Worthington Whittredge: The Old Hunting Grounds - Scott Livengoo

Worthington Whittredge: The Old Hunting Grounds

Article Published by:

Worthington Whittredge, 1820 – 1910

This intimate landscape, considered by many Worthington Whittredge’s masterpiece, commands the attention of the viewer through dramatic use of light and a strong vertical composition.

A limited palette, controlled brushstroke, and realistic forms create a picture of restrained natural beauty. However, the idyllic scene is disrupted by visual cues that describe a picturesque paradox between divinity and decay, allegory and exactitude.

The composition is dominated by a grove of illuminated birches that comprises the focal point of the canvas. Their vertical arrangement and stark white bark draw the viewer into the scene. A pattern of falling limbs creates a diagonal path across the composition and helps to define the illusion of space. A broken and rotted trunk leans at a dramatic angle in the left mid-ground. Its position beneath a larger leaning tree creates the impression that it holds up the weight of its living counterpart. The dark branches of this unstable arbor arch across the top third of the painting. These sweeping forms push the white birch back into space and create an architectural frame that echoes a Gothic cathedral. Yet, access to the structured space is denied through the foregrounding of the stagnant pool and decaying canoe. This is not a landscape to be entered into nor is it a space which can be easily traversed.

Whittredge painted three versions of The Old Hunting Grounds during his career. Reynolda House’s is the original painting and is the best known of the three; it was shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 where it served as a representative of American painting, and again at the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Although there is no mention of the painting in period exhibition reviews, it was singled out by Whittredge’s peers as emblematic of the painter’s skill at evoking poetic tenderness through accurate rendering. [1] Over the years the title has varied; occasionally “ground” appears as singular, but the artist himself referred to it in the plural: “The names of some of my pictures, however may serve to give an idea of the different subjects I have undertaken…in America, ‘The Old Hunting Grounds’ (Catskill Mountains).” [2]

Reynolda House’s canvas was purchased the year it was painted by James Pinchot, a wealthy importer and manufacturer of wallpaper, whose family had engaged in land speculation and timbering. Distressed by the waste of natural resources, especially forests, he became a strong advocate for conservation and careful land management, and earned the moniker “Father of American Forestry.” Pinchot was a cultivated individual and patron who counted among his friends William Cullen Bryant, Sanford Gifford, Eastman Johnson, and Whittredge, who frequently visited him at his estate, Grey Towers, in Milford, Pennsylvania. Given his friendship with the artist and interest in forestry, The Old Hunting Grounds was a logical acquisition.

In his Book of the Artists, Henry Tuckerman reveals the allegorical power of the painting: “Whittredge’s Old Hunting Ground has been well called an idyl, [sic] telling its story in the deserted, broken canoe, the shallow bit of water wherein a deer stoops to drink, and the melancholy silvery birches that bend under the weight of years, and lean towards each other as though breathing of the light of other days ere the red man sought other grounds, and left them to sough and sigh in solitude.” [3] In this passage, Tuckerman emphasizes the picturesque appeal that the melancholy narrative of lost Native American culture held for his contemporaries who would have seen the decaying birch canoe as emblematic of the passing of tribal peoples. Through the evocation of this narrative within such an intimate landscape, Whittredge is able to merge the allegorical appeal of Thomas Cole with Asher B. Durand’s emphasis on careful and accurate observation.

The implied loss of native cultures places this image within a broader context of literary production and political actions unfolding in mid-century America. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 actively pushed native peoples west, resulting in the deaths of thousands. Sympathizers feared that the culture of Native Americans would be lost forever. This anxiety was manifest in popular fiction and poetry; The Old Hunting Grounds has specifically been linked to the poetry of Bryant whose nostalgic sentiments elevate the loss of the noble “red man” who once dwelled in the American forests. [4] Two years later, in 1866, while on an expedition to the west, Whittredge’s view of Native Americans differed: “At the time the Indians were none too civil; the tribe abounding in the region were the Utes. We seldom saw any of them, but an Indian can hide where a white man cannot, and we had met all along our route plenty of ghastly evidences of murders, burning of ranches, and stealings innumerable, until I had frequently been ordered to come back to camp when the General (Pope) saw my white umbrella perched on an eminence in one of the most innocent looking landscapes on earth, and not an Indian having been seen for days.” [5]

Ultimately, The Old Hunting Grounds maintains a balance between life and death that has not been broken, but is in jeopardy. Whittredge creates a seemingly benign environment through familiar landscape devices that work to conceal the underlying anxiety present in the scene. Throughout the century, landscape painting was the highest form of cultural expression. Yet, conceptions of nature experienced radical shifts. Artists like Whittredge found ways to navigate the tensions and anxieties posed by political events, and shifting conceptions of national identity.

About Scott Livengood

Scott Livengood is the owner and CEO of Dewey’s Bakery, Inc., a commercial wholesale bakery with a respected national brand of ultra premium cookies and crackers.

Previously, Scott worked at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts for 27 years, starting as a trainee in 1977. He was appointed President of the company in 1992, then CEO and Chairman of the Board.

Scott has served on numerous boards including the Carter Center, the Calloway School of Business and the Babcock School of Management, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

He started a new business, StoryWork International, in 2016 with Richard Stone. The signature achievement to date is LivingStories, a story-based program for improved patient experiences and outcomes in partnership with Novant Health.