George Ames Aldrich (1872–1941)

A descendant of early New England colonists, George Ames Aldrich was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and received a college-preparatory education. He later claimed to have studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—one of numerous biographical “facts” that have never been substantiated. He did briefly attend New York City’s Art Students League, studying under such prominent artists as Kenyon Cox, William Merritt Chase, and John Twachtman. In 1894, Aldrich made his first trip abroad. In later accounts, he named as his teachers in Paris numerous renowned artists, notably James McNeill Whistler. He made illustrations for several English and American magazines and newspapers and married a Frenchwoman. In northern France he began painting the rural village and river scenes that would become his artistic mainstay. In subject, style, and composition these were deeply influenced by—indeed sometimes indistinguishable from—the works of landscape painter Frits Thaulow. Aldrich insisted he had been Thaulow’s pupil during the last two years of the Norwegian artist’s life, between 1904 and 1906, but this too is undocumented.

Aldrich made several long stays in France before 1910. He moved to Chicago in 1917 and the following year made his debut with four paintings in the Art Institute’s annual Chicago and Vicinity exhibition. Aldrich traveled and painted widely in the 1920s, going both west to the Great Plains and east to various New England coastal locales. He was never as prominent on the art scene in Chicago as in smaller cities in Illinois and Indiana. Aldrich frequently exhibited his work in clubs, libraries, hotels, and similar venues in such regional centers as Rockford, Aurora, and South Bend, where he won the faithful support of local collectors. In 1922, the then-divorced artist married a native of South Bend, where he resided until returning to Chicago in 1926. In Indiana, he added the Juday and St. Joseph rivers near South Bend to his narrowing repertoire of landscape subjects, still dominated by the romantic French village images he had first painted decades earlier. He also painted several views of Chicago and industrial scenes, one of which garnered a prize in the annual Hoosier Salon exhibition in Chicago in 1929.

Both in Indiana and in Chicago, Aldrich’s reputation was at its height in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He won a host of awards at the Hoosier Salon, the Art Institute, and the Chicago Galleries Association, where he was featured in a solo show in 1927; the following year, the City of Chicago purchased one of his Gloucester, Massachusetts, harbor scenes for its municipal art collection. Even before the privations of the Great Depression, however, Aldrich lived a precarious existence due to alcoholism and mental illness. Painting to the last, he died at age sixty-eight, leaving a legacy of some one thousand works.

George Ames Aldrich, Normandie Sunset, undated
Oil on canvas, 22 by 32 inches

George Ames Aldrich, Normandie Sunset, undated

Now called Normandie Sunset, this painting by George Ames Aldrich applies his favorite compositional formula—high horizon and dominant broad expanse of water—to a recurrent subject: rural structures clustered on the banks of a swift stream. Here, the unseen setting sun scatters tints of pink throughout the scene as the moon rises in a clear sky still pale with daylight; a woman glimpsed retreating down the path away from the stream’s bank adds a further note of lingering farewell. The white stucco walls and red clay-tile roofs of the cottages link this work to the artist’s many depictions of Brittany and Normandy villages, typically shown at sunset, in moonlight, or cloaked in snow. Finding them popular with his Chicago-area and Indiana patrons, Aldrich continued to produce such works long after he first painted in those locales in the early years of the twentieth century. He was inspired not only by the tumbledown picturesque qualities of the actual settings but also by the paintings of Norwegian landscapist Fritz Thaulow. Although Aldrich probably was not a pupil of Thaulow as he claimed, he certainly admired, studied, and emulated his work, notably his treatment of flowing water and of snow. In this example, Aldrich lavished particular attention on the stream’s broken but still reflective surface, while painting the surrounding scenery with broader, more rapid brushstrokes.

In the late 1910s and 1920s, the period to which this canvas likely dates, Aldrich was among many Chicago-area landscape painters who combined the open brushwork, bright hues, and tactile surface effects of impressionism with a decorative sensibility. Here the artist created a romantic, pleasantly melancholic mood by deliberately manipulating viewpoint, light, and color, combining sunset light, a rising full moon, and moody shadows that lend tonal unity to the composition. In Aldrich’s day, supportive reviewers often cited the evocation of an artist’s personal emotional response to the landscape as a measure of aesthetic value. The traditional European setting served as Aldrich’s vehicle for elegiac sentiment that intensified in the World War I period, when the closing of access to Europe seemed to mark the dissolution of the very traditions that had long drawn Americans there. Aldrich’s lifelong artistic investment in the French landscape and in rural village life embodied contemporary nostalgic retrospection in an era of dizzyingly rapid change.