JACKSON — Getting the “big picture” has never been a problem for either art collector/Jackson Historical Society President Warren Schomaker or local landscape painter Erik Koeppel.
Over the past year, they have worked to ensure that a sizable piece of art will be celebrated for years to come by lovers of White Mountain School paintings and the ruggedly beautiful White Mountains landscape.
Measuring 6½ by 11¼ feet, Koeppel’s impressive oil painting “Autumn in the White Mountains” shows the northern Presidentials as seen from the new Glen House hotel in Pinkham Notch.
The monumental artwork, which was commissioned by museum members and other art-loving donors, was set to be unveiled Friday night at a reception at the Jackson Historical Society’s Museum of White Mountain Arts located in the 1879-built former Jackson Town Hall.
The reception also kicked off the society’s 17th annual art sale, with 71 paintings on consignment from private collectors.
The sale is set to continue through the weekend and beyond, as long as there are paintings left to sell. (See related story on page 10. To see the online catalog, jacksonhistory.org/artshow.)
But the star of the show is Koeppel’s painting.
According to the 95-year-old Schomaker: “This visual centerpiece of the museum will draw visitors from afar. Its presence is a testament to the Jackson Historical Society’s desire to make the society and Jackson a center for the display and appreciation of White Mountain Art.”
On a recent tour of the museum, Schomaker showed off the painting, which is believed to be the largest example of White Mountain School of Art in the world.
It is bigger even than 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt’s “Emerald Pool,” which hangs in the Chrysler Museum of Norfolk, Va., and measures 76½ by 119½ inches and was painted in 1870.
“Emerald Pool” is about the same size as Thomas Hill’s “The Willey Slide of Crawford Notch.”
Painted in 1872, that work hangs at the New Hampshire Historical Society’s museum in Concord and measures 72 by 124 inches.
“The Hill painting of the Willey Slide of 1826 is probably a foot shorter and two or three inches less in height than this new painting,” said the 39-year-old Koeppel.
The “Big Picture Project” began nearly a year ago, when Schomaker approached Koeppel about painting an epic work.
“It was my wish to see Jackson benefit from having a beautiful painting like this,” said Schomaker, who has been at the forefront of many Jackson improvement efforts during his 23 years in the village, after he and wife Leslie moved there from Kennebunkport, Maine.
Jackson projects Schomaker has been involved with include the dismantling, storing and relocating of the Trickey Barn — it became the public library in 2011 — and transforming the onetime town hall into the museum in 2008.
Of Koeppel’s achievement, Schomaker said: “I want to have people come here and see it and tell their friends.
“From now on, we’ll be on the map, so to speak, for people who want to see something beautiful, and remember Jackson and just keep coming.”
The logistics of such an endeavor were naturally very complicated, Warren and Leslie Schomaker told the Sun this week.
Koeppel had to build a stretcher with an aluminum frame. In addition, he built an easel that could lift the painting 3 feet off the ground, which helped him paint the lower parts of the picture. It also ensured the painting could be lowered to the floor when Koeppel brushed on the sky.
In the early stage of sketching out the scene, Koeppel had to attach 3-foot wooden dowels to his brushes so he could stand far enough from the painting to take in the entire view while working.
In preparation for the project, Koeppel made a series of drawings and small-to-midsize versions. Some of these are included in the society’s current sale. Koeppel’s “Mount Adams in Autumn,” for example, measures 21 by 36 inches. It is priced at $11,500.
“You can see similarities between this painting and the larger piece, but there are differences,” said Koeppel. “In the final painting, you’ll notice figures that are either not in the smaller ‘Mount Adams in Autumn’ painting or are in different poses.
“In the big painting, for instance,” he continued, “you’ll see the figure of a man standing in the foreground, with his hand held up toward the mountains. In the smaller painting, his arms are at his side.”
Koeppel said he raised the man’s arm in the final painting “because it spoke out to me that that is what was right; that he is either waving to a woman in the distance, or maybe he is, like us, so enthralled by nature’s beauty that he is taking it all in.
“It was one of the final things I did to the final painting,” he added, “and it seemed to complete it.”
To make such a large display possible, the Jackson Historical Society had to make some physical adjustments — a wall had to be built to hold the painting, and a hole had to be cut above a door to get the frame, which was made in Rhode Island, into the building.
Koeppel and the society worked with Mike Weeder and his Tamarack Construction of Jackson crew (who were also heavily involved with the Jackson barn/library project). New track lighting also was installed.
Koeppel rented a truck from Penske in Glen to move the unframed canvas to the museum, where Tamarack’s crews brought it, at an angle, through the enlarged door opening.
The painting’s frame, which cost $15,000 alone, was then attached to the wall.
Back to the painting itself. Although Koeppel paints in the detailed style of the White Mountain School (1820s to early 1900s), he says he is not out to create a photographic rendition of the scenery.
“In order to make art, you really have to do what’s in your heart, to do what you really feel,” he said.
Leading a tour of the Jackson museum’s second floor, where three of Koeppel’s paintings, including one depicting the Willey House Slide of 1826 in Crawford Notch. are displayed, Koeppel said he prefers to paint en plein air, or on location.
In recent years, he also has begun to do more sketching in the field. “If I could, I would be doing that nonstop,” he said.
“Recently, I have been drawing outside more, and just doing the painting from drawings.”
The advantage of doing that, he said, “is you can cover a lot more ground; a nice drawing can be done in anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, whereas a painting study can take three or four hours.
“So if I wanted to go on an eight-hour hike, or a more dramatic loop, I can just bring a small sketchbook and you know, doodle away.”
With his landscape paintings, including “Autumn in the White Mountains,” Koeppel said he plays more with the foreground while composing elements that point to the feeling he is trying to get across.
For example, “with the big painting, I added the figure of the man and then changed it have his arm raised, as we discussed earlier. Those things help the viewer to understand the beautiful experience that I find when I see those mountains — so it’s like the painting is a communication between me and the viewer.
“It’s like someone trying to write a poem about the mountains — they’re not going to write about it scientifically; they’re not going to write what angles they looked at the mountains, you know? They’re not going to write a scientific analysis of the landscape — they’re going to give a human analysis, a human experience.”
A 1998 graduate of Kennett High School, and the son of late Wentworth Inn owner and Swiss native Fritz Koeppel, Erik Koeppel has gained a national reputation for painting in the realistic style of the 19th-century landscape artists.
The Guild of Boston Artists, for example, writes on its website, guildofbostonartists.org, that Erik “at the age of 10 settled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he drew obsessively from nature and began to develop a love for the expressive potentials of traditional representation.”
Koeppel received his formal training from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in 2002. He then studied at the New York Academy of Art, getting a master’s of fine arts degree in 2004. He also has apprenticed in Wiscasset, Maine, with his professor and friend, Seaver Leslie.
By now, Koeppel has developed a body of work that has been exhibited and collected internationally, and represented across the United States.
His utilization of traditional techniques has led him to become one of only a few contemporary artists whose work is regularly exhibited with 19th- and early 20th-century masters. Koeppel’s work has hung next to that of Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Edgar Degas, John Frederick Kensett and George Inness. The American Artist, PleinAir Magazine, The American Art Review and other publications all have featured his work.
Koeppel moved back to Jackson from the New York City area in 2010. Thereafter, he worked to bring artists from the Grand Central Academy of Art in the Queens borough of New York to Jackson for summer painting camps.
He said the White Mountain School of Art style touches his soul.
“I am a deep lover of the beauty of nature,” he said. “I find that when I take in a beautiful stretch of scenery, my mind goes to a profound meditative state where I can appreciate the smallness of my life in comparison with its grandeur.
“I feel the same way when I take in a beautiful painting. Great paintings capture that human experience of nature.”
With “Autumn in the White Mountains,” he takes special pride in being part of the Jackson Historical Society’s “big picture.”
“I am incredibly honored to have been asked to do this project,” Koeppel said. “I’ve admired the large-scale masterpieces of the 19th-century American landscape painters for a long time, and it is very exciting to have the opportunity to make my contribution.
“It is particularly touching to have the Jackson Historical Society supported by so many private donors for this project, and to have the painting remain a part of our community here in Jackson,” he added. “I consider this the greatest milestone of my career to date.”
According to the Schomakers, Koeppel discounted his fee significantly for “Autumn in the White Mountains”; however, construction, lighting, frame and other expenses increased the project cost.
The society continues to seek donations for the Big Picture Project.
“We are fortunate that many members, as well as art lovers from well beyond the valley, have contributed to make this possible,” said Leslie. “A permanent plaque will be installed thanking the donors. Others can be added to the plaque by making a donation. There is still time for people to donate and become involved,” she said.
For more information, call the Jackson Historical Society at (603) 383-4060 or go to jacksonhistory.org. Hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends or by appointment. To learn more about Koeppel’s work, go to erikkoeppel.com.