See what world has to offer under the great dome

June 17, 2011|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • "Pool in the Meadow" by Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927), oil on canvas, 1875, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Collection, Gift of Mrs. Florence H. Trupp.
"Pool in the Meadow" by Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927), oil on canvas, 1875, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Collection, Gift of Mrs. Florence H. Trupp.

Accompanying this column on the right is an oil painting that is hanging in an exhibit now in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' 19th-century American Art from the museum's collection curated by Elizabeth Johns.

The museum has an amazingly good collection of American painting from this period, especially so when you think of what a modest-sized city Hagerstown is. This one is "Pool in the Meadow" by Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927) who I'm proud to say studied at the art school where I teach, the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Some years ago I got to talking to a professional gardener. We had fallen into talking about world religions. He brought the conversation to a beautiful conclusion by gesturing up to the sky and saying "It doesn't matter what you call it, we're all here living under 'the great dome.'"

I've always remembered his phrase. In my mind's eye, I picture a giant glass lid from a cooking pot being placed out top of the world. It's a very useful visualization for us landscape painters to study the color and qualities of the air itself as it sails over our heads. What the sky is doing colors everything. I think Hugh Bolton Jones' painting shows him delighting in exactly that.

Jones has painted an oil where you can feel the hot summer haze on your skin. It seems to have descended from the sky and pushed the warm, earthy colors of the cows and the pasture into a palette of cooler hues.

You can tell Jones had a ball painting the cows, especially varying the colors of their hides. I love the two who face each other with the white spots on their backs. Maybe they're talking as they have so much in common.

Jones connects the dots of his forms to draw a diagonal path moving up from the lower left-hand corner of the canvas and into the middle distance, hopping across the backs of some of his willing beasts along the way.

And here's is another oil, "Nahant Rocks, New England," by William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900), painted in 1864.

In Haseltine's work, a painter comes back to Hugh Bolton Jones' bowl-like roof of atmosphere coming down over the earth. Haseltine makes his atmosphere a green gray and lets it etch away the darks and the details from the ships on the horizon. There's a hint of sun trying to glow through the clouds, but mostly the land and sea are middle tones without bright highlights.

The real drama in the painting happens right along the shore itself where Haseltine contrasts the one white-capped wave against his largest and darkest rocks. I could look at that one spot where the pointed rock juts out into the sea forever— it's so perfectly imagined by the painter.

Big skylights are difficult to build and are tricky to maintain. They can develop leaks in the rain. No wonder so few builders bother with them anymore. But there's something magical about being inside and still having the natural light play over you from above.

If a cloud goes by, you feel its passing shadow.

How fitting that a museum like WCMFA would try to bring some of the spirit of the outdoors inside. The museum is doing with its architecture what the painters of the landscapes hanging on its gallery walls did so well.

This is going to be a good marriage.

Phillip Koch is a landscape painter from Baltimore who is on the faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art; he serves on the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' Board of Advisors. Read Koch's blog at

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