Len Tantillo’s forty years of history painting has been rightfully recognized and honored by a major retrospective exhibit, A Sense of Time: The Historical Art of L.F. Tantillo (January 27-July 25, 2021), at the Albany Institute of History & Art (founded in 1791 and one of the oldest museums in the United States) that brings together a selection of over 90 works of art from 53 institutions and collectors. This enthralling exhibition in the insightful words of Tammis K. Groft, the director of the Institute, provides visitors an opportunity to travel back in time, to walk the streets of cities, towns, and fields, sail along the waterways, and even encounter difficult historical events from the past.
Len Tantillo’s career as a painter of history is rooted in his experience as an architectural student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He writes in his wonderful and personal essay, King Kong and Other Influences, included in the catalog accompanying the exhibition (available at the Institute’s museum shop) that he was astonished as a student at RISD to find that we were not only required to make drawing and paintings of our designs but to build scale models as well. Tantillo modestly writes that he hopes that he has created some Art along the way by his storytelling with pictures. Some scale models used to create paintings which tell the artist’s historic stories are also included in the exhibition.
Artist Tantillo also notes that networking with historians has been essential for me. In his essay in the exhibition’s catalog, he thanks more than a dozen scholars who have provided guidance and inspiration, including the renown historian, Dr. Charles T. Gehring, Director of the New Netherland Research Center.
Any visitor to this must-see exhibit will likely be enormously grateful to this artist’s realistic depictions of 400 years of American history rooted in New York’s Hudson Valley. And the artwork is much more than merely illustrative or realistic art. Rather, Tantillo captures the ghosts of the past by artfully stopping time; few artists accomplish that feat.
Tantillo selected all of the works in the exhibition and divided them into nine themes: Native Peoples, New Netherland, New Amsterdam, The English Colony, A New Nation, Steam Powers a Nation, Building Interest, Technology and Defense, and En Plein Air. He also provided the wording for the labels explaining the artwork on display, the basis for an extraordinary history lesson for visitors.
This museum goer (grateful for the Institute’s careful protocol during the pandemic which permitted an actual visit to the historic museum in Albany, NY) paid special attention to Tantillo’s art which includes a vivid depiction of food and agriculture in his history painting covering 400 years. In particular, the room of paintings in the gallery designated Native Peoples, which includes paintings of the earliest times included in the exhibition, before European settlement of the Hudson Valley, stopped this visitor in his tracks.
A couple of years ago, we shared a review of the extraordinary cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley. Much more than just providing recipes, Sherman recounted his personal rediscovery of the wealth of American indigenous food. His ancestors wasted nothing with everything put to use, maintaining food security through a rich knowledge of the resources of the land and rivers. The tribes were sovereign over their food systems.
In the 21st century, food sovereignty has sparked a growing movement emphasizing local food production and people’s agricultural heritage. Worldwide, Slow Food/Terra Madre and here in the Hudson Valley, the growing number of community supported agriculture (CSA) small farms reflect this reawakening. Glynwood, Center for Regional Food and Farming in Cold Spring (Putnam County), NY has established a Food Sovereignty fund which pays Hudson Valley farms that use regenerative agricultural practices to grow food for community-led food access initiatives.
Little wonder why Tantillo’s painting, Munsee Fishermen stopped me in wonderment. Long before the arrival of Europeans, Munsee Indians fished in the Hudson River for sturgeon and this extraordinary painting depicts a 250 pound sturgeon caught using a fish trap. Once upon a time, sturgeon (some the size of school buses) swam with dinosaurs in the Hudson River. How often does an art exhibition prompt a visitor to say Wow?
In the same Native Peoples gallery, the artist depicts Pap-Scan-Ee, a Native Mahican site, which includes a wigwam, an oval hut, and hearths of the Mahican people along Papscanee Creek, an inlet of the Hudson River a few miles south of Albany. This time-stopping painting was created using archaeological data gathered in 1996 and 1997 by Archaeological Research Specialists and Hartgen Archaeological Associates, Inc. The painting’s label also notes that after 400 years, corn is still grown on this very same land. The painting captures the Indigenous agricultural practice called the Three Sisters. Cornstalks supporting climbing beans with squash spreading out at the base to ward off competing weeds was a smart and simple way to grow the ingredients for wholesome succotash.
And the stunning nocturnal snowscape, Winter in the Valley of the Mohawk, depicts a Mohawk community of about 200 people in the early 1600s. On a cold winter day, two weary hunters on snowshoes are returning to their longhouse with their hunting catch, a turkey.
The New Netherland gallery includes a history painting of one of the oldest European settlements in America, Fort Orange, 1635. Colonists from the Netherlands constructed Fort Orange in order to carry on fur trading with the Indigenous peoples. Tantillo explains he created a coherent and credible image after many meetings with historians and from several verbal descriptions, a few maps, and an archaeological dig which provided a great deal of fragmented information. The Fort was built of wood in a square configuration with a bastion at each corner. The painting also depicts fields growing crops and sheep grazing outside the Fort. In 1664, the old fort and the entire Dutch colony was captured by the English. (Since the mid-1980s, Tantillo has painted Fort Orange on the banks of the Hudson River over 14 times.)
The Beer Wagon, C. 1650 also captures the imagination of a visitor. Tantillo explains that the early colonial settlers drank beer Lots of beer. Why? Beer was preferred over water which could make you sick. The process of brewing involved boiling, and although it was not known at the time that they were killing bacteria, the preferred beverage was purer than water. Children imbibed! This beautiful painting at sunset shows a solitary rider, a sturdy horse, a simple cart, and a large barrel of beer. According to Tantillo, it would have been a common sight in New Netherland as almost anywhere in 17th century Europe.
Besides his eye on what is now the Albany area of the more northern reaches of the Hudson Valley, Tantillo also paints detailed scenes of what is now lower Manhattan, but from 1614 to 1664 was the colonial Dutch village of New Amsterdam. His painting, Hanover Square, which today lies a few blocks southeast of Wall Street, depicts in 1658 a simple unpaved street in New Amsterdam. The painted scene dated 363 years ago includes cows and chickens and a goat, an open sky, small houses, thatched barn, an older woman (perhaps a slave, the artist suggests) carrying a bundle of sticks up William Street then known as the Burgher’s Path. As with all of Tantillo’s history paintings, these are only some of the details, and the viewer gains more insight by repeating the question, What else do you see?
Earlier this month, we posted an article on the 2021 maple sugaring season getting underway in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley, and included photos of the tapped maple trees at The Mabee House in Rotterdam Junction (Schenectady County), the oldest house still standing in the Mohawk Valley. Though no surprise, it was a nifty coincidence to come upon Tantillo’s The Mabee Farm painting, depicting the farm as it appeared in the late 18th Century, in the exhibition’s A New Nation section. Tantillo shows the family of Jacob Mabee busy with daily farm duties as a slave named Cato plows one of the family’s many crop fields. The artist’s attention to detail includes the use of a plow based on an actual Dutch plow discovered nearby and currently on display at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown (Otsego County), New York.
One of the most beautiful paintings included in the exhibition is Tantillo’s The Bridge, which reflects the artist’s roots as an architectural student in its careful depiction of a simple bridge creating access to cultivated fields on the other side of a creek. Tantillo notes: Heavy timbers and planks on a footing of field stones may not be the most sophisticated design alternative, but serves the purpose and adds to the textural elegance of a pragmatic 18th century farmstead.
Strawberry Pickers is an image that will stay with this viewer with its masterful depiction of the backbreaking labor of farm work. Depicting a scene set in the depression of the 1930s, Tantillo writes how picking fruit is hard work anytime and his painting set in a strawberry patch near Catskill (Greene County) was his way to convey the effort needed to work for hours and hours, enduring pain, snakes, and bad weather, just to get on with your life and keep food on the table.
A Sense of Time: The Historical Art of L.F. Tantillo will be on display at the Albany Institute of History & Art (125 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12210, Phone: 518-463-4478) until July 25, 2021.
(Frank W. Barrie, 3/22/21)