Work of the Week – January 27, 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014


by Adrian Etheridge

Henry Hammond Ahl (1869-1953) spent the majority of his life as an artist. Demonstrating a strong interest in art at the age of 6, he showed great promise as an oil painter as early as 17 years old. He developed his style at the Royal Academy of Munich – one of the oldest and most important art institutes in Germany – and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the most prestigious art institute in Paris. By the age of 30 he had secured a reputation as a highly skilled oil painter.

After returning to the United States and settling in Massachusetts, Ahl met and married fellow artist Eleanor Isabella Curtis and opened a studio. He became known for his portraits of prominent figures political and otherwise. After moving around a bit, including in New York City, he finally settled in Boston where a mansion dating back to 1637 became his permanent home and studio.

In 1911 Ahl began to focus on mural paintings, typically using religious themes. In painting full-length portraits of Christ, the muralist strove to depict the ideal picture of the Christ the man. His most famous painting, In the Shadow of the Cross, is shrouded in mystery. The artist spent many, many days and nights working on the countenance of Christ until it was exactly to his ideal image of the figure. One evening Ahl went in to the studio and discovered that even in the dark his painting was visible. He said that Christ appeared to be walking in the moonlight, something he could not have achieved with the pigments he used, and he was so astounded by the phenomena that he never finished the painting.

Unfortunately, in 1915 Ahl’s promising career as a muralist was cut short when he fell from a scaffold. From then on he focused on landscape paintings. In all of his paintings, but especially in his landscapes, the Barbizon influence from the painter’s studies in Europe is prevalent. This school of teaching was part of the Realism movement – the attempt to depict subjects truthfully, rejecting Romanticism.

Ahl’s painting Bass Rocks, East Gloucester illustrates his affinity for Barbizon techniques, as well as those of Impressionism, which he also learned in France. His focus on tonal quality with the changing shades of the water and deep shadows of the rocks, as well as his use of soft forms without strong contour lines, shows his Barbizonian influence. And his depiction of outside or natural subject matter, in addition to his use of an open composition (meaning that the subject matter runs outside of the canvas boundaries leaving whatever is not in the frame open to the imagination of the audience), shows his Impressionist roots.

The beauty of this work is Ahl’s impeccable demonstration of compositional knowledge. Not only does he effectively use the rule of thirds, placing the horizon line on the top third dividing line, but he also paints from an angle that allows his loosely brush-stroked landscape to lead the eye through the painting. The beautiful curve on this shoreline directs the viewer’s eyes from rock to rock until they reach the horizon line and can rest on a boat in the background. From this perspective, it appears that Ahl could have been sitting on one of the rocks painting the Massachusetts shoreline as it wrapped around the coast.

Artwork above: Henry Hammond Ahl, Bass Rocks, East Gloucester, 1930 ca, Oil Painting, 10.00 x 14 inches. Gift of Dr A. Everette James, Jr.. Permanent Collection. 1986.2.2.21.