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Revealing Storm King’s Beauty: Unsung Painter Brings Mountain’s Majesty to Light

Well after landscape painting fell out of favor, one regionally-tied artist continued to draw inspiration from an impressive Hudson mountain.

by Reed Sparling
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Storm King Mountain was a popular subject for Thomas Cole and other artists associated with the 19th-century Hudson River School of painting. They would have agreed with Yale art historian Vincent Scully, who during his 1966 testimony supporting Scenic Hudson’s foundational campaign to protect this Hudson Highlands landmark so eloquently described it as “a dome of living granite” representing “a primitive embodiment of the energies of the earth.”

But in the 20th century, depictions of Storm King (and landscape painting in general) fell out of favor with prominent artists. They were more interested in depicting urban life and, later, with the development of Abstract Expressionism, the inner emotional landscape.

That’s why it was such a welcome surprise to find one important 20th-century painter, Gifford Beal (1879-1956), who filled numerous canvases with scenes of the valley — including several eye-popping depictions of Storm King. Not surprising, Beal had strong ties to the region.

Gifford Beal’s “Storm King,” 1914. (Painting: Gift of the Estate of Gifford Beal, Courtesy Kraushaar Galleries, New York, 2015. Photo: Steve Paneccasio / the Hudson River Museum)

Beal’s bluntly titled “Storm King,” painted in 1914 and in the collection of the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, might be the best painted equivalent of Scully’s words. The mountain practically bursts out of the canvas.

But an even more moving depiction is “On the Hudson at Newburgh.” Painted in 1918, it’s not strictly a landscape; its foreground features people saying goodbye to a company of soldiers destined for action in World War I. (“The whole city turned out to wave them off,” says City of Newburgh Historian Mary McTamaney, who researched the event.) But behind the marching soldiers and onlookers thronging a city street, Storm King (on the right) and Breakneck Ridge steal the viewer’s attention.   

The backstory of the painting is just as eye-popping as its purple-hued background — because it was lost for 75 years, lying beneath a 1924 Beal canvas called “Parade of Elephants.” The cover-up was revealed in 1999, when restorers at Washington’s Phillips Collection, which owns the work(s), untacked a corner of the circus scene and revealed the painting below, as colorful as the day it was painted.

Gifford Beal’s “On the Hudson at Newburgh,” 1918. (Image: Courtesy the Phillips Collection)

Why did Beal conceal “On the Hudson at Newburgh”? “Obviously, he didn’t care for it,” says Elizabeth Steele, head of conservation at the museum. “And he may have been out of stretchers.” Steele adds that while it’s “not a common practice” for artists to perform such cover-ups, “you wouldn’t be totally shocked.”

Beal’s affinity for the region can be traced to his parents, who owned an estate in the Balmville section of Newburgh. Their house, which still stands and is now owned by the Town of Newburgh, was dubbed “Willelyn,” a sort-of shorthand for the first names of its owners, William and Eleanor.

Along with his brother, Reynolds, also a painter, Gifford maintained a summertime studio on the top floor of the house. Its windows afford a magnificent view of the Hudson River and distant Highlands. Marjorie Phillips, a niece of the two artists (and co-creator with her husband, Duncan Phillips, of the Phillips Collection), later reminisced about the atmosphere in the studio: “Oh, the tubes of paint and the palettes. The canvases. The dedication to art,” she wrote. 

The Desmond Estate, once owned by the Beal family, in Newburgh. (Photo: Mount Saint Mary College)

From the house, Beal went on expeditions searching out subjects for his paintings. He became so renowned for his river scenes that contemporary critics considered him a worthy successor of the Hudson River School artists. “He was so talented. He had a really good eye for what was going on around him,” says McTamaney.

Beal’s father, perhaps his greatest artistic supporter, died in 1912, and his mother in 1921. Afterward, he traveled extensively. He rarely depicted the region again, focusing instead on genre scenes like “Parade of Elephants.” But he returned to the valley one final time — he’s buried in Newburgh’s Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Beal never attained “rock star” artistic status during his lifetime, although interest in his work was revived in the 1970s. Seeing Beal’s brilliant renderings of Storm King, even in reproduction, one can readily grasp his talent and appreciate all the more Scenic Hudson’s 17-year campaign to protect the “dome of living granite” that inspired him.

More in this Series

In 1825, artist Thomas Cole journeyed up the Hudson to capture the magnificence of the Catskills en plein air. This...
In the world of visual arts, painting, sculpture, video, and photography often dominate the narrative. Yet there are other forms...
Artist and scientist Hara Woltz believes that art is key to bearing witness to climate change in the Hudson Valley...
Megan Offner was surrounded by forests in her early life in Montana — yet the forests of the Hudson Valley...
Not many artists think deeply about ecology and water, but artist-writer-educator Matthew Friday has done exactly that in multidisciplinary works...
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Hudson Valley was the largest brickmaking district on the planet. Its metrics were...
Frederic Church and his fellow painters of the Hudson River School saw nature in a beautiful, romantic light. Contemporary artists...
Jean-Marc Superville Sovak was born in Montreal, the child of one parent from Trinidad and another from the Czech Republic....
The work of Newburgh-based artist Alison McNulty has taken a dizzying number of forms: sculpture, photography, drawing, video, site-responsive outdoor...
Lydia Rubio is part of a fresh wave of visual artists taking inspiration from the Hudson River — and contending...

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Hudson Valley Viewfinder is a collaborative, community digital magazine sharing what inspires us about the beautiful Hudson Valley. We publish original stories and multimedia content about all things sustainable in the region along the Hudson River — including agriculture, science, wildlife, outdoor recreation, green transportation, environmental justice, and more.

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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