Imagine being able to look at Mt. Sugarloaf in South Deerfield, or Zoar Bridge across the Deerfield River in Charlemont, and to see at the same time how they appeared back in the 1840s. A wonderful exhibition currently on display at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst provides just such a window onto the landscapes of the Pioneer Valley in the early 19th century, when Orra Hitchcock, a botanist and scientific illustrator, painted them. The exhibition, “Re-presenting Nonotuck: The Landscape Paintings of Hitchcock and Gloman,” pairs Hitchcock’s paintings with contemporary renderings of the same scenes by artist David Gloman, who has been teaching art at Amherst College since 1992.
Gloman said he got the idea for this series of paintings from his friend Kurt Heidinger, director of the Biocitizen School of Field Environmental Philosophy in Westhampton. “I am a landscape painter and I go all over the Pioneer Valley to paint. I got curious about the history of the valley.” Kurt told him about Orra Hitchcock’s paintings, which she intended to be used as geological illustrations by her husband, Edward Hitchcock, a Calvinist minister and an early president and professor of geology at Amherst College. Some of these were eventually turned into prints and widely distributed. “We went to the Amherst archives to see books from the 1840s,” said Gloman. “I got so excited by them.”
Gloman and Heidinger did a lot of research, trying to find the exact location where Orra Hitchcock painted her pictures. They also found Edward Hitchcock’s descriptions of the sites, the text of which is included in the exhibit along with Gloman’s notes. “I tried to get as close as possible to do my paintings. It was chilling to stand exactly where she had been, looking at the exact same view as she had.” In painting the iconic view from Mt. Holyoke, he stood beneath the porch of the Summit House, where Hitchcock also observed the valley below. That view hasn’t changed much, except that Interstate 91 bisects the Oxbow and some trees block the vista.
Gloman was not always able to stand in exactly the same spot where Hitchcock had been. Roads, bridges and vegetation sometimes prevented him from getting Hitchcock’s exact perspective. He also found that Hitchcock sometimes “fiddled with perspectives. She was trying to get a topographically accurate picture of the scene, not just an artistic view.”
Painting Titan’s Piazza, a craggy, steep rockface just below Summit House, was more challenging. Edward Hitchcock described the formation as “an interesting and unique example of greenstone columns…. It seems as if you were standing beneath so many large hexagonal kettles, set closely together.” Gloman said that substantial erosion over the years had made the hillside very steep, and trees had grown up, blocking the original view. “I managed to perch on a small level place to paint my view,” he said.
Gloman said he wants “to get people to see not just what we’re seeing now. To be present in nature and explore it. Things that you and I did as kids without even thinking about it.” When painting Zoar Bridge, for example, Gloman said, “I managed to get close enough to see the old bridge abutment. It’s still there, and I thought about all the ups and downs of that fast-moving river and all the people who had crossed that river over time.”
“I learned so much doing this,” said Gloman. “Hitchcock’s visual premise was as an illustrator, to create education tools for her husband’s research. So she included a lot of detail..” Gloman’s paintings, by contrast, give more attention to light, shape and color. “I’m more abstracted,” said Gloman. “My paintings are more simplified. The appreciation and wonder and awe we have is the same, but the language is different.”
In his introductory notes to the exhibit, Heidinger wrote: “This exhibit awakens a deep sensibility of the legendary river, valley & mountains encradling Amherst College, & more largely the creatures, seasons & geomorphies of our Nonotuck Biome, the ancestral homeland of the Nonotuck & Pocumtuck peoples.” He invites visitors to “compare [Hitchcock and Gloman’s] representations of Nonotuck and inhabit for a while the places they bring you. Then take the map [provided at the exhibition] and actually go visit them; feel the present/presence of the great life we share — our living biome — for where we are is who we are.”
Gloman said he is seeing these sites through “21st-century eyes.” “I’m super-sensitive right now to the fact that a lot of this stuff is going away. Hitchcock’s paintings were an act of preservation. Mine are, too.”
The show will be on view through Dec. 31. Hitchcock Center hours are: Tues.-Thurs. 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Fri. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 2nd Sat. of month 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.