William Frederick de Haas’s coastal scenes put forward a pictorial language of serenity, silence, and solitude. Born in Holland, de Haas studied at The Hague and moved to the United States at the age of twenty-four. Armed with the precepts of Dutch painting, he turned his attention to the American coast. He worked in New York’s Tenth Street Studio Building alongside his brother Mauritz, his fellow Dutchman Kruseman Van Elten, and the leading artists of the Hudson River School, and became one of the nineteenth century’s few marine specialists. His expansive scenes of Maine, Long Island, and Newfoundland provide an important bridge between the Dutch tradition and the Luminist movement then emerging in American art.
Created in 1876, at the height of his career, Shoreline with Baskets and Boats combines the transcendental light of Luminism with the timeless tranquility of the Dutch Golden Age. The American art scholar Barbara Novak has consistently argued that seventeenth-century Dutch art served as an important precedent for the American Luminists.[i] Novak explains that the straight horizons, open-ended compositions, and direct observation that fueled Dutch landscapes laid the foundation for Luminist design.[ii] In turn, the Luminists modified the Dutch mode to fit a more classical paradigm of geometric structure and balance.[iii] De Haas’s painting occupies an intermediate space in the evolution of Luminism, maintaining Dutch principles while embracing American order.
Shoreline unfurls on a wide, open plane, conveying a sense of limitless space. A ring of distant houses and boats and a lone basket on the beach are the only elements to dispel the endless stretch of sand, sea, and sky. De Haas fits each object into the prevailing structure of the scene: the houses and boats are positioned directly along the horizon line, while the basket is tipped at the angle of the breakers, extending the diagonal opposition to the horizon. Rigorous alignment was an essential property of Luminist work, underpinning the seascapes of Alfred Thompson Bricher and the coastal scenes of John Frederick Kensett.[iv]
To the horizontal/diagonal construction of Luminism, de Haas adds the vertical element of the vaporous clouds.[v] The clouds extend the boundless reach of sea and sky, creating a strong central axis from which the landscape expands in both directions. The exceedingly low horizon, cumulus clouds, and prominent sky are classic Dutch (but not Luminist) elements that de Haas reappropriates to increase the transcendental proportions of Luminism.[vi] The development follows Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of “celestial geometry,” which the Luminists turned into “a conceptual mathematics of ordering.”[vii] De Haas returns this conceptual order to the celestial realm, where an hourglass arrangement of clouds posits solid against void and vapor against light—confounding positive and negative space in the abstractions of universal design.
A manifestation of natural and artistic order, Shoreline embodies the central paradox of Luminism, in which the artist’s personal response to nature leads to an Emersonian transcendence of the self.[viii] In its individual interpretation of the Dutch and Luminist traditions, Shoreline celebrates the universal nature of art, isolating the moment when American painting merged with international practice. De Haas’s work demonstrates that Luminism itself was timeless in nature, appropriating historical traditions in the service of transcendental vision.
De Haas exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design and the Brooklyn Art Association between 1867 and 1880. Today his work is in the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, as well as the collections of the Cortland Free Library and Wells College in New York.
[i] Novak lays out this argument in Barbara Novak, “Introduction: Nature’s Art,” in Nineteenth Century American Painting (New York: Artabras in association with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, 1986), 28; Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875, rev. ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 232; Barbara Novak, “On Defining Luminism,” in John Wilmerding, American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press and the National Gallery of Art, 1989), 24.
[ii] Novak, Nineteenth Century American Painting, 28.
[iii] Novak in Wilmerding, 24.
[iv] Lisa Fellows Andrus, “Design and Measurement in Luminist Art,” Wildmerding, 30–68.
[v] Andrus argues that the tension between the diagonal and the horizontal creates “the major formal interest” of Luminist paintings. Wilmerding, 49.
[vi] In her comparison of the Dutch and Luminist modes, Novak points out that “generally, the Luminists tend to stress the horizontal axis even more, with less space allotted to skies. Cloud formations in the Luminist works are less prominent—cirrus rather than cumulus—if they appear at all. See Novak, Nature and Culture, 233.
[vii] Novak, Nineteenth Century American Painting, 29.
[viii] Novak, Nineteenth Century American Painting, 29.