James William Pattison’s sketch-like painting pictures a quiet marshy pasture with grazing cows, viewed from a shallow stream that dominates the foreground. A cluster of trees interrupts the vista and relieves the glare of diffused sunlight, which blurs the forms of more trees on the horizon. Probably made on site, this small work is a study in light effects, featuring a blend of techniques. The artist used soft brown underpainting to render the blurred outlines of the tree trunks and the streambed visible in the foreground through the clear water. Dense whites capture the sky’s reflection in the stream and in pools of standing water across the field; in the foreground, delicate horizontal lines etched in the areas of white evoke the stream’s slightly rippled surface, dotted in the foreground with lily pads rendered in quick touches of vivid green. In the upper corners of the painting, bright sky seen through moisture-laden atmosphere is a vibrating patchwork of pale green and pink brush strokes.
The unidentified locale pictured here might be any number of places Pattison visited in the United States and abroad but it most closely recalls the tidal marshes north of his native Boston. The artist returned regularly to Massachusetts to sail and to paint. While both the painting’s original title and its date are unknown, it is likely a relatively late work. It shares with Pattison’s best-known painting, Tranquility (circa 1906; Union League Club of Chicago), the distinctive use of visible underpainting and the scraping through of the top layer. Both images feature not only the domestic animals Pattison frequently depicted but also attention to natural light effects and what critic Lena McCauley described as a “decorative” sensibility achieved partly through a variety of paint layers and application techniques. With its high horizon and the cropping of the tops of the prominent trees in the middle ground, this work also strikes a conspicuously modern note, notwithstanding its conventional pastoral subject.i
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD
i L. M. McCauley, “Art and Artists,” Chicago Evening Post, Apr. 8, 1911.