Since artists first sketched its forests, lakes and waterfalls nearly two hundred years ago, Minnesota’s tradition of plein air landscape painting has continued to thrive.
Early explorers and soldiers like George Catlin, Charles Deas and Seth Eastman made outdoor sketches in oil and watercolor for larger pieces they completed in the studio. Panoramic views of Pipestone Quarry and Fort Snelling from this era depict vast, empty expanses of wilderness and prairies.
As Minnesota became settled in the 1850s, the natural beauty of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Falls, made popular by Longfellow’s poem in 1854, drew artists from all over the country. As settlement increased, prairies and wilderness shrunk, and so did the landscape artist’s subject. Paintings of the Falls from this period are often small, personal and picturesque.
In the late-19th century, Minnesota artists, influenced by the Barbizon School, Tonalism and Impressionism, sketched and painted outdoors to capture the moods and lights of nature. We see, among the occasional grand vista, close, intimate scenes of the city, children playing on a beach, and urban lakes and gardens. Nature was still the subject, but it was nature’s light and atmosphere—often found in ordinary, everyday scenes—that inspired artists.
Most of the pioneering artists who laid the foundation for landscape painting in Minnesota were born in the century between 1830 and 1930. Today’s generation of plein air painters were, for the most part, born after WWII, and are continuing a tradition that has changed, but remains unbroken for almost two centuries.
As with their predecessors, today’s Minnesota landscape painters do not form an homogenous group or school. Their styles differ. They may be influenced by the mysterious, romantic light of the Luminists; the atmospheric effects of the Tonalists; or the natural light and broken-color of the Impressionists, but they mold these influences into their own unique signatures.
To be sure, this is not solely a Minnesota phenomena. Plein air painting is popular across the country, and there is much sharing and cross-fertilization of aesthetic ideas, styles and techniques among artists and regions. Yet, there are also subtle differences. Minnesota doesn’t have the majestic plateaus and canyons of the Southwest; the grand mountains, deserts and coastlines of California; or the never-ending vistas of Texas. Minnesota plein air artists find their inspiration in more intimate views of the natural world. Their scenes are glimpses into the moods of nature, the colors of the prairie, the serenity of a farmstead, a winding road or a slow-moving river.
These scenes are well represented at the Tamarack Gallery, one of the few Metro area galleries that regularly exhibits landscape art. Owners Tracy and Marcia Mazanec opened their doors in 1972, making the Tamarack the oldest fine arts gallery in Stillwater. The Tamarack represents national and international artists, but its collection of work by local artists is the real draw. The current display of oils and pastels by Christopher Copeland, Becky Jokela, Kami Mendlik Polzin and Joshua Cunningham is a fine sampling of local plein air art.
Christopher Copeland’s oils and pastels explore the moods and mysteries of nature. “Autumn Moonrise” depicts a dark, mystical landscape lit only by the rising full moon. The tree trunks on the left dissolve in the vibrating atmosphere, and soft edges and eerie light give the painting a poetic feel.
The golden atmosphere of “After Sunset” is reminiscent of the late tonalist work of George Inness, as is “Following the Mist,” with its dissolving forms and neutral grays. Copeland excels at painting misty, atmospheric scenes. “Morning on the River” captures the moment the blue haze begins to rise, revealing the lush green foliage hidden in the mist.
Becky Jokela’s pastels depict the color and beauty of nature’s simple forms—a clutch of coneflowers, a line of day lilies, the shadow a tree casts on a garden lawn. “October Journey” explodes in reds and golds, while “The Clouds Roll In” sets a variety of greens against a foreground rich in color.
Kami Mendlik Polzin’s landscapes are lively blasts of color arranged in dynamic compositions. Several of her paintings place the horizon line high on the picture plane, creating large, interesting foregrounds. In “Sweet Peas,” the high horizon creates space for a riot of red and violet flowers that vibrate against the yellows and yellow-greens in the field. The painting is alive with color and movement, as the diagonal swaths of flowers draw the viewer’s eye through the picture towards the line of muted green and blue-violet trees lying along the horizon.
“Summer Evening at the Beaver Dam” captures what photographers call the “golden hour”—the last hour of sunlight when the sun is near or below the horizon, casting a diffuse light across the landscape. Mendlik Polzin’s subdued golden-yellow sky bathes the field, trees and water in a soft, warm glow, portraying a peaceful end-of-day scene. “Prairie Field” is an exquisite composition in purple and yellow. Mendlik Polzin’s lively brushwork and perfectly placed color notes keep the painting dynamic.
Joshua Cunningham is new to the Tamarack, but not to Minnesota landscape painting. He has painted Minnesota in every season, light and climate, and his paintings never fail to push our appreciation of nature just a little bit further. Cunningham paints scenes of everyday fields, factories, rivers and farms, but through his subtle use of color and light, these ordinary scenes have an extraordinary emotional impact and force us to reflect on our relationship with nature.
“Fall Morning—St. Croix River” is an up-close and intimate experience of the river. A cool light glimmers off the rocks and river bank, and the water is warmed only by a trail of fallen, rust-colored leaves. The viewer is pulled into the picture and can easily imagine himself standing on the river bank, breathing the chilly Fall air. It’s a quiet, private moment, with more than a touch of the spiritual.
“Late September” and “Local Color” both capture the exhilarating colors and light of autumn. There’s a quality to the air in these scenes—a crispness, coolness, calmness. This is also evident in “One Last Spring,” a painting of an old barn that triggers a flood of memories and emotions. The cool notes of blue that permeate the grass, roof and sky give the painting a quiet, meditative feel, and stir a sense of melancholy and nostalgia.
These paintings, and more, are currently on display at the Tamarack Gallery. Gallery hours are:
Monday to Saturday: 10 am to 5 pm
Sunday: 12 pm to 5 pm
For more information, call the Tamarack Gallery: 651-439-9393