Born in Philadelphia, Thomas Doughty is America’s first native-born landscape specialist. He was apprenticed to a leather currier and later went into the business with a brother. Almost entirely self-taught as an artist, Doughty first listed himself as a painter in the city directories in 1816 and 1817. Apparently meeting with little success, he is again listed as a leather currier in 1818–1819. His early devotion to a genre just coming into vogue is evident from his decision to identify himself as “Landscape painter” in the 1820 Philadelphia directory.1Margaret S. Moore in Nygren et al., 254; Flexner, 17–18; Goodyear, 12–13.
Doughty’s early landscapes were mostly topographical, but by the end of the 1820s, his poetic temperament led him to invent compositions evoking a world suspended from the temporal bustle of urban America and even from the more vigorous, transient aspects of nature. This departure from visual “truth,” in favor of the imagination, was quickly noticed. His first patron, Robert Gilmor of Baltimore, disapproved and, as early as 1826, wrote to his new protégé, Thomas Cole, that “as long as Doughty studied and painted from Nature . . . his pictures were pleasing, because the scene was real, . . . [and] had the very impress of being after originals and not ideals.”2Manuscript, Thomas Cole Papers, The New York State Library, Albany, December 13, 1826, quoted by Novak, 66.
Cole, while defending the role of the imagination, agreed that Doughty “has painted from himself, instead of recurring to those scenes in Nature which formerly he imitated with such great success. It follows that the less he studies from Nature, the further he departs from it. . . .” And, Cole continued, “He who would paint compositions, and not be false, must sit down amidst his sketches, make selections, and combine them, and so have nature for every object that he paints.”3Ibid., December 25, 1826, quoted by Howat, 33.
Not everyone found Doughty’s new manner disagreeable. In his influential book American Scenery (1840), Nathaniel Parker Willis perceptively described the artist’s special gift:
[His] forte lies in scenery of a softer and inland character—the lonely forest-brook, the misty wood-lake, the still river, the heart of the quiet wilderness. In painting these features of Nature, he has (in his peculiar style) no rivals among American painters. . . . He is a most sweet and accomplished artist; and when the time comes for America to be proud of her painters, Doughty will be remembered among the first.4Willis, 2:37, quoted by Keyes, 143.
A Boating Party is large, peaceful, and elegantly serene, framed by trees crisply silhouetted against a cool morning sky which is softened by mists. Although the composition relies in some respects upon the pervasive model of Claude Lorrain, then pervasive in America, it departs entirely from Claude in trading the panoramic vista for the landlocked lake.
Many of Doughty’s mature paintings bear titles and subtitles such as “Landscape Composition,” “Scenery from Recollection,” or “Characteristic American Scenery.” He also followed Cole’s advice by making selections from his sketches and combining them so that specific areas may be identified even though they have been artistically manipulated. The site depicted in A Boating Party may be Echo Lake, New Hampshire, near Intervale, with Mount Washington in the distance.5The identification was passed on by the last private owner of the painting.
Between 1832 and 1837, Doughty lived in Boston and had his studio in a building owned by the artist Chester Harding. Harding was an avid trout fisherman and made frequent fishing trips to North Conway (just south of Intervale), New Hampshire, often accompanied by Doughty and Alvan Fisher, another painter. Doughty, himself an outdoorsman, also made good use of these excursions, sketching the landscape for use in his Boston studio. This was his most productive period: in May 1834, for example, he was able to exhibit more than forty paintings in a group exhibition with his fishing companions.6For the period 1832–1837, see Goodyear, 17. For his connection with Harding and the 1824 group exhibition, see Lipton, 34.
A first-rate painting, A Boating Party is a delight in many ways. The paint, remarkably vital and oily, is applied with great élan. The buildup of impasto is unusual for this date in American art and may owe something to Doughty’s knowledge of English painters in America, specifically Joshua Shaw, who had been a neighbor in Philadelphia. Above all, the painting is distinguished by the delicate manipulation of light on the tree trunks, the sails, the lake, and the iridescent bluffs beyond.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.