By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — The view from the Middlebury College Museum of Art, gazing east, is a lovely one: in the foreground, a copse of trees stands between the college athletic fields, and the Green Mountains rise to gentle peaks in the distance.
This summer, the view inside the museum is arguably lovelier still, as the college celebrates the landscapes paintings and etchings of celebrated Italian-American artist Luigi Lucioni.
In an exhibit titled “Pastoral Vermont: The Paintings and Etchings of Luigi Lucioni,” the museum this summer turns an admiring eye on the bucolic landscapes of Vermont as captured by realist painter Lucioni (1900-1988).
The etchings, oil paintings and watercolors that make up the exhibit were all painstakingly created by the artist during his summer visits to Vermont — a landscape, explained Museum of Art Director Richard Saunders, that deeply touched the artist as a young man and evoked memories of his family’s home in northern Italy.
It was also in Vermont that Lucioni also found devoted mentors — notably, Electra Havermeyer Webb. Webb, who spent summers at her family’s estate in Shelburne, was a great patron of the arts. She founded the Shelburne Museum on a portion of the family estate in 1947, and many of Lucioni’s paintings and etchings are now included in the museum’s collections.
Webb commissioned Lucioni’s first painting of a Vermont subject in 1930. His trip to Vermont that year was to be the first of many. Indeed, Lucioni returned to Vermont every summer for the rest of his life, spending his winters in New York City and making occasional trips to his family’s one-time home in Italy.
Saunders, who curated the Lucioni exhibit, began thinking about putting on a show of this sort almost 20 years ago. He was planning an exhibit at the time that would celebrate Vermont’s bicentennial in 1991, and he came across one of Lucioni’s most famous Vermont paintings — “Village of Stowe, Vermont,” created in 1931. In the painting, Stowe is nestled between rolling agricultural fields in the foreground and the Green Mountains, with Mt. Mansfield rising in the distance.
“As time passed I began to reflect on, well, why is this work so popular with everyone?” Saunders said. What he realized is that the painting, which was created during the Great Depression, portrayed a highly romanticized view of Vermont — one that charmed onlookers in an age of bread lines and massive unemployment, but that had held its appeal over the years.
“What I came to understand about Lucioni over the last two decades was that he was someone who had really fallen in love with Vermont, and his paintings seemed to resonate with a lot of people who are drawn to the idea of this pastoral state.”
As a painter, Lucioni enjoyed commercial success — he was, as Saunders noted, in many ways as effective a businessman as he was an artist. He became well known for his etchings, which he was able to reproduce and sell at a lower price than his expensive oil paintings. He often reproduced etchings for friends and colleagues to give as Christmas gifts — a clever marketing ploy that left at least one art critic deeply grateful to the artist.
Lucioni, over the course of his long career, painted still lifes, portraits and landscapes, and the “Pastoral Vermont” exhibit includes examples of all three, in addition to pages from Lucioni’s sketchbooks and some samples of work he did as a young boy. The exhibit also charts the development of Lucioni’s style.
Early in his career, he dabbled in the impressionist techniques — but he ultimately rejected that style for a tight, highly realistic approach to painting that built on his experience as a printmaker. This style really gelled in 1930 and 1931 — at the end of a 30-year period in which more experimental artists dove into studies of abstract forms.
After wrestling briefly as a young man with the tug of war between abstraction and realism, Lucioni ultimately decided that his future lay in the latter style. That decision meant that he while enjoyed commercial success, he was never a famous man.
“The work is no longer fashionable,” Saunders said. “We’ve moved so far in a different direction. … Lucioni would have been far better known if he’d lived in 1850 instead of 1950, and I think he recognized that.”
But Saunders said he admires Lucioni’s dedication to his own style and aesthetic, regardless of the art craze of the day.
And Saunders said that contemporary artists continue to be influenced by Lucioni’s work. Likewise, for the art appreciator, his landscapes still hold resonance today.
As he pointed out, the importance of the Vermont pastoral landscape still impassions many state residents, the recent battle over conservation funds in the state budget being one example of that concern. In Gov. Jim Douglas’ proposed alternative to the state budget, Douglas recommended cutting funds that would be used to conserve large tracts of land. (The governor’s veto of the Legislature’s budget was knocked down in a veto override vote last week.)
“That was a real touchstone for certain people who believe that was one of the most important things we need to do, is to protect large tracts of land that might be broken up,” Saunders said.
That’s why Lucioni’s landscapes are still moving for those who love the state.
“I think that a lot of people find it very reaffirming to be reminded of aspects of Vermont that you don’t see everyplace in the state. It’s almost like a spiritual quality that people associate with the idea of this pastoral state,” he said, pointing to the forested areas, protected lands and agricultural tracts that crop up in Lucioni’s work. Rarely do figures appear in the paintings, but Lucioni’s work nevertheless reflects on the relationship between the human and natural environments.
For an intimate look at this work, visit the “Pastoral Vermont” exhibit at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. The exhibit runs through Aug. 9. The museum is in the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts on the southeastern edge of the Middlebury College Campus, and is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.