Fragile Waters: Waterscapes in Paint and Print

Waterscapes in paint and print

 Man first feared nature, then looked to it as a remedy, later tried to conquer or defeat it, and has now set out to protect it.  The paintings to the left and photographs to the right represent an appreciation and reverence for water as an exalted presence in nature.  They evoke tranquility, respect, and beauty.

Water appeared in the earliest documented forms of visual art.  It is easily identifiable in the ancient art of Greek and Native American pottery, Egyptian wall paintings, and sixth-century Chinese landscapes.  In the nineteenth-century many artists responded in opposition to the Industrial Revolution by creating idyllic and romanticized landscapes untouched by the hands of man. 

Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Pictorialist photography emphasized beauty and tonality to move beyond the realm of straight documentation.  Much of the artwork in this genre is almost painterly, and individuals like Nell Dorr worked to celebrate the medium’s allowance for artistic expression, disproving the idea of photography as merely a mechanical process.  Her dreamy, soft-focus aesthetic renders the water in these black-and-white photographs much differently than it actually would have appeared. 

The paintings on view depict varying bodies of water, from tranquil rivers and still lakes to rough oceans.  Each artist employs his own style to communicate the beauty of water.  One can compare these waterscapes and note the different colors present in the water, from painting to painting, and consider what factors influenced the palette choices of each artist.

Nell Dorr: Wild Beauty in the Water of the Keys

Raised in Massillon, Ohio, seven-year old Virginia Nell Becker (1893—1988) received her first pinhole camera from her father, portrait photographer Jacob Becker.  The photographer operated a studio at 201 Charles Avenue, nearly adjacent to where the Massillon Museum is today.  For young Nell Becker, her fondest childhood memories were those spent with her father in the darkroom, a place she called “a magical world.” 

Nell graduated from Massillon High School in 1910 and shortly thereafter married Thomas Koons.  Within two years, the couple had two daughters, and moved to Miami in the hopes that Thomas could find work in real estate.  While in Miami, a third daughter was born.  Thomas was inducted into the Army during World War I, and was stationed nearby the couple’s Miami home.  With Thomas consumed and Nell home with three young girls, the marriage was strained.  Jacob Becker sold his Massillon studio in 1920 to help his daughter establish a darkroom in her Florida garage. 

The 1920s proved difficult for Nell; she and her husband grew increasingly distant and divorced in 1926.  For a brief period of time, she and her daughters lived on a houseboat.  She found comfort in photography and friends.  The isolated Keys provided Nell a kind of exile in which she could create freely.  She surrounded herself with picturesque settings, such as the wild, tropical beauty of Biscayne Bay in Miami, Florida, thick with mangroves (plants grown in saline—or salty—soils) and seagrape trees.  These locations put her in close proximity with nature and provided endless inspiration.  The rich history of pirate lore, teal waters teeming with marine life, and exotic fruits and fauna awakened and rejuvenated Nell.

She enjoyed photographing children, who sometimes assumed the roles of mythical woodland creatures or costumed characters in an imaginary kingdom.  Friends and their children would accompany Nell and her daughters on daylong excursions in the Keys.  Nell—who had a penchant for fantasy—enjoyed pretending the children were fairies, and would spend entire days with her muses sailing amidst the idyllic wilderness of the Keys, camera equipment in tow, free of inhibitions or distractions from the modern world.  One can imagine how the surreal mangroves provided inspiration for Nell, trees springing forth in large, canopied clusters from the tropical waters.  Whisking back and forth between pristine beaches and the twisting roots and limbs of the mangroves, the nautical explorers would become so immersed in their make-believe roles that, by the end of the day, they would ask, “But we’re not really tree-fairies, are we, Nell?”

In 1930, Nell opened a studio in New York, but continued to visit Miami.  She published a book of her Florida photographs in 1933 titled Mangroves: Verse and Photographs.  Later that year, she would meet and befriend Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.  Although she admired contemporaries like Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, and Cartier-Bresson, her style was not of the era during which she photographed; her

romantic images harkened to an earlier time, and might be compared to those of Pictorialists like Julia Margaret Cameron.

Nell found a kindred spirit in John Van Nostrand Dorr, whom she met in New York City and married in 1935.  Nell continued to exhibit and publish her work with support and encouragement from her husband.  In a Blue Moon (1939) featured photographs from Key Largo, and is a nostalgic portrait of Nell’s time in Florida.  The Dorrs would eventually settle on the East Coast, owning properties in New Hampshire and Connecticut. 

The Florida Keys Today

The Keys experienced by Nell Dorr are today a much different place.  Rapid development of the coast threatens the once thick and vibrant mangrove habitats, which not only provide beauty to the landscape but are essential in protecting communities from storm surges and erosion.  Efforts to replenish the plant life are occurring, however.  In 1996, Florida enacted the Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act to initiate replanting efforts and to regulate the alteration of mangroves.  Environmental stewardship programs and conservation of the area’s natural resources is a priority for the tourism councils in the Florida Keys, and eco-travel and eco-attractions are encouraged.  A number of museums assume leadership roles as designated conservation and preservation sites.

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