, the water, the fish, and the fowl. (The museum, located in Vermont, was bequeathed over 600 paintings by the artist’s estate, with a special ‘Pleissner Gallery’ displaying 40 of them in rotating exhibitions.) “The philosophic aspect of life never interested me very much,” Pleissner acknowledged. “I just live it. Fishing, for example. I’ve always loved to fish. Why? I don’t know. I was born in Brooklyn, but when we went away I always used to fish if I had the opportunity, and that was one of the reasons I went out West. I wanted to get outdoors, fish and go on pack trips.” Following his early Wyoming experiences fishing for trout in alpine lakes, the bulk of Pleissner’s later fishing expeditions took place in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada, where on famous salmon-filled rivers such as the Restigouche, the Grand Cascapedia, and the St. Anne, he composed many of his legendary watercolors. In many of these paintings the low-lying lavender clouds and ethereal, wispy mist, drifting amongst the steeply graded boulder-strewn mountainsides and pine-forested shorelines, lay in wait further down the zig-zagging river for the canoe-borne anglers who, through Pleissner’s ability, are transformed into pictorial elements that seem like a natural extension of the environment. This is part of Pleissner’s genius: to reconfigure the setting in such a way that a wholistic balance is struck between humans and the natural world; perhaps referring to this artistic symbiosis, Pleissner said in later years that “nearly everything I do now shows some relationship of man to nature or life.” The element of dimensionality was vital to Pleissner, reflected in his statement that “a fine painting is not just subject . . . it is the feeling conveyed by form, bulk, space, dimensionality, and sensitivity.” Many of these sporting landscapes have a visceral immediacy enhanced by their almost three-dimensional appearance. Under the right conditions, the viewer can literally ‘step into’ these paintings; The Gorge-Salmon Fishing projects the illusion that only a few small steps are necessary to hop from boulder to boulder and be within a few feet of the anglers; the mood is such that one half-expects a Native American scouting party, entering through a portal from the previous century, to peer out clandestinely through the thick pine forest.This sense of being ‘part of the painting’ enables one to undertake a journey rarely offered by other landscape artists and accomplishes Pleissner’s intention of transporting the viewer directly into a world - an adventure really - of his own making. Other noteworthy artistic interpretations of his fishing excursions include River Voyagers; Salmon Anglers; The Rapids (which in 2010 garnered the highest price yet for one of his paintings); Rivermen, Cascapedia; Leaping Sea Trout (an astonishing re-creation of a fish rising out of the water, seemingly suspended in mid-air); and Blue Boat on the St. Anne, arguably Pleissner’s most famous sporting landscape. The story behind Blue Boat further illustrates Pleissner’s humanism: “When I finished it, my dear wife Mary fell in love with it and asked me if I would please give it to her. I said I could not afford to do that because we needed the money and it had to go to the gallery to be sold. So I took the picture to New York, and the very next day, without my knowledge, Mary went to the gallery with a fistful of her savings and purchased the painting. When I found out about it and realized how very much she wanted the picture I canceled the sale, gave her the painting, and told her to keep her savings. I had to pay the gallery’s commission on top of everything. Not a very good business deal!” Of his landscapes encapsulating the dynamics of waterfowling, some prime examples are: Hillside Orchard; A Chance for Two; October Snow, Vermont; the magnificently blue and lavender-swept Marsh Gunners; Wild Turkey (painted looking out of his studio window in Manchester, Vermont, where he lived with his second wife, Marion); the often reproduced Marsh Guide, Santee Club; Canvasbacks Over Long Point; The Retrieve-Bear River Marshes (in which the sky, clouds, and birds are painted in an almost ‘abstract-expressionist’ manner); and October Morning. One of Pleissner's final efforts, entitled Big Fish Rise, was of the sporting genre. Commissioned by Donal O’Brien and painted shortly before the artist's death in 1983, it depicted the total concentration required by an angler and his guides in the moment right before a large Atlantic salmon ‘takes the fly.’ O’Brien related that “(Pleissner) unveiled it for me in Sam Webb’s home in Shelburne, Vermont, in June 1983. Sam’s house was packed with many of Ogden’s friends and admirers, and I had to take the painting to bed with me to make sure I could get it back to Connecticut. I think the picture has a wonderful mood, one which Ogden compared to Blue Boat on the St. Anne. I also think that is shows that he was painting some of his finest pictures right through the last months of his life.”
Pleissner’s extensive traveling included several visits in the 1950s to the island of Bermuda, where he composed as many as 13 renowned watercolors, several of them now part of the permanent collections of the Bermuda National Gallery and the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art. Pleissner found great inspiration in the island’s light and atmosphere, and is known to have been particularly drawn to its unique architecture, especially that of St. George’s, which Pleissner called “a pure Elizabethan town.” His Shinbone Alley was part of the original grouping of 12 paintings that forged the core collection of the Masterworks Museum, and was painted on the same street as another instrumental piece of Masterworks’ collection, Andrew Wyeth’s Royal Palms (which Masterworks’ curator Elise Outerbridge likened to the “Holy Grail” of artwork produced in Bermuda). According to Tom Butterfield, the founder and creative director of the Masterworks Museum, Shinbone Alley “provided much impetus for a fledgling group of ‘art bandits’ whose efforts were about building an awareness of our island’s history and culture,” adding that, “on a Saturday morning when (the) work was being shown at the City Hall, a young boy approached me, declaring that he had lived on the house on the first left. This sense of identity, pride, place, association set many wheels on fire and made the possibilities endless. Pleissner’s confidence and sense of purpose is evident in this work. . . . Needless to say, this work provided an auspicious start to our fledgling ambitions.” In an interview with Neil Davidson of The Canadian Press, Butterfield went on to call Pleissner an “artist’s artist and one of the great watercolourists of the last century.” Pleissner’s effect on the island’s artistic heritage merited two official Bermudian stamps being issued depicting miniature reproductions of his work: in 1990, a 50 cent stamp was printed featuring Shinbone Alley; and in 2012, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Masterworks Foundation, a 70 cent stamp was published reproducing Pleissner’s watercolor, St. George’s, one of a series of scenes which Pleissner executed in the town of St. George’s and a painting considered by The Foundation to be a ‘must-have’ piece for their collection when it came to auction during the first year of Masterworks’ existence. In 1998, Masterworks mounted an exhibition of Pleissner’s work at the Bermuda National Gallery, and in 2012 his work (along with that of Winslow Homer and Ross Sterling Turner) was featured in “The Wonderful World of Watercolour,” a mini-exhibit which was part of Masterworks’ primary 25th Anniversary Exhibit, “A Rock and an Ocean”. The following year, Masterworks mounted a special Pleissner exhibit in its Mezzanine Gallery. Other examples of Pleissner’s Bermuda work besides the previously noted Shinbone Alley and St. George’s include Pink House, York Street, Bermuda (an American Academy of Arts and Letters award-winner in 1960); St George’s Bay, Bermuda; The Paw-Paw Tree (offering a rare, respectful acknowledgement by an American painter of indigenous Bermudians); Towards Castle Island (gifted to the Bermuda National Gallery by the late David L. White, OBE and Chairman Emeritus of the Gallery, who said of the painting, “it really does sparkle off the wall,” with its sudden and dramatic shifting hues of blue); St. George’s Harbor (a classic Bermudian combination of white roofs contrasting with pink, yellow, and blue surroundings); Bermuda Shoreline; and Old Maid’s Lane (in which the viewer, with the proper perspective, is given the sensation of almost being able to literally reach out and open the green door wedged in the wall in the left foreground). Pleissner’s island-based compositions were not entirely limited to Bermuda: A handful of striking watercolours executed in the Bahamas are in evidence, including:Shoreline, Cotton Bay, Bahamas; Stormy Day in the Bahamas (whose gale-force winds convulsing the palm trees nearly stagger the viewer as well); the simply titled Bahamas (featuring a Bermuda-styled home set among palm trees with clouds moving through an otherwise pale blue sky on the horizon); and Bahamas Home (depicting a southern California-style wood and glass dwelling fronting a narrow beach and sliver of turquoise-blue ocean). These rare Caribbean watercolors, executed in a style adopted by Pleissner to fit his tropical surroundings, have become highly-valued representations of subject-matter unique to his body of work, demonstrating a deft and seamless ability to transition between genres.
Over the course of his career Pleissner received over seventy-five awards and prizes, many of a highly prestigious nature and bestowed by a number of America’s most venerable art associations, including: four Gold Medals (1961-1972) from the National Arts Club; eight Exhibition Prizes (1941-1968) from the Salmagundi Club; the Hallgarten Prize (1938), the Altman Prize (1952, 1961) and the Samuel F.B. Morse Medal of Honor (1959) from the National Academy of Design (of which he was an Academician and Vice-President); a Gold Medal for Watercolor of the Year (1956) and the Samuel B. Leitman Prize (1982, the year preceding his death) from the American Watercolor Society; two Medals of Honor (1958, 1960) from the Century Association; the Joseph Pennell Award (1954) from the Philadelphia Watercolor Club; the Grumbacher Watercolor Prize (1955) and the President’s Prize (1969) from the Audubon Artists of America; the John Singer Sargent Prize (1942) from the St. Botolph Club; the Frank Vincent Dumond Memorial Prize (1966) from the Hudson Valley Art Association; the Howard Penrose Prize (1955) from the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts; and a Gold Medal (1969) from the Allied Artists of America. His name was included on the membership list of many prominent organizations, societies, and clubs devoted to the promulgation of the arts, such as the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Watercolor Club, the American Watercolor Society, the Allied Artists of America, the Baltimore Watercolor Club, the Century Association, the Salmagundi Club, the National Arts Club, the Art Students League, the Shelburne Museum (trustee), the St. George Society of New York, the Royal Society of Art, and the National Society of Literature and Art. Examples of Pleissner’s work were a featured part of national group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the West Point Museum, the Art Students League, the American Watercolor Society, the National Academy of Design, the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Watercolor Club, the Baltimore Watercolor Club, the Hudson Valley Art Association, the National Arts Club, the Salmagundi Club, the Century Association, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His work was showcased in one man exhibitions at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the New Britain Art Gallery, the Century Association, the Hudson Valley Art Association, the Deeley Gallery (Manchester, Vermont), the MacBeth Gallery (New York City, four exhibitions), the Milch Gallery (New York City, four exhibitions), and the Hirschl and Adler Galleries (New York City, three exhibitions). In addition to the aforementioned Bermuda National Gallery and Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, more than seventy distinguished museums, institutes, schools, and corporate collections are in permanent possession of his work, including Amherst College, the Art Students League of New York, the Brooklyn Museum, the Butler Museum of American Art (Youngstown, Ohio), the Chrysler Collection of War Art (Norfolk, Virginia), the Cincinnati Art Museum, the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Georgia), the Library of Congress, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design, the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.), the National Museum of Sport, the New Hampshire State Library, the New York Public Library, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Shelburne Museum, Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts), the Texas State Capital (Austin, Texas), the United States Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs, Colorado), the United States Army Art Collection (Washington, D.C.), the United States Military Academy (West Point, New York), the University Club (New York City), and the United States Embassy (London, England).
With the exception of a few of his early paintings, Pleissner never dated his work. “People seem to want fresh pictures,” he offered by way of explanation, “they don’t want antiques.” It was difficult for him to judge which of his paintings was most likely to sell, saying, “Sometimes I’ll paint a picture and I don’t think anybody is going to like it. That will be the first thing that is sold in the show.” But in the final analysis, the overwhelmingly consensual judgment among art historians is that Ogden Minton Pleissner needn’t have worried about creation dates, or whether people liked his paintings. Classic art is timeless, and immune to individual opinions, growing in stature and value in as sure a way as a large Atlantic salmon will rise up and take the angler’s fly, or a flock of game birds will scatter to the wind upon hearing the shots of the hunter. “At his best,” declared famed sporting art author and curator F. Turner Reuter, Jr., “Pleissner would give Andrew Wyeth a run for it.”
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