On October 3, Joel Babb, a renowned landscape painter based in Sumner, Maine, presented his art and creative process in the Edwards Center for Art and Dance. Referencing Roman monuments and Baroque landscapes, he guided his audience through his decades-long journey in capturing nature and culture.
As an undergraduate art history student at Princeton in the late 1960s, Babb painted in an abstract manner, producing Surrealist expressions of imaginative fantasies in line with popular tastes at the time. During a seven-month stay in Rome after graduation, Babb began attempting to sketch and paint his surroundings, grappling with representing the world as he saw it.
His stylistic switch from abstraction to realism was inspired by his discovery of Old Master works, a passion that took form while he worked as a night watchman at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and enrolled in the Museum School. Navigating his own artistic endeavors, Babb found guidance in the work of Leonardo da Vinci and became fixated on his anatomical sketches. In this early stage of his artistry, he practiced a little bit of everything.
“I had a Renaissance of discovering all the things that Renaissance artists [learned],” Babb said. “I began that same process too, in terms of drawing from Roman architecture and drawing from Roman statues … it’s occurred to me lately that every artist who sets out on his process of becoming an artist should have this period in the Renaissance, trying to rediscover what was in the past, and what was to some extent lost.”
Babb found his calling in the landscape paintings of the greats.
“I really had no ability to capture a landscape in drawing or painting until I discovered Claude [Lorrain’s] drawings,” he said, citing the 17th century French painter as a major influence.
Babb’s world, however, looked vastly different from the Italian ports Lorrain favored. Boston, his city of residence, lacked the wide open skies and mossy ruins of Rome—yet he saw an opportunity for creation. Boston would be his muse.
One particularly breathtaking example of his cityscapes is “Copley Square from 500 Boylston.” Its canvas is filled half with the reflective windows of the John Hancock building, a mirror of the city around it.
To create this piece, Babb spent a lot of time taking 4×5 inch photographs from the roof of 500 Boylston Street in Boston. The work takes on a previously unseen level of detail that he says was inspired by two shows he had seen before doing the painting. The first was an exhibition of the Baroque painter Canaletto, whose epic landscapes depicted both city and country. The second was an exhibition of Richard Este paintings, a painter whose New York street scenes are almost indistinguishable from photos. Babb used both artists’ techniques of capturing light and defining depth and perspective to create a modern tribute to landscape artists of the past.
Eventually, Babb found the cityscapes and their endless detail exhausting and moved to Maine for a change of scenery. He had been granted some land by a friend and built a studio and home in Sumner. There, his landscapes turned from the brick and cement of Boston to the woods and streams of rural Maine.
Painting everchanging waters and skies, though, posed a new problem: how do you capture a scene which is constantly moving? Babb photographed ocean views and forest landscapes in changing weather, and then merged these elements together in paint.
“I wanted to really express the idea of the restlessness of natural forces … I discovered that … all the people at Hudson River School also did the same thing. They thought to capture the spirit of a place you can’t just take exactly what’s there, you have to blend the elements together and compose [a scene],” he said.
As advice for young painters, Babb urges skepticism and approaching current trends in the art world with a grain of salt. He is adamant about the value of studying the Old Masters.
“I really like being a painter and I think I’m a contemporary artist, but the art scene has developed all these new media and so I think something is lost by not undertaking, or at least becoming knowledgeable about, [the older media],” he said.
Babb continues to capture cities and nature with the eye of a Renaissance man and the influence of history’s great landscape artists at the forefront of his mind. But there’s also something irrevocably modern about his work due to the world he depicts.
“I’m thinking, ‘How are these paintings gonna look in 100 years?’” he said. “And I want to do paintings that will be interesting [then].”
Perhaps to future generations, Babb’s brownstones and skyscrapers will seem as quaint and archaic as Lorrain and Canaletto’s pastoral scenes seem to our 21st century eyes.