Animal associations

“Fertile Ground: The Hudson Valley Animal Paintings of Caroline Clowes” | Visual arts | Hudson Valley

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  • Untitled (Horses with Parasol), Caroline Clowes, oil on canvas, 14″ x 20″. Collection of Elise Sharsis.

Art historians are rediscovering female artists forgotten for generations. The famous genre painter Caroline Clowes (1838-1904) is featured in an exhibition at Locust Grove, the estate of Samuel FB Morse in Poughkeepsie. “Fertile Ground: The Hudson Valley Animal Paintings of Caroline Clowes” opens November 4.

As the show’s title suggests, Clowes’ specialty was four-legged creatures. Its horses are noble and resplendent, its cows warm, but its sheep are especially bewitching, their coats adorned with natural spiral patterns. “People say they want to touch them,” reports curator Bill Jeffway. Sheep and chickens very much like a nativity scene, sheep replacing Mary and Joseph: two sheep and two lambs in a manger. A sheep stands, staring at the viewer. The seated adult closes his eyes happily. Was this painting intended as a parody of the Holy Family?

“I think she was very aware of eye contact with the animal,” suggests Jeffway. The same way a photographer chooses the right moment to take a picture, Clowes would wait for a revealing glance to record it in a sketch.

Buckskin was a horse his cousin Ambrose brought back from the Civil War, which became the subject of one of his paintings. This painting looks particularly like a portrait, emphasizing the horse’s head and neck. Buckskin’s long white mane gives him an androgynous elegance, a bit like the English rock star of the 1970s.

Click to enlarge The Challenge, Dick and Bingo, Caroline Clowes, oil on canvas, 16 1/2" by 20 3/4"circa 1859. Hart Hubbard Collection of the Dutchess County Historical Society.
  • The Challenge, Dick and Bingo, Caroline Clowes, oil on canvas, 16 1/2″ by 20 3/4″, c.1859. Hart Hubbard Collection of the Dutchess County Historical Society.

Several of the paintings were done in Florida, near the St. Johns River. These images are less domestic than their Nordic counterparts; the creatures in Florida Cow Painting 1 it looks like they are about to blend into the forest. (Some of the paintings have been titled for this exhibition.)

Vespers, one of Clowes’s last paintings, which shows an impressionist influence, depicts a mighty uprooted oak tree with a sheep sniffing its exposed roots. At the top of the trunk, a thrush sings. Do I imagine the artist preparing for death?

Clowes’ life was a rags-to-riches story, like those written by his contemporary, Horatio Alger. Clowes’ mother died when she was two; his little sister died shortly afterwards. Clowes and her sister Lydia were raised by their eccentric father, who had inherited a forest in Sullivan County and attempted to devise new commercial uses for wood, such as a folding bed and a wooden railroad. His plans failed and eventually his two daughters were sent to live with relatives. Caroline went to Heartsease, the stately home of Lagrange where her uncle Benjamin Hall Hart managed his extensive apple orchards. These days we think farmers are in trouble, but back then apples were big business. Heartsease, which is also a type of violet, lived up to its name. Is it possible that the contentment that emanates from Clowes’ beasts was also shared by the artist?

Click to enlarge Autumn Cows, Caroline Clowes, oil on canvas
  • Autumn Cows, Caroline Clowes, oil on canvas

Clowes attended the Poughkeepsie Female Collegiate Institute, then studied with the painter Frederick Rondel of the Hudson River School. Back then, as it still is, being a successful entertainer required good business sense, including, in her case, hiding her gender. (She sold her paintings as CM Clowes.) Her representative, JH Wright, wrote to her, “They assume you’re a gentleman and I haven’t corrected them.” Like many successful women in the 19th century, Clowes never married. Eventually, she had an international reputation, exhibiting three works at the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences.

“I think that’s a powerful aspect of the show that we have paintings, we have preparatory drawings, and then we have all these letters, so you can understand how Clowes learned those skills, how she worked for overcoming prejudice against women,” observes Jeffway. The exhibition is coordinated with the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College.