Artist Walter Launt Palmer (1854–1932), the son of Albany sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer, has enjoyed a revival of interest in the art world over the last several years. It’s now common to see his paintings in art magazines and at major auctions across the country, bringing record prices for his oils and watercolors.
As an artist who preferred living and working in his home community of Albany, rather than New York City, Palmer carried forward the creative genius that emerged in the region generations earlier with the Hudson River School and his father’s own sculpture.
The Albany Institute holds one of the largest public collections of work by Walter Launt Palmer, including oil and watercolor paintings, pastels, and drawings, as well as letters and photographs. A new exhibition at the Institute, Walter Launt Palmer: Painting the Moment, presents for the first time in more than a decade the broad range of Palmer’s work, offering a visual overview of his life, travels, and artistic interests.
Walter Palmer, known as Wallie among friends and family, grew up in a household and community well connected with the arts. The portrait painter Charles Loring Elliot gave the young boy his first set of paints at age twelve, and a few years later the period’s most respected landscape artist, Frederic Edwin Church, tutored the young man.
Palmer began exhibiting his work in the early 1870s, but it was his travels in Europe with his family in 1873 and 1874 that exposed him to the great masters and to new trends in art. He met, for example, the younger American painter John Singer Sargent, who was working in Italy, and remarked in a letter that “his style is bold & vigorous.” Palmer adopted a similar style for some of his early paintings. In 1876, he returned to Europe again to continue studies with the Parisian painting master Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran.
After his return to Albany in 1877, Palmer began painting his first significant series: building interiors. Palmer’s interiors are rich in detail and invite close inspection. He lavished attention on the textiles, ceramics, furniture, and wall decorations that filled well-furnished parlors, libraries, and hallways. He even painted the dining room at Appledale, the Palmer family home, where he included one of his sisters seated in a rocking chair beside the fireplace.
Palmer traveled to Europe for a third time in 1881 specifically “to paint some of the fine ‘interiors’ that are entirely lacking in our own country,” as he noted in a letter to the Albany Argus. There, he did find many fine interiors that became the subject of his canvases, but it was during this stay in Europe that the city of Venice caught his attention. The pastel colors of buildings, water, and the moisture-laden atmosphere captivated the artist. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s Palmer painted numerous oils and watercolors of this Italian city, including the Piazza San Marco, St. Marks Basilica, and the Grand Canal.
By the mid-1880s Palmer began working on yet a third series: winter scenes. His winter paintings captivate viewers with their serenity and masterful tonal subtleties. Fir trees and barren branches droop under the weight of freshly fallen snow and ice glistens on half-frozen streams in a way that captures the immediacy of the moment. Palmer, in fact, has often been called the “painter of the American winter.” Most of his winter scenes he painted from memory, and he continued to paint these popular landscapes until his death in 1932.
The exhibition, which runs until August 16, 2015, includes works from all three of Palmer’s major series, and also includes oils and watercolors from other travels and other interests. A select number of works from private collections enhance the exhibition and help broaden the artist’s creative life.
The Albany Institute of History & Art is located at 125 Washington Avenue in Albany. Free parking is available in the museum’s lot at the corner of Elk and Dove Streets. The museum is open Wednesday-Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, Thursdays until 8 pm*, and Sunday Noon until 5 pm. On Tuesdays, the museum is open to registered groups only. The museum is closed on Mondays and some holidays. *AIHA now offers free admission on Thursdays from 5 pm to 8 pm.
Admission is free for Institute members; $10/adults; $8/seniors; $8/students with ID; $6/children 6-12; Free for children under 6. For more information, visit www.albanyinstitute.org or call (518) 463-4478.
Illustrations: Above, “Wheatfield with Poppies by Walter Launt Palmer,” 1889-90; middle, Palmer’s “Road to Olana,” 1888; and below, Walter Launt Palmer, photography by Antonio Sorgato, 1885.