Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886)
Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886)

The New England Coast

Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886)
The New England Coast
signed 'Francis A. Silva.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
20 x 40 in. (50.8 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted circa 1870.
William Vareika Fine Arts, Newport, Rhode Island, 1995.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
M.D. Mitchell, J. Wilmerding, Francis A. Silva (1835-1886): In His Own Light, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2002, p. 124.
New York, Driscoll Babcock Galleries, Refuge and Remembrance: Landscape Painting in the Civil War Era, May 16-June 22, 2013.

Lot Essay

The New England Coast belongs to an important subset of Francis Augustus Silva's coastal landscapes in which he manipulates the landscape to achieve maximum visual impact and important subliminal subtext. Mark Mitchell writes, "Although several of Silva's paintings depict specific locations...they nevertheless treat the subject more broadly than most other artists of the period, and they consequently privilege the symbolic over the specific. Over time, the symbolic appears to have become only more important to Silva's art. Within the context of the rocky coastline theme, that evolution manifested itself in the move towards an ever-larger single rock, in lieu of a full coastline fraught with continuous peril. The large boulder adopted iconographic significance apart from the coast, and even became the primiary subject of several compositions such as The New England Coast." (exhibition catalogue, Francis A. Silva: In His Own Light, New York, 2002, p. 31)

The New England Coast recalls the actual jagged shore of any number of sites along the New England coast yet by denying the viewer the specificity of place, he has created an almost universal landscape. Armed with this "blank canvas," he has further alienated the viewer by presenting the sky and shore bathed in a light so bold and all-encompassing as to hardly feel real. While Silva certainly followed in the luminist footsteps of his artistic predecessor Fitz Henry Lane, here he creates a high-keyed palette of vermillion reds and golden yellows rarely to be found in nature. The composition, anchored by a single, large boulder and flanked by open, crystalline water and a smooth sandy shore, speak to Silva's methodology when composing his seascapes. Mitchell writes, "Silva's juggling of the differing elements within even the most conventional themes that he explored constitutes a kind of formal poetics. He used the elements of his compositions like phrases in a sentence, reordering them to achieve different meanings. This practice was inherent to much luminist art, and Silva carried on its use in a very literal form throughout his career." (Francis A. Silva: In His Own Light, p. 29)

In the 1870s, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Silva painted a number of coastal compositions featuring a single boulder. Having fought in the war as a young soldier himself, Silva would have been particularly attuned to both the destruction created by the conflict as well as the importance of rebuilding a unified nation. This desire for resolution can be found in some of his compositions, including The New England Coast. Mitchell writes, "In a nation with few anchors after the war, Silva's massive and distinctive boulders offer the qualities of stability and steadfastness that the artist sought for his nation and for himself." (Francis A. Silva: In His Own Light, p. 33) The pyramidal shape of the stone emphasizes this strength with its base, broad and immoveable, in the open waters. Silva has taken delight in echoing the triangular mass's form in the two sail boats which dot the horizon. Conversely, The jagged profile of the boulder echoes the shape of the sails, creating a pleasing visual harmony. Works such as The New England Coast typify Silva's most dramatic and engaging depictions of the natural landscape and demonstrate the profundity and sensitivity with which he approached his subjects.

More from American Art

View All
View All