What Art Historians Don’t Know about the Most Famous Painting in White Mountain History and the Willey House
A Tale of Two Paintings: Is this the Landscape of Terror or a Historic Transgression?
Hanging behind the main desk at the Conway Public Library is a small painting by Charles Codman (above), a relatively unknown artist, depicting the scene of a famous avalanche. The avalanche is known as the Willey Slide, which occurred in 1826, about 30 miles north of the library, in Crawford Notch. This painting stands silently at the heart of an almost 50-year mystery, a kind of identity theft enacted by the art history establishment.
The Codman painting is a key to breaking the code that hides the truth within another, larger, far more famous view painted by Thomas Cole (left), now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. The scene in the Cole painting has long been identified as the location of the Willey Slide. But it’s not.
Almost double the size and dramatically more colorful, the Cole painting is arguably the most famous example of White Mountain Art.
Since at least 1969, the Cole painting has become incorrectly set into the canon of art history at the nation’s largest and most prominent universities and museums as the definitive interpretation of the Willey Slide.
Whole chapters have been devoted to explaining the symbolism and meanings of the Cole painting in its supposed telling of the Willey Slide story. The most recent published example of this comes from earlier this year to coincide with the March 2017 opening of the “East of the Mississippi” exhibit at the NGA, where the Cole painting is on display.
Well-known scholars have made erroneous claims about the Cole painting:
- An art historian from Dartmouth described the painting as depicting a “Landscape of Terror.”
- A scholar from Wellesley, used the phrase, “a place of tragic destruction,” to describe the Cole painting.
- While another from the Smithsonian referred to the painting as a scene of a “catastrophic avalanche.”
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Even a quick and cursory comparison of the two paintings clearly reveals they are not of the same place. The topography is strikingly different. This is obvious simply from the width of the valley floors at the notch, the shapes of the mountain outlines and contours, and the sizes and heights of the surrounding ridges in relation to the buildings depicted in the paintings.
For those familiar with the region, the proper location of the Cole painting can be immediately distinguished by the large elephant-head-shaped rock formation to the left of the notch. This spot is actually about 2.5 miles north of where the Willey Slide occurred.
The site of the Willey House is at mile-marker 46 on Route 302. The 1839 view by Cole is just north of Saco Lake and south of the AMC Highland Center, around mile-marker 43.2, looking south.
In both the paintings, the buildings are somewhat small and the architectural details unclear. However, a number of artists did renderings of both the Willey House and the Notch House, capturing both the key architectural and geographical elements that, when compared and contrasted, help support the conclusion.
But a key question is: even if other artists knew the difference between the two buildings and their accurate locations, did Thomas Cole know the difference? We believe so. Cole sketches clearly show he was aware of the differences.
The Thomas Cole sketches above clearly show the artist was aware of the geological differences between the area where Crawford Notch begins (left), and the landscape surrounding the Willey House (right).
The sketches also show the topographical outline, known to geologists as a U-shaped valley, is a closer match to the Codman than the Cole. However, realize that the Codman is looking south while the Cole sketch is looking north. That explains why the Willey House is shown on different sides of the road.
While intuitively obvious to the casual observer, these geographical distinctions have not been apparent to the eminent professors of art history with their doctorate degrees and extensive credentials.
While the point should be clearly settled on the topography alone, as noted within, the conclusion is strengthened when cross-referenced and approached from a number of other academic disciplines including architecture, cartography, geology, photography, and even meteorology.
The proof seems plentiful. But as long as the scholars and historians continue to ignore the obvious, phrases like “Landscape of Terror,” will continue to be used to describe one of the most well-known paintings in White Mountain history.
For more on the subject, contact the Henney History Room of the Conway Public Library. As we say in New Hampshire, “live free and study art.”