Benjamin C. Champney (1817-1907)

Benjamin C. Champney (1817-1907)

The summer of 1851 was a defining moment in American art history, for our nation witnessed the birth of one of its earliest artist colonies in North Conway, New Hampshire. Inspired by the enthusiasm of Benjamin Champney and John Kensett, artists such as Alfred Ordway, Benjamin Stone and John Casilear ventured north from Boston and New York to the White Mountains for an introduction to this painters’ haven. For many artists this summer visit would become an annual expedition, and, together, these men would shape the White Mountain School of painting.  

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Champney had made his first voyage on foot from Boston to North Conway during the summer of 1838, and was so enchanted by the picturesque summits, falls and gorges of this region that he devoted the following sixty years to painting its landscape. He was raised nearby in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, but spent much of his young adult years in Boston. Apart from exhibitions at the Boston Athenaeum, which began in 1827, and at Chester Harding’s Gallery, founded in 1833, the city still held few options for artists during this period. At the suggestion of Washington Allston, Champney sought instruction abroad in 1841 and befriended Kensett, Casilear and Durand while in Paris.

While Champney found inspiration in the forest of Fontainebleau, the Rhine Valley of Switzerland, and the ruins of Rome, he lamented the influence of European art on American painters: “A truly American school of art therefore is not possible so long as we can not translate our nature for ourselves, and only see through French eyes and follow their fads and fashions.” [i] He would return to Europe numerous times over the course of his career, even showing a painting from his initial trip at the first Boston Art Club exhibition in 1842, but the White Mountains would remain his passion.

In 1853, Champney purchased the Lewis Eastman House just south of Conway Village and converted a carpenter’s woodshop into his personal studio. As artists began visiting the Conway area with increasing popularity, Champney joked that his studio threatened to become a fashionable tourist attraction.  His paintings were received with equally high regard, and during the 1870s, Louis Prang produced up to 100,000 chromolithographs of many of his works.

Shortly after his 90th birthday, Champney wrote to a neighbor, remarking: “I paint a little every day as it please me & think some of my last pictures are as good as any I have done.” [ii] Champney painted up until the morning of his death in 1907, sixty-nine years after his first visit to North Conway.

[i] Benjamin Champney, Sixty Years’ Memories of Art and Artists, 1900, p.134.

[ii] Letter to Georgiana Souther Barrows, Nov. 26, 1907, quoted in Beauty Caught and Kept

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