Places in Time
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.
“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.