Robertson Kirtland Mygatt; Philadelphia Collection 74; March 2005

figure 7
fig. 7
The use of the term sketch to describe Mygatt’s small paintings is misleading, because it implies that he executed them in a rapid, spontaneous manner. William H. Gerdts, however, has noted how craftsmanship and technique were significant aspects of the Tonalist aesthetic, and Mygatt was no exception.21 He composed his small landscapes meticulously and used a variety of techniques. The artist achieved highly textured surfaces by carefully applying multiple glazes. Often he left the panel’s wood grain visible beneath the paint layers to heighten the visual effect of rural fields strewn with rocks and leaves. Occasionally he used the end of his paintbrush to incise the forms of pictorial elements such as tree trunks and branches. Mygatt also rendered the sky in a manner calculated to evoke specific seasons and weather conditions, and to provide a textural contrast with the landscape details below.

figure 8
fig. 8
Mygatt seldom included human figures in his compositions, and whenever they do appear they are dwarfed by their surroundings. His subjects are instead “civilized landscapes” that contain unobtrusive signs of human activity—farmhouses, stone fences, cultivated fields—by which nature has been domesticated. The artist favored the horizontal format because it was conducive to his penchant for using the horizon line to divide the composition into clearly delineated sections of sky and earth that he punctuated with carefully placed trees. There are some notable exceptions to this pattern, however: the two-dimensional Summer Landscape at Dusk (figure 8) is distinguished by its nearly abstract, decorative quality; Forest Interior (figure 7) is filled with foliage and thus devoid of a horizon line; and the unusually atmospheric Sunset Marine is reminiscent of the marine scenes of Joseph M. W. Turner (1795–1851). There is little evidence of stylistic growth and development in Mygatt’s mature work, and he was certainly a follower rather than an innovator. Nevertheless, he was remarkably successful in imbuing these small, poetic landscapes with an exceptional aura of atmosphere and mystery.

—Robert Wilson Torchia

Robert Wilson Torchia is a specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art who received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. He is particularly interested in the art and history of Philadelphia, was guest curator of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's exhibition John Neagle, Portrait Painter of Philadelphia (1989), and has published a series of exhibition catalogues devoted to the Smith family, as well as articles on Thomas Eakins and Thomas Sully. He is also the author of the Systematic Catalogue of Nineteenth-Century American Painting, Volume N-Z, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1998). Torchia currently teaches art history at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas.

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