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OGDEN PLEISSNER




Places in Time
The Fishing Art of Ogden Pleissner

A 1955 photo shows him elegantly outfitted for sport, probably by the Abercrombie & Fitch of our grandfathers. In a 1981 photo at his easel he’s just as dapper, in a pocket-scarf-and-pipe way that has disappeared forever from the art scene.

Each photo or description of Ogden Minton Pleissner (1905-1983) makes you wish you’d known the man. Sophisticated, sharp-witted, and modest. Cool, calm, and collected. Superb fisherman, fine shot. Everything he did, he did with grace, style, and dignity. His conversation ranged from sport and sailing to WWII battlefieldsand architecture. A man’s man. A ladies’ man, too.

Pleissner was born in Brooklyn into an educated, music-loving family with the foresight to send their 16-year-old son to summer camp out West to experience a “boy’s life,” riding, fishing, and hunting. Although he remained an Easterner at heart, actively involved with New York City’s art clubs and societies, Pleissner spent 16 summers in Dubois, Wyoming, including many with his first wife, Mary Corbett, at the CM dude ranch in the majestic Wind River Mountains. This mixing of painting and sport would result in some of America’s most beloved and respected sporting art.

His only formal art training was at New York’s Art Students League (1923–1927), where he studied under impressionist landscape painter Frank Vincent DuMond, among others. City life and academia were punctuated with DuMond’s summer workshops on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, where Pleissner also got his first taste of Atlantic salmon fishing on the Margaree River. More than a few of his paintings immortalize what he considered the apotheosis of sport fishing: the instant just before a big Atlantic salmon takes the fly.

During the 1930s he painted beautifully lit and colored oil landscapes of the American West, Canadian Maritimes, and New England, and started fishing New Brunswick rivers such as the Restigouche. His first work to hang in a prestigious Madison Avenue gallery sold the next day, and more followed. By 1930 Pleissner was teaching at Pratt Institute and later the National Academy of Design. In 1932, the Metropolitan Museum purchased a Brooklyn cityscape, and in 1937 he contributed seven watercolors to Derrydale Press’s Atlantic Salmon Fishing, by Charles Phair.

World War II changed everything for the 37-year-old. In 1942, he was commissioned a Captain in the U. S. Army Air Forces and served as an army artist. First stop: depicting the sodden skies, drenched landing strips, and anonymously faced servicemen stationed in the far-flung Aleutian Islands. The dreadful weather converted him from oil artist to watercolorist, for he needed to work fast and in a medium that would dry in a tent in front of a stove. “I used to put out a few big washes and then run into one of the huts where there was still a fire and dry it and go out again.”

In 1943 he and his paint box followed the 8 th and 9 th Air Forces to England and Europe. Then, as a war artist for Life magazine, his job was to document the places “where Americans fought and died.” In these “military landscapes,” he treats the ruins of St. Lô, Bastogne and Anzio, and the shattered landscapes of the Siegfried Line and Hürtgen Forest, with the dignity of classical antiquity, giving fine-art attention to composition, focal point, the source of light, and its effect on colors and atmosphere. Today, many of these works hang in the corridors and offices of the Pentagon, West Point, and the Air Force Academy.

Pleissner settled in West Pawlet, Vermont in 1947, but kept a studio in New York City until 1976. After Mary died, he moved to Manchester in 1977 with his second good wife, Marion Gould.

A tireless worker who put in seven-day weeks for many years, Pleissner is most appreciated for his sense of place. Drawing on decades of European travel, he added melancholy rain-swept Venice and picturesque fishing boats and windmills crystallizing in Portugal’s dusking light to his North American landscapes.

He must have seen most of Europe’s masterpieces, but said, “I don’t learn a great deal about my work . . . by looking at other people’s work.” He preferred looking at things himself, especially the outdoors, rather than studying their treatment in another artist’s hands.

Pleissner was interested in light—how objects and landscapes are revealed differently in various lights, affecting not only the appearance of what one sees, but also how one experiences it; how weather, changing seasons, time of day, and a place in time make one feel.

His ability to create a visual memory, combined with his skills as a sportsman and a solid list of wealthy patrons, provided a life graced with an extraordinary amount of extraordinary sport in the most sacred locales of his day. The amusing Eversley Childs of the Bon Ami cleanser company introduced him to fishing landlocked salmon and taught him how to shoot; the cultivated art collector Maurice Wertheim invited him to fish Quebec’s Sainte-Anne River. Pleissner’s career could not be duplicated today, although a few living artists, like Robert Abbett and Chet Reneson, have had great gulps of it.

Still, Pleissner considered himself a landscape artist who just happened to like to hunt and fish and who painted what he liked. “There were a lot of people who had salmon rivers and fishing camps who liked my work and who would ask me to come up and paint something on their river,” he said.

“I just paint something in the neighborhood I’m in, and I’ve been in some very nice neighborhoods,” he told Peter Bergh, author of The Art of Ogden M. Pleissner. Although dozens of his limited-edition prints and five of his eight drypoint etchings are of fishing, sporting art represents only 10- to 15 percent of his oeuvre over his 55-year career.

With his well-constructed compositions, complex colors, and confident brushstroke, Pleissner is often compared to Winslow Homer. Although both often portray the relationship between man and nature, Homer’s work is distinctly 19 th century; man is spiritually ennobled by the challenges he faces with a biblically powerful and indifferent nature. In contrast, Pleissner is looking through patrician, 20 th-century eyes at the subjugated nature surrounding exclusive lodges in places like the trout-rich Catskills or Adirondacks. As with Constable and Gainsborough, Pleissner’s nature is benign.



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Behind all great sporting art lies the stirring of memories in the heart’s mind. Pleissner doesn’t need photorealistic faces or fish scales to achieve this. Although he shows sport literally (and accurately), his artistic vision is more abstract, and he liberally reorganizes reality to benefit his composition. Pleissner’s goal was not to produce a reproduction of a place but a painting of it. Branches, rocks, trees, waterways, and a trinity of humans are translated into lines and forms that he tensely interrelates and balances to make the composition dynamic and dramatic.

Like the weather-worn pines that anchor many of his Eastern works, he also uses strong diagonals to organize the tableau and connect the shapes of his fishermen to the plunging mountainsides and piney shorelines; simultaneously, he pulls the eye to the farthest depths of the canvas by leading it down the river, zigzagging into the distance. In Rivermen, Caspaedia, the radiating diagonals make the river rush even faster; the fishermen’s rods, held powerfully in opposition to the current, give the scene its story.

The different moods Pleissner creates have been compared to major and minor keys in music. Lavender, ochre, sour yellow, and grays express crisp, bright spring days full of contrasting light and shadow; lines and colors melt wetly together in the arboreal fog during the last moments of good sport before black night sets in on Maritime rivers.

Pleissner’s oil brushwork belongs to the New York School, which means they inherently convey shape, thickness, and the subject’s importance. The sharp edges of his Spanish bayonet show up as sharp, pointy strokes. The bold outcroppings and boulders of the West take up their proper space on the canvas; confident, strongly textured, built-up strokes of a surprising mix of colors express all their unexpected light-capturing qualities.

Pleissner had a good life: awards and recognition, commissions and invitations from business magnates to their quail-hunting plantations in the South, waterfowling clubs along the Atlantic coast, exclusive sporting retreats and fishing camps in Canada, driven shoots in England, Scotland, and Spain. “I go places that I would never go if I weren’t carrying a fowling piece or a fishing rod.”

Of his dozens of cherished tributes to sporting places disappearing in time, sporting art historian F. Turner Reuter, Jr. wrote: “At his best, Pleissner would give Andrew Wyeth a run for it.”

Brooke Chilvers is Gray’s arts columnist, and says it’s well worth the journey to the Pleissner Gallery at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. The collection includes some 500 watercolors, oils, and sketches, as well as Pleissner’s studio. As if one actually needed an excuse to visit Vermont.

 

 

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