John Willard Raught, for those still unfamiliar, is the preeminent Northeastern Pennsylvania landscape painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This description is specific enough to be accurate and duly respectful while not overstating his importance in the pantheon of art history. Raught (1857–1931) was trained at the National Academy of Design in New York, still a venerable institution today, and at the Academy Julien in Paris, an item that doesn’t show up on current resumes of note. Many talented young American painters studied in Paris at this time. Few distinguished themselves. For a taste of how common it is to have such a figure in any part of the United States, try Google-ing Norbert Heermann and George McConnell, both of whom also studied at Julien. They may be heroes in their respective hometowns, but we in NEPA will champion Raught. And in his humble way he absorbed most of the lessons of the Barbizon and Impressionist painters of France.
The Everhart Museum in Scranton has unveiled an exhibit of its Raught holdings, “Art of the Land,” that will please nearly anyone — diehard hipsters will scoff at these earnest depictions of coal breakers and salmon-roofed homes in the Lackawanna Valley (were Italianate clay roofing tiles really used throughout Scranton in 1925, or was Raught romanticizing?) — but whether it is the familiar place names or the milky neo-impressionism that holds your attention, nearly every piece is worth some time. Some much more than others — especially the looming Continental Breaker of 1911. Blacks and grays forcefully juxtaposed, the impressionism of Monet and Renoir has fallen away to a truly American painting that contends with an artist who swept Raught into the second tier of Regionalism, Albert Pinkham Ryder. Look at the generous hill sloping down at a right angle to the distant sheets of rain. The thick paint and the rhythm of the shapes compete with Ryder and even foreshadow another local boy, Franz Kline.
These are very accessible paintings, as most American art from this period is. The notion that Raught was synthesizing Corot and Renoir into sweet, retro pastorals at the same moment that Matisse was applying pure cadmium red to canvas right out of the tube makes one smile. But Matisse was a genius and quite out of reach to Raught, an obedient student of Masters Past. This isn’t his failing — that resides in the lack of visual play in his work. Camille Corot — the true influence on those who influenced Raught — stood apart from his followers, the Barbizon painters, by doing what none of them could do: making the shapes and colors in his paintings resonate as expressions of sensibility rather than simply performing reportage.
Adjacent to the room of Raughts is an additional gallery of contemporary artists either working with landscape or well-connected enough to be included in the show. Nearly all of NEPA’s heavy hitters are there, sharing wall-space with what are commonly known as Dilettantes with Tenure, and these at the expense of truly fine artists like Barbara Nichols and James Penedos, both of whom certainly deserved inclusion. Earl Lehman, the finest painter in the region today, retains alpha-male status with a curiously mounted series of deft color statements. (The donation of a level to the museum staff would be much appreciated, I think, now that the chief problem, checking the authenticity of donated works, may have come to the fore and left again.)
Bill Teitsworth, too, lands bulls-eyes with his small, modest paintings of yards and fields. Susan Scranton Dawson enters the fray with photography as keenly felt as that of Mark Cohen, also included to our good fortune. Bill Tersteeg continues to invite close examinations that yield pleasing color harmonies. Pamela Earnshaw Kelly deserves a permanent installation at the Everhart — maybe even the Whitney. Her “Waterbull” is something every sculpture student at any local college should sit with for an hour. And why limit that to the sculpture students? Or to students at all? Some of the other artists in the show would benefit from such contemplation.
Overall, it is an excellent thing the Everhart has done here, in spite of the politics and backscratching. Raught is represented at the Everhart in such quantity because of his quality, and this is not always why we see some local artists from the present on the wall. When a hack is shown repeatedly there is controversy, which is a sign of a thinking art community. This should please everyone except those who rely on connections to maintain their sagging reputations and squelch criticism.
We will probably never see a Corot show here, or even one of his followers in the Barbizon, but for now, we have a selection of paintings that go a long way to presenting this region’s past and enriching the present.