I'm looking for light," says Lewis Bryden, whether he sits atop Mt. Holyoke or in his boat on the Connecticut River. Bryden paints the light in space, and then he fills the space with nature. Sometimes his light is sharp with afternoon sun and sometimes softened by atmospheric haze. It is the different quality of light that attracts him.
Bryden paints three basic types of landscapes. The best known of his works are panoramic views, usually from Mt. Holyoke. An Higher View, for example, presents a peaceful scene of Hadley suffused with a silvery light. Despite the variety of greens and browns in the landscape, the light, gray-green tone predominates. Similarly, despite the varied types of tree in the scene, the sense of rounded shapes predominates. Bryden also emphasizes the light-filled space by placing a narrow dark stage in the foreground and abruptly moving to the lighter distance. These ways of ordering nature (the unifying tone, the repeating shapes, and the abrupt transition to the background) are so subtly managed that they create, not destroy, a sense of informality and unstructured space. Bryden's scenes seem so natural, in fact, that the absence of roads, cars, and telephone wires is scarcely noticed at first. Bryden emphasizes nature over man, but in a comfortable, unthreatening way. He does not depict the forest primeval. "Nature up close is wild and brutal," Bryden has said, "but from a distance it is serene and ordered." What intrigues Bryden—and what he paints in these panoramic views is this contrast or paradox of nature up close and nature at a distance.
In painting the view from Mt. Holyoke, Bryden aligns himself with a long-standing tradition. In the nineteenth century, this site was the most popular single subject in western Massachusetts for landscape painters. The view (two views really, looking south to the Oxbow and looking north to the town of Hadley) became famous in the 1830s through widely published engravings after the English artist William Bartlett, and through the large canvas by American artist Thomas Cole (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Bryden greatly admires nineteenth century American landscape painting and is well aware of past depictions of, and from, Mt. Holyoke .
Such a tradition makes the subject both easier and more difficult for an artist to paint today. Today's artist inherits an instantly familiar subject but must say something new, or different, about it. Bryden's paintings do that through their distinctive tonality and interpretation. He uses his gently organized yet informal approach to convey the defining features of the Connecticut Valley—its gentle, open land and natural meadows containing some of the richest farmland in New England. Bryden also distinguishes himself by painting unusual, unfamiliar views of the terrain around Mt. Holyoke. His two views of the Oxbow from lower down Mt. Tom, for example, present the famous configuration in an almost unrecognizable form. Seen from such an unexpected angle, it becomes an island of trees. The center of the Oxbow, rather than the river, becomes the main focus.
As a second type of landscape, Bryden paints the quiet shores of the Connecticut—views across fields toward the mountain but more often views of its banks. These narrower slices of the landscape capture the feeling of life along the river. Bryden himself lives on the Connecticut in Hadley, and he paints what he sees: the river in its varied moods. In Autumn Mist, for example, he enlivened pale tones with sharp notes of bright yellow and orange to evoke a dreamlike stage setting. In Yellow Boat he placed a spot of pale yellow against closely related tones of sky, water, and foliage; these elements form a decorative screen across the canvas. In Riverline, by contrast, Bryden focused on a magnificent tree overhanging the river, reveling in the variety of limb and foliage visible in the sharp light. In Fishers by the Bridge, strongly structured by the horizontal expanse of Northampton's old railroad bridge across the Connecticut (now the bike path), he presented a softened vision of serene, lazy summer days.
To pursue the effects of different kinds of light, Bryden devised methods for working outdoors. He paints river scenes from his boat. He goes out on the river very early in the morning. The morning light changes fast, so he works quickly, taking fifteen minutes to mix his colors, and another fifteen minutes to rapidly sketch the whole scene on canvas. This sketch provides the broad start. He stays out on the river two to three hours, returning home for a break and then going out again in the afternoon. In this way he can begin three paintings in a day. Bryden also works in another manner. Out in nature, he sees a composition, in terms of light and space, that appeals to him. He makes a pencil sketch, not on-the-spot but from memory, maybe revisiting the site. He then transfers the drawing to canvas and sketches in the composition in sepia paint. At this point he takes the large canvas out in nature, looking for the same light and time of day that first inspired him. He finishes all his paintings in one of two studios he maintains in Hadley and Manhattan.
In addition to panoramic views and river close-ups, Bryden paints a third category: architecture in landscape. His paintings of this very human subject nevertheless, are devoid of figures. They focus instead on the character of old buildings, farm buildings but also town halls in the Connecticut Valley. Bryden began his career as an architect, and it certainly shows in the assured way he executes these subjects, typified by North Hadley Hall. Bryden does not render this building in the precise, draftsman-like technique one might expect from a trained architect, but in a style rich with paint and animated by light. Irregular edges, juicy paint application, and strong lights and shadows establish the town hall's personality. Bryden presents a building rich with decorative effects and history, a vital and cared-for source of pride, not a sad relic from the past. There are no people or cars in this picture either, but the feeling of isolation only serves to increase the building's monumental presence.
Bryden is a poet. He constructs studies of light and air and space. "I am not painting a landscape," he says, "I am painting a painting." Despite the artist's emphasis on the act of painting, he cares deeply about his subject matter. He communicates his own joy at being outside in nature and his sense that the world is a satisfying place to live. He depicts nature's beauty in its serene and comfortable moments. The human element in relation to the landscape does not interest him. He does not seek drama, and he does not strive for "higher" meaning through the use of symbolic motifs. His works are most remarkable for their feeling of harmony and serenity, and above all, for their unaffected naturalness.