Visions of Mood: Henry C. White Pastels by Amy Kurtz Lansing

Henry C. White may be best known for delicately colored Tonalist paintings of fields and forests on the cusp of seasonal change, but he also worked extensively in the medium of pastel. Between about 1890 and 1930, he drew hundreds of pastels during nearly daily outdoor sketching sessions. Although little noticed since his death, these extraordinary works — thrilling in their variety and strong sense of design — transform our understanding of White’s art. Created spontaneously, but often signed as an indication of the artist’s satisfaction with his accomplishments, the pastels reveal his ideas about color and align him more closely than previously realized with the Impressionists. White exploited pastel’s capacity to render patches of pure color as well as blended tones, alternating between Impressionist and Tonalist modes to a degree that will surprise viewers familiar only with his paintings. But like his more Tonalist paintings, White’s pastels affirm his profound talent for capturing nature’s shifting moods, a task for which the mutable medium was ideally suited.

Because they have been out of view for a generation or more, White’s pastels have not been sufficiently appreciated as a fundamental part of his artistic practice. White treated some pastels as studies for oil paintings, but regarded others as works of art in their own right that he entered in pastel exhibitions or displayed alongside his own canvases. This oeuvre represented a significant investment of effort by a man whose relative freedom from financial constraints allowed him to pursue only those projects that offered him the greatest satisfaction. For all that these vital works meant to White, and for the delight they can offer viewers today, these remarkable pastels fully merit our reconsideration.

The Inland Garden and the Loud Sea Beaches

Henry Cooke White was born on September 15, 1861, to John Hurlburt White, a prosperous lawyer and probate court judge, and his wife Jennie Cooke. An only child, the artist grew up in comfortable circumstances in Hartford, Connecticut, a burgeoning metropolis still edged with open fields. Like the boy heroes written about by fellow Hartford resident Mark Twain, White recalled that as a child, he “roamed at will about the city and its outskirts,” hopping aboard railroad trains, making his way to the nearby Connecticut River to fish, or exploring the meadows with his friends.[1] He developed an interest in drawing at an early age and often took sketching materials on these expeditions. A couple of summers on his grandfather’s farm in Litchfield, where crops were still harvested by hand, and others in Clinton, on Long Island Sound — where he learned to sail — helped define early on the parameters of the nascent artist’s affection for the Connecticut landscape; quiet rural vistas and the gentle waters of the Sound provided him with artistic inspiration throughout his life. But as time went on, White would eventually be drawn away from what he thought of as the “inland garden” of Hartford and toward the “loud sea beaches” of the Waterford shore.[2]

White entered a college preparatory course at Hartford Public High School based on his parents’ expectations that he would become a lawyer, but his miserable grades made it clear that his interests lay elsewhere. At the age of fourteen, White met the artist Dwight W. Tryon, who occupied a studio in a tall building in downtown Hartford where the young man went to take in the panoramic views. The teenager studied with Tryon during the winter of 1875-6, until the older man departed for Europe. Following his graduation from high school, White worked as a clerk in his father’s probate court for two years, when, convinced that his passion lay with art rather than the law, he finally began to pursue training as a painter, with his parents’ blessing. [3]

The Very Essence of Atmosphere

Contemplating a career as an artist in 1884, White again sought the advice of Tryon, who urged him to come to New York. He took classes with Kenyon Cox, William Merritt Chase, and John Henry Twachtman at the Art Students League, but it was in Tryon’s studio that he flourished. White studied with Tryon two days a week and credited the Tonalist landscape painter with providing him a strong foundation in the principles of art and instilling in him a respect for proportion and harmony.[4] White’s expansive horizontal landscapes, often with trees silhouetted against the horizon, exhibit the balance he so admired in Tryon’s work, and he would continue to explore this compositional form in both painting and pastel after he returned to Hartford in 1887. “We were congenial in every way,” White wrote of his relationship with Tryon, “in our tastes in art and literature and in our sports and diversions….”[5] The two men shared not only an aesthetic viewpoint but also a love of sailing, which they indulged during cruises on Tryon’s boat off the coast of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, site of his summer home.

Tryon and White also enjoyed a mutual interest in pastels, a medium in which they both began to work around 1890.[6] They frequently exchanged fine pastel papers, sharing new discoveries found at wallpaper stores or wholesale paper dealers. But while the older man preferred a warm grayish brown Ferraguti paper whose color acted as a halftone or harmonious undertone, his former pupil experimented with a broader palette of papers that included oranges, greens, and blues in addition to more neutral shades. Both used primarily wove papers with rough fibers that bit into the pastel crayon, adding an element of texture to their drawings. In his biography of Tryon, White writes glowingly about his mentor’s pastels in terms that give voice to his own beliefs about the medium, praising: “Its delicacy and fragility, its powdery opacity, the very essence of atmosphere itself, a quality almost impossible to obtain in oil….”[8] Like Tryon, White explored these properties in landscape sketches that evoke liminal states — the passage from day to evening, or from winter to spring. Pastel’s granular texture, applied in strokes that incompletely cover the colored paper below, allowed him to conjure rather than delineate solid forms; with a few strokes of the crayon, blank paper can begin to take the form of a leafless tree. White’s penchant for evoking nature’s moods found its fullest expression in his pastels, and he would continue his work in the medium for the next four decades.

Paysage Intime

Upon his return from New York, White became an art teacher at Hartford Public High School. He married his childhood sweetheart Grace Holbrook in 1889, and with the birth of their son, John, the next year, the artist sought landscapes close to home as subjects for his paintings and pastels. Although he captured sweeping views from studios on Niles Street (behind his parents’ house) and later, Prospect Street, White admitted finding the flat tobacco fields of East Hartford and the copses of trees bordering the Connecticut River somewhat mundane. He lamented the difficulty of transforming them into what he called the “paysage intime,” a nineteenth-century term used to describe Barbizon school landscapes that offer viewers both a sense of immersion in nature and a dimension of poetic feeling.[9] In search of a landscape that would inspire such emotion in him, White struck out for the Connecticut shore in the summer of 1891. Although he knew the area around Clinton, where he had vacationed as a child, he had never explored the region to the east. With map in hand, he hopped off the train in Waterford, just shy of New London, and set out on foot across the sparsely settled countryside. Arriving on a ridge with sweeping views of the Sound, he felt he found his “Promised Land,” a destination “perfectly adapted to all my needs, physical as well as spiritual and aesthetic.”[10] He quickly bought land on a picturesque point in Waterford for a summer house that he and his family came to occupy year-round.

White’s dedication to the poetic sensibility of the paysage intime is critical to understanding his fascination with pastel. The medium’s subtlety and capacity to suggest a range of moods allowed him to hint at something more profound than mere observation of nature. In White’s finest work, one critic noted, “there is a mysticism, a haunting poetic quality that stirs the senses like a Poe story or an Ibsen play.”[11] The soft, hazy forms and rich colors could transport viewers to another place, just as the anonymous reviewer of an exhibition of White’s pastels in Springfield, Massachusetts, described in 1898: “the visitor discovers that these pictures are opening to him as it were a door into a dreamland, where nothing seems as he ever saw it when wide awake, but where it is very agreeable to linger, and to feel the puzzling suggestion of what the earth would be under these poetizing semblances.”[12] Similarly, responding to their effect on urban viewers, one New York critic described the pastels in therapeutic terms as an “escape…from the grind of town life.” [13]

For turn-of-the-century audiences seeking an emotional attachment to nature in an era of urbanization and industrialization, White’s intimate landscapes answered a desire for authenticity. His lyrical pastels encouraged them to see beyond the obvious beauty of spring or fall to the nuances of each season, making nature feel all the more real and true to those who no longer lived in daily contact with fields and forests. Critics commended White for avoiding cliché in favor of “intense poetic feeling” that tapped nature’s deeper truths. [14]

The Pastel Revival

Since its appearance in the sixteenth century, pastel has often been considered a secondary medium, inferior to painting in oil on canvas. Following a brief heyday in eighteenth-century France, pastels again enjoyed a resurgence in America in the 1880s, when artists began to recognize the medium’s potential. As artists abandoned the high level of finish associated with academic art, informality and sketchiness became revered aesthetic values. Writing in 1884, Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer attributed the newfound appreciation of pastels to “a wider wish for self-expression” among artists.[15] Because pastels had been a favorite medium of itinerant artists (usually European transplants) during the colonial and early national periods, Americans chiefly associated them with “wooly and faded portraits haunting the deserted upper rooms of country houses.”[16] Pastel’s fusty reputation suffered further from its association with nonprofessional artists, many of them women who drew floral still lifes in colored chalk.

Although rediscovered by landscape painters in the 1850s and ’60s, the embrace by the French Impressionists, particularly Edgar Degas, was key in elevating pastel from what one critic called “the bog of amateurishness.”[17] Degas’s adventurous approach to the medium and bold technique encouraged others to experiment with pastels, which offered the ideal means of translating an artist’s gestures to paper without any loss of immediacy. Critics praised pastels as windows into the artistic process, pieces whose “uncommon frankness and spontaneity” made them “intimate records of fleeting impressions,” that felt refreshingly non-commercial. [18]

Despite their unfinished look, pastels appeared regularly in exhibitions devoted to works on paper and organized by groups like the Society of Painters in Pastel, various watercolor societies, and The Pastellists — an important but short-lived group of which White was a member.[19] Whereas some artists sidestepped the pastel revival and worked only in the more marketable medium of oil, White’s financial independence after the death of his wealthy father-in-law in 1896 allowed him to create and exhibit pastels without regard to the fact that they still garnered lower prices than paintings on canvas.

Another major factor in the revival of pastels was the extraordinary work done in the medium by James McNeill Whistler. His nearly abstract renderings of Venice appeared at the London Pastel Society exhibition in 1888 and in March 1889 at Wunderlich Gallery in New York. His insubstantial treatment of form and daring use of the colored paper as an element in the composition transfixed American Impressionists — among them White (who took up pastel around this time), J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman, who worked extensively in pastel. White admired Whistler, whom he reportedly met during a trip to Europe in 1896-97.[20] His own depictions of Venice, which he first visited in the early spring of 1897, echo Whistler’s, as do his tranquil, diaphanous seascapes.

Whistler’s approach to pastels offered artists an influential model for reviving the medium in America, but their inherent properties quickly made their use synonymous with Impressionism. The portability of pastels — which are made of ground pigment mixed with white clay or chalk filler and loosely bound with gum into crayons — meant they were a favorite of Impressionists committed to the spontaneity of sketching outdoors. Moreover, their brilliant, opaque colors could be applied in separate, unmodulated strokes in accordance with the Impressionist preference for rendering ephemeral light effects through patches of pure hues that would be blended by the eye.

Dots and Dashes

In later life, the independently-minded White dismissed Impressionism as “dots and dashes” and resisted any identification with the movement; however, despite his belief that “[t]he best of our artists were but slightly influenced by Monet,” many of White’s pastels evidence a strong Impressionist strain.[21] His pastel seascapes, with their reductive, nearly abstract compositions and broad bands of pigment, earned praise as examples of the so-called “poster effect,” a disposition toward flatness and bold design that the Impressionists picked up from Japanese woodblock prints.[22] His attempt to capture nature’s shifting moods in almost serial fashion in sketches made en plein air corresponds closely with Impressionist aims. Particularly in his sketches of the Connecticut shore, the artist took full advantage of the radiant pigments to render sunlight’s power. White also juxtaposed rich colors, creating the appearance of vibration by placing them side-by-side without smudging them with his fingers or a paper blending stick. The margins of many of his drawings are flecked with dashes of pastel where he tested and adjusted the color and quality of the mark each crayon would make before using it in his composition. He alternated between fine lines made with the point of the stick and broader patches of color created by rubbing the side of the pastel over the textured ground.

White’s sketches also demonstrate his comfort with the less finished aesthetic of Impressionism; as he worked from top to bottom, more tightly handled skies and middlegrounds give way to looser foregrounds where blank paper shows, creating a sense of immediacy. He often incorporated green paper, a favorite, into his compositions, letting its verdant shade suggest spring. At times, he even scraped through layers of pastel to expose the toned support and to impart a sense of texture and dimension to the foreground.

White’s embrace of Impressionist color comes as something of a surprise from an artist who usually preferred the gentle, refined tints of spring and fall to what he called the “spinach” greens of summer.[23] His openness to this higher-keyed palette seems to date from around 1891, when he began summering in Waterford, on the Connecticut shore. He designed and built a house there in 1893, ensuring that the bright, flat seaside light would play a continuous role in his pastels. Travel to Europe also appears to have informed his approach; his depictions of Florence and the French Riviera, which he visited in 1896-7, incorporate the vibrant hues usually associated with Impressionism. Moreover, White carefully orchestrated exhibitions of his pastels to foster appreciation of their luminous tones; for a display of his work at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Annex Gallery in 1914, he hung the warm brown walls with gauzy white cheesecloth to create a more sympathetic backdrop for his pastels.[24]

The Lyme Art Colony

White described his house in Waterford as a place of happy solitude, but between 1903 and 1907, he and his family bracketed their summers there with spring and autumn stays in the more sociable environs of the art colony based at Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse in Old Lyme. Enticed by the recommendation of fellow Hartford artist Allen B. Talcott, White, his wife, and sons John and Nelson, joined the coterie of artists, including Walter Griffin (another friend) at the Griswold House. Life among the artists proved so entertaining that after a season or two the Whites feared their sons were getting spoiled. From 1905 to 1907, they rented the Brick Store, a nearby house, and took their meals with Miss Florence. Nevertheless, White’s place in this community of artists is immortalized in Henry Rankin Poore’s The Fox Chase, a humorous group portrait of the main colony participants in which he appears at the wheel of his automobile — a novelty among the artists.

White’s arrival in Old Lyme in 1903 coincided with the beginning of the colony’s shift away from Tonalism, with the departure of founder Henry Ward Ranger, and toward Impressionism, as practiced by Childe Hassam. Just as at Waterford, White readily embraced the practice of working outdoors. Delighting in the change of location, he sketched along the banks of the Lieutenant River and at Hamburg Cove. His entries in the summer exhibition held annually by colony members affirm this immersion in the local scenery. One newspaper wrote: “Mr. White has this year painted landscapes almost exclusively and the Old Lyme atmosphere, its salt marshes, flats, etc., are reproduced in many of his sketches.”[25] The prevalence of rivers and marshes in his Old Lyme work is due in part to White’s love of fishing. He fondly recalled taking turns at the oar while trawling for shad and striped bass in Lyme’s waterways, presumably with his pastel box at his elbow.

The Late Pastels

With his family’s permanent move to Waterford in 1914, White cultivated new subjects for his pastels. His passion for fishing led him to explore Shelter Island, off New York’s Long Island. The ample stocks of weakfish and unpretentious atmosphere inspired him to design another summer house there in 1916. The quiet, marshy environs and quaint harbors of Shelter Island became recurring themes in his pastels in the 1920s.

Beginning in 1915, Grace White’s declining health prompted the couple to spend winters in the Bahamas. White recorded Nassau’s picturesque markets and harborside sisal yard in pastel, the portability of which was well-suited to travel. In contrast to the mellow tones of his earlier works, his Bahamian pastels glow with nearly fluorescent hues. Perhaps to counteract the intense tropical palette, White chose dark grounds for many of these scenes, creating an effect that one reviewer called “smothered color.”[26] He also left swathes of blank paper around his vignettes, lending them a remote, elusive quality. When White exhibited these pastels following his wife’s death in 1921, critics remarked that they represented a departure from his Tonalist roots. [27]

Saddened by Grace’s suffering, White found renewed happiness in the companionship of his son Nelson, by then an artist, and daughter-in-law, Aida. He accompanied them on their honeymoon to Europe in 1928. In Venice, which he had first visited three decades earlier, White sketched some of his most lovely pastels, applying his crayon to blue paper in fine, sparing strokes reminiscent of Whistler.


In the catalogue for his father’s memorial exhibition in 1954, Nelson C. White recalled that his father was never happier than when he could “drop everything to be out of doors sketching in pencil or pastel.” But as he approached seventy, Henry White gradually devoted more time to sailing, a lifelong pursuit, than to art. Tucked for safekeeping inside dozens of magazines, his pastels gradually faded from memory. Their rediscovery and introduction to the public through this exhibition helps reposition White with respect to Impressionism — a feat not possible through his paintings alone. The pastels also reinforce White’s independence. Although an admirer of Dwight Tryon, to whom he has been compared extensively, White clearly pursued his own aesthetic aims, using pastel to experiment with expressive gestures and vibrant colors. These pastels offer us a new side of Henry White — allowing us a more nuanced appreciation of this American artist.

1 Henry C. White, “Memoirs,” typescript of unpublished autobiography, 1950, White Family Collection, 25.

2 The quotes are from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “A Visit from the Sea,” which White cited as a testament to his own yearning for the shore. White, “Memoirs,” 10.

3 White, “Memoirs,” 17-18, 74.

4 White, “Memoirs,” 81.

5 White, “Memoirs,” 77.

6 Although the inscription is difficult to read, White’s earliest pastel, a depiction of East Hartford in November, may date from 1889.

7 Henry C. White, The Life and Art of Dwight William Tryon (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930), 178.

8 White, The Life and Art of Dwight William Tryon, 166.

9 White, “Memoirs,” 103. See also Charles H. Caffin, The Story of French Painting (New York: The Century Co., 1911).

10 White, “Memoirs,” 105.

11 “Exhibition of Landscapes at Atheneum,” Hartford Courant, March 25, 1912, 9.

12 “Art Notes in Springfield,” Springfield Republican, January 3, 1898, 5.

13 “Montross Picture Rooms,” New York Times, October 11, 1907, 4.

14 “Exhibition of Landscapes,” 9.

15 Mrs. Schuyler van Rensselaer [Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer], “American Painters in Pastel,” Century Magazine 29, no. 2 (December 1884): 205.

16 “The Pastel Exhibition,” Art Amateur 10 (May 1884): 123.

17 “The Painters in Pastel,” New York Times, March 17, 1884, 5.

18 The unnamed reviewer imagines that the works in the second annual exhibition of The Pastellists were “made primarily for the artists themselves.without the least idea that [they] would ever figure in a public gallery.” See “Art Exhibition,” New York Tribune, December 16, 1911, 7.

19 Founded in 1910, The Pastellists exhibited together several times before dissolving in 1915. White contributed works to the first and second annual exhibitions.

20 Conversation with White’s grandson George White, March 3, 2009. White eventually owned several works by Whistler and lectured about him at the Hartford Art Society. See “Whistler and His Work, Described by Henry C. White at Reception by Grinders’ Club,” Hartford Courant, March 7, 1904, 3.

21 White, “Memoirs,” 88.

22 The term “poster effect” is applied to White’s sketches in the exhibition review “Old Lyme Artists Show Their Work,” Hartford Courant, September 2, 1904, 13.

23 Quoted in Nelson C. White, “The Art of Henry C. White,” in Henry C. White, 1861-1952, Memorial Exhibition (New London, Conn.: Lyman Allyn Museum, 1954), n.p.

24 The installation is described in “Sketches Exhibited by Henry C. White,” Hartford Courant, March 19, 1914, 3.

25 “The Lyme Artists’ Work,” Hartford Courant, August 26, 1904, 18. White exhibited a number of these “sketches,” possibly in pastel, that year.

26 “Art In the Current Exhibitions of Paintings,” New York Times, December 10, 1922, 106.

27 “Art,” New York Times, December 31, 1922, 85.

About the author

Amy Kurtz Lansing is curator of Visions of Mood: Henry C. White Pastels