When I attended the recent USArtists Exhibition in Philadelphia, I was introduced to the work of Walter Launt Palmer, an artist with whom I was previously unacquainted. There were several pieces of his work, all snowscapes, and I was really very impressed by them. These paintings felt contemporary: they did not show the characteristic calligraphy of the period and region (Hudson River) where they were created. Also the colors, which showed impressionistic influence, were not overstated. His method of applying mixed painting mediums (oil, pastel, and gouache) seems quite anachronistic, belonging more to the last few decades, and not the 19th century. The paint was applied thinly over a white ground, and in many areas, the original loose pencil lines of the composition could be clearly seen, and this appeared to be more a result of the choice in paint application, and not because the transparency of the paint had increased with age. His value and color control were wonderful, and he replicated these winter scenes fantastically; when I was younger I often took long walks in the snow, and these paintings FELT like those times to me.
Walter Palmer was born in 1854 in Albany, New York. As the son of the famous sculptor, Erastus Dow Palmer, Walter had privileged access to the best of the artistic community of his time. At the age of 12, he received his first oil painting set from portraitist Charles Loring Elliott, and soon thereafter began his first formal study with family friend, landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. By the age of 18, his work was already being accepted into the National Academy of Design juried show of 1872.
In 1873, Walter travelled with his family to Europe, spending much of his time in Italy. It was here that he befriended the 17 year-old John Singer Sargent, recognizing in him his talent, and admiring his "bold" and "vigorous" painting style^1. By 1874, the young Palmer was studying with French artist Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, who was popular with American students such as Sargent, and who emphasized the direct application of paint to the canvas with little or no preparatory underpainting or drawing.
Perhaps while he was studying there in France, Palmer was introduced to the Impressionists, when the independent Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artstes Peintres, Sculpeurs, Graveurs held their first show in April of 1874. This fact is unclear, but upon his return to the United States in June of 1874, Palmer's work showed the influence of this avant garde group, placing Palmer among the first Americans to adopt the Impressionist's methods. This foray into impressionism was short-lived, however, but these first few paintings were harbingers of his later winter landscapes.
Walter journeyed to Paris to study with Carolus-Duran again in 1876, and upon his return to the States in 1878, shared a studio with his previous teacher and friend, Frederic Edwin Church. For the next few years, in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, Palmer focussed on creating paintings of Victorian interiors, which were well-received. In 1881, he again revisited Europe in order to "paint some fine 'interiors' that are entirely lacking in our own country."^2
On an extended stay in Venice during this trip, while painting alongside such other notable artists as William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, and Robert Blum, Palmer decided to adopt an impressionist's pastel color palette to paint the famous waterways. His paintings of Venice, which he showed until 1902, received a mixed reaction, nevertheless, he continued to work in this new palette, perfecting his colors and technique. His genius seems to have reached its fruition, however, when he applied this new palette to scenes from his own beloved Northeast United States.
By the mid-1880's, Walter Palmer had moved back to Albany, New York, and had begun painting the snowscapes for which he would win so much acclaim. He had become conscious of the art influences in New York City, which "disturb a painter's individuality and make him paint like other pictures and not like nature,"^3 but in Albany, he could work by himself, and refine his impressionistic technique. In his winter scenes, Palmer found he could exercise his preferred palette as "snow, being colorless, lends itself to every effect of complement and reflection."^4 His mastery of tone was remarkable, and his subtlety of color, including his then unusual inclusion of pure blue in his shadows, brought him much attention and awards, and made his work quite desirable.
Palmer painted his snow scenes from memory back in his studio, and encouraged students to do likewise. "To the student wishing to tackle this problem of white and light, I might make a few suggestions. Paint from memory if you can, from nature if you must. Make endless sketches from nature with all possible fidelity and accuracy, then put them all out of sight and paint your picture from the facts that have been the most vividly recorded in your mind. It will be a long time before you can do it, but it will be worth while when done."^5
Walter Launt Palmer continued to paint his winter snowscapes in his hometown of Albany and in his summer studio in Gloucester, Massachusetts until his death on April 16, 1932. Despite his distance from New York City, Palmer was an active exhibitor, showing his work in nearly all major national and some international exhibitions during his lifetime. His work, which fell out of favor after World War II and which was sold off by museums to make room for the work of the day, has only been re-discovered in the past 20 years as the paintings of the American Impressionists have regained their popularity and collectibility.
Most of the above information can trace itself back to the book, Walter Launt Palmer: Poetic Reality by Maybelle Mann, Schiffer Publishing, Easton, PA, 1984.
My reference for this information came from two other sources which can ultimately credit Ms. Mann for her research.
The first of these is A Perfect Solitude: The Art of Walter Launt Palmer (1854 - 1932) by Marshall N. Price, a gallery catalog released by Hawthorne Fine Art, LLC, to accompany an exhibition which ran from December 12, 2006 - February 10, 2007. This is the same gallery which first introduced me to this wonderful artist.
The second source was AskART, an online subscription service which provides examples of artist's work, biographies, exhibit schedules, and auction results for many artists. For those who do not subscribe, you can still view the biographies of many artists on Fridays of each week, when AskART offers this service for free. The biographies for Palmer listed on the AskART website were provided by Comenos Fine Art and Roughton Galleries, Inc..
1. Walter Launt Palmer Diary, November 15, 1873. Quoted in Mann, p. 12.
2. Quoted in Mann, p. 21.
3. The Daily Graphic, "A Group of Prize-Takers: American Painters Who Have Won Their Laurels," July 2, 1887, p. 15.
4. www.askart.com, quoted in Biography of Walter Launt Palmer as provided to AskART by Comenos Fine Art.
5. Walter Launt Palmer, "On the Painting of Snow," Palette and Bench 2 (1910): p. 90.