01 October 2017

Essex Moonrise: John Leslie Breck














I've written about this landscape before, one of the much loved and still missed landscapes of my childhood: the coastal marshlands of  Essex County, Massachusetts.   The Great Marsh, as it fittingly called,  enchanted me long before I saw it through the eyes of the artists Arthur Wesley Dow and Martin Johnson Heade.
To name the towns and beaches that border the Great Marsh is, for me like fingering a string of beads, each  one more beautiful than the last: Newburyport, Plum Island, Ipswich, Crane Beach, Essex, The Dragon.  Moviemakers concur: The Thomas Crown Affair was filmed at Castle Hill in Ipswich and The Witches Of Eastwick at Crane Beach, while The Crucible was shot on nearby Choate Island.

Salt marshes are nature's  lungs,  grasslands and tidal estuaries that ilter out storm water and pollution, thus protecting the fish, insects, mammals, and sea birds that live there and, not incidentally, their human neighbors.  But more than that, they are beautiful to behold; the air really does shimmer with a luminance I have seen nowhere else.
John Leslie Breck (1859-1899), who was born at sea near Hong Kong and spent his final years in and around Ipswich, made his most evocative paintings of the littoral zone, that restless, shape-shifting place between land and sea, a objective correlative to his favorite time for painting - the crepuscular hour between day and night.  And so it is that the blue marsh estuaries have turned violet and pink.  I wonder if Breck had ever had the twilight experience of seeing the earth's shadow in the eastern sky as the sun sets in the west, a demarcation between blue and violet that is a product of particles of the earth's atmosphere.  I first saw this as a child living in Newburyport one evening when my parents pointed it out to me from our backyard.

Claude Monet  settled his family at Giverny in 1883, just beginning to enjoy some commercial success in his forties, thanks to the efforts of his Parisian dealer Durand-Ruel.  He began by renting the house at Giverny, only becoming able to purchase it seven years later when he turned fifty.   It was no part of his intention to establish an art colony in  the picturesque Norman  village but by 1887 the first group of his American admirers had descended on him for the summer: Willard Leroy Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, and John Leslie Breck.   Breck  became an especially close friend of the artist.  However a  romance with Monet's stepdaughter Blanche ended badly and sent Breck home in 1890.  But Breck returned an altered painter, his colors brighter, his brushwork looser,  having cast his lot with the plein air or outdoor painters,  He died, an apparent suicide, at thirty-nine years old just as critics reckoned that he had come into his own as an artist.

Image:
John Leslie Breck - Essex  Massachusetts Moonrise, Breck family estate,  courtesy of Boston Center for the Arts.

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