70%. That’s the probability that a tree in the picturesque forests of New England contains anthocyanin, the pigment that makes leaves turn red or brown in autumn. It’s the onset of cooler weather that stimulates the production of anthocyanin, allowing those warm tones to emerge. Which is all well and good for people in areas where the cold actually catalyses a color change. But what about places where there are no seasons to speak of, or where it’s evergreens as far as the eye can see? What if you’re my far-away friend in Singapore, just itching for some sort of foliage display?
Thankfully this fall, the NGA is bursting with an array of autumn gorgeousness. If I hadn’t already written about Autumn on the Hudson River (1860) it’d definitely be in the mix for today. Can you believe that the artist Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823 – 1900) actually had to carry fall leaf samples to England to convince people he hadn’t made them up?
I find October (1863) by William Trost Richards about as beguiling as a painting gets. An American, Richards (1833 – 1905) established his career with this sort of super-detailed woodland scene (later he specialized in seascapes). First there’s the painstaking precision he imparts: I don’t think there’s a stone unturned by the bristles of his brush or a twig untouched by his slicks of oil. I think I can actually see the anthocyanin cajoling his leaves from green to red.
And quite aside from his photo-realism, Richards records a sense of easy spaciousness, remarkable given that this is just a little bitty picture. Patches of sun-lit forest floor track back between phalanxes of trees: feels to me like you could literally crawl inside his scene.
We’ll end with another natural beauty by Winslow Homer (1836 – 1910), whose image Autumn dates to 1877. Homer was a contemporary of both Cropsey and Richards, but for me he takes the bright-colored biscuit. He’s an expert when it comes to portraying the power and persuasion of nature, always pulling an angle or idea that makes an image stand out. Typically, he’ll insert slivers of modernism and abstraction, as he does here: I mean, how outrageously rampant is that bright red wall behind the woman, radiating hot and bothered around her body?
And yet it works brilliantly because it becomes the essence of what autumn is about, setting alight the trees in our forests. I love her rosed-red cheeks and the fountain of foliage that flutters through her fingers, echoed ever-so-slightly in the hitched-up skirt. Enough to satisfy even the most fall-leaf-starved among us.