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Monday, June 11, 2012

An Ornithological Watercolor by Aiden Lassell Ripley - A Representation of the Artist at his Best

Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969)
Grouse on a Pine Bough, 1939
Watercolor on paper, sight dimensions 18 ½ x 24 inches
Signed and dated lower left: "A Lassell Ripley 1939"
Framed with archival linen over rag mat, curly maple molding, and ultra-violet protection glass;
framed dimensions: 29 ¾ x 36 inches

Grouse on a Pine Bough represents the work of Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969) at its best.  A painter, watercolor specialist, printmaker, and instructor, Ripley is considered one of the preeminent sporting and wildlife artists in the history of American art.  Shortly after this magnificent watercolor was executed in 1939 it was purchased as gift to Stephen Wheatland (1897-1987) from his wife, Dorothy and sister Martha.  Following graduation from Harvard College where he served as captain of the rifle team and President of the University Rifle Club, Wheatland managed timberlands in northern Maine and New Hampshire. Later he was a founder of the University of Maine Foundation, trustee of the Robert Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine and the Peabody Museum in Salam, Massachusetts as well as a member of the Massachusetts Historical Club, the Colonial Society of America, Club of Odd Volumes, and the Bangor, Maine Salmon Club.  He divided his time between residences in Bangor and Brookline, Massachusetts.  Remaining in the family, this painting passed to his daughter, Sarah Wheatland Richards (1925 -2011) in 1967.
Although Ripley worked in oils as well as other materials his mastery of the watercolor medium is especially noteworthy.  Ripley preferred to execute his watercolors from rapid pencil sketches, the more complete the better.  Often he would create six or seven studies for each watercolor. In many cases he then created a tonal charcoal study overlaid with opaque watercolors.  He painted the sky first and then what was to be juxtaposed against it.  This relationship dictated the remaining composition.  Ripley relied on memory of the locale to determine his impressively economical palette: two blues, two reds, three yellows, an orange, a green, two browns, indigo, black, and white. Grouse on a Pine Bough serves as a testament to the artist's ability to convincingly representornithological anatomy combined with an understanding of light and shadow used to create atmospheric effects. It well demonstrates how he achieved his reputation as one of America's foremost painters of game birds.
            Aiden Lassell Ripley was born on December 31, 1896 in Wakefield, Massachusetts.  His father was a horn player for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and like him Aiden Lassell was also an accomplished musician, excelling at the piano and the tuba at an early age.  He began painting around the age of eight and by his mid-teens was committed to a career in art although he consistently maintained an appreciation for music throughout his life.  Prior to enlisting in the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1917, he commuted to Boston where was enrolled at the Fenway School of Illustration studying with Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931).  Following deployment to France his talent for playing the tuba secured him membership in General Pershing's band.
             Although this provided a relatively safe situation during the conflict, he did not return to Boston until April, 1919 and soon established a studio and home in Lexington, Massachusetts.  He was awarded a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he studied with Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938) and Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), the wildlife artist. Ripley won the Paige Traveling Fellowship that enabled him to study abroad for nearly two years in Africa, France, and Holland, from December of 1923 until 1925.  His newlywed wife Doris Verne accompanied him on his trip.  As the couple traveled Ripley produced a large number of watercolors and some oil paintings as well.
On his return he was elected to the Guild of Boston Artists where in 1926 he held his first one-man exhibition featuring landscapes painted during his time abroad as well as examples depicting his native New England.  Displaying Ripley's strength as a draftsman the show was highly successful and was well received by the press.  Art critic A. J. Philpot of the Boston Globe stated: "The flash from obscurity to fame has come the past week to Aiden L. Ripley, a young Boston painter, has given an unusual thrill to the artists and connoisseurs of this city.  In a week he was transformed from an art student to a painter of rank with the foremost of the day in watercolors and his works were being purchased not only by connoisseurs, but by some of the foremost artists in Boston--the people who know."  Of his work displayed in a subsequent exhibition held at the St. Botolph Club in February of 1927, a reviewer for the Boston Post wrote: "Several canvases by Aiden L. Ripley are especially notable.  Notre Dame is extremely effective.  The beautiful cathedral is viewed from the distance, across a bridge.  In the foreground the river is crowded with boats and the walks along the bank with strolling people.  Brilliant sunlight and cool shadows are beautifully painted in the canvas called Cataracts--Toledo, the churning water, blue and green and again white, swirls about the reservoir, while in the foreground are ruins of ancient buildings."
            The economic climate of the Great Depression curbed the demand for his usual subjects, the New England countryside, depictions of city life, and railroad commuting scenes.  However, at the suggestion of a hunting companion, Ripley began incorporating sporting scenes in to his oeuvre.  The Success of a 1930 solo exhibition of his sporting art at the Guild of Boston Artists resulted in a shift in focus to hunting, fishing, and outdoor subjects which were to bring him unparalleled success as an artist of this genre.
            As Ripley's style matured his impressionistic tendencies associated with his instructors at the Boston Museum School were eclipsed by increasingly tighter renderings.  His reputation for precise draftsmanship and perspective resulted in highly accurate portrayals of hunting and fishing during the early to mid part of the twentieth century.  Nevertheless, his outdoor scenes evoke a relaxed atmosphere of a simpler time, likely informed by the artist's affinity for uncomplicated living and enjoyment of outdoor recreation, particularly the shooting of grouse and woodcock.
            Ripley won wide recognition and in addition to producing commissions for individual clients, his pictures frequently appeared in Field and Stream magazine.  As the demand for his work increased so did the number of galleries who represented him; in 1936 he began a relationship with the Sportsman's Gallery of Art and Books and later with Kennedy Galleries both located in New York.  The Sportsman's Gallery arranged for him to take hunting (and painting) trips to upper New England in the summer or autumn, and to Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in the winter.  His private patrons also provided numerous excursions to the salmon rivers of New Brunswick and the quail plantations of Georgia, where Ripley indulged his passion for hunting and fishing while recording material he would use in his art. Ripley was also active in the field of wildlife preservation; in addition to representing various sportsman-related groups in this capacity he served on the town board of Lexington, Massachusetts, and in this capacity, pressed for local preservation of wildlife.  His dedication to this town is also reflected in his 1939 mural for the Lexington Post Office and later public library.
            In addition to being a member of the Guild of Boston Artists (of which he was president from 1959 to 1969) he was also a member of the Boston watercolor Society, the Copley Society, the American Artists Professional League, Audubon Artists, the Boston Art Club, the American Watercolor Society, the National Academy of Design, the New York Water Color Society, Allied Artists of America, and the National Society of Mural Painters. Included among the more fifty prizes he received were the Logan Purchase prize and medal, Art Institute of Chicago, IL, 1928 and co-winner, of the first Dacre Bush prize, Boston Watercolor Society, 1929.  His work is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston which held an exhibition of his work in 1942.
Ripley died in Lexington, Massachusetts on August 29, 1969.

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