Edgar Alwin Payne's Landscape, Canyon de Chelly

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Edgar Alwin Payne, Canyon de Chelly, specific date unknown, ca. before 1947

    Nature falls into the happy rhythm of human steps in this beautifully romanticized oil painting by Edgar Alwin Payne. The cliffs provide the wanderers a pleasant shade, while the clouds shine benevolently in the sky. The shadows in the background are like children peeking around corners to see what the grown-ups are doing. 

    The way the light rakes across the rock face, it makes the cliffs appear to be follow the wayfarers around the curve of the valley. The way the rocks sink back into themselves counters this forward rhythm and creates the impression that they are reluctantly curious about the horsemen. The clouds overhead seem less connected to the wanderers but are playful with each other. Continuing the horizontal rhythm of the rock walls, the clouds have a peculiar shape that draws one in to wonder what Payne was trying to communicate. Though the clouds seem somewhat impenetrable, this mindset makes me look closer at the rocks, and I see that Payne has fit hidden pictures into the lines of these rocks: faces, animals, a subtle phantasmagoria of transitory images.  Here he communicates that nature is full of things to discover.

detail of rock face showing hidden picture of a coyote's head and neck

    I love how un-European Payne's paintings are. They are flat-footed, earthy, like the American journeyman they depict. The unique combination of earthy, gritty subjects with a benevolent sunlit sense of life is something one simply doesn't find in European art, but only in the great age of pre-World War II America, when men had a sense of the absolute unlimited scope of human potential. This was never depicted better than by the painters of the American southwest, and none of them were greater than Edgar Alwin Payne. Payne's closest artistic ancestor is the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich, but despite Friedrich's insistent commitment to this earth, his religiosity put him at odds with a truly this-worldly outlook, and his rocks and clouds were never as joyfully real as Payne's, but contained a gloomy insubstantiality.   

Caspar David Friedrich, Rock Canyon in the Harz 1811

    Payne really introduces himself in this painting. He announces to us, Hello! I am here in the landscape. I have sunk my thought into it and you may too. I have discovered this way of feeling about existence, and you can hop onto this feeling too.

    I implore you to hop on. I have never found a painting that feels as good as an Edgar Payne, or that leaves me with such confident hope.


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