Collection Spotlight: June, 2024

Whiteface Mountain, Adirondacks

Thomas Doughty (American, 1793–1856)
Whiteface Mountain, Adirondacks, c. 1830–1837
Oil on canvas, 18″ x 24”

Thomas Doughty was among the first American artists to paint the landscape as a subject worthy on its own. Although Doughty is considered a forerunner of the Hudson River School, the lack of exaggerated grandeur in his paintings allies him closely with the English romantic landscape. Yet, critics sometime accused him of being too imaginative and not accurate enough, which would seem to put him ahead of his time. He sometimes combined elements from different landscapes in one painting, making it difficult to specifically identify some of his many painting locales in New York and New England.

One example of Doughty’s work that is in the museum’s permanent collection, Whiteface Mountain, Adirondacks, has been cataloged with a title indicating a recognizable peak in northern New York. Whiteface Mountain has distinct geological features and has been painted by other Hudson River School painters, including Sanford Robinson Gifford [i].

At 4,867 feet, Whiteface Mountain is the fifth-highest mountain in New York. It is located north of Lake Placid, in Wilmington. According to Native Land Digital, it is in the Indigenous territories of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee-ga (Haudenosaunee) and Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) [ii].

In the center of the composition, a brilliant white summit rises over the timberline, toward the clouds. Lush foliage flanks a river at both sides, the left edge bathed in sunlight and the right receding into shadow, contrasting the mountain in the distance. The boat and figures punctuate the scene below, and the figures appear diminutive in scale compared to their surroundings, emphasizing the awesomeness of the natural environment.

A viewer unfamiliar with the depicted locale may see a snow-capped peak, and they may not be wrong (despite the scene indicating, with its lush green foliage, that winter is months behind us). Meteorological records indicate that snow commonly lasted into summer on peaks in in the Adirondacks, a detail substantiated by Curt Stager, professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College in a New York Times article titled Snow in June? It’s Forecast for the Adirondacks:

“He pointed to the writing of the explorer Samuel de Champlain, who, after exploring the lake that would eventually bear his name in July 1609, wrote that he saw mountains to the east that were covered in snow [iii].”

Keeping that in mind, this particular mountain’s peak appears white even after the snow has melted, and its namesake refers to this characteristic geological feature:

“Many of [the Adirondack mountains], including Whiteface, are formed primarily from gabbroic anorthosite, an igneous rock with fewer dark crystals, making it almost white. [Centuries of erosion and, in more recent history,] landslides have exposed long stretches of the light anorthosite on its slopes [iv].”

Originally a leather currier, and largely self-taught as an artist, Doughty moved from his native Philadelphia to New England for a short time in the 1830s. Here he showed his pictures at the Boston Athenaeum. He also was the first teacher of Sophia Hawthorne, the wife of Nathaniel, who learned to paint by copying Doughty’s work. The Art Complex Museum’s permanent collection features a second painting by Doughty entitled View on Long Island, New York, c. 1840s.

Thomas Doughty’s painting Whiteface Mountain, Adirondacks, c. 1830–1837, will be on view in the museum’s Founders Room.


[i] Gifford, S. R. (1866). Whiteface Mountain from Lake Placid [oil on canvas] Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. americanart.si.edu; SAAM. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/whiteface-mountain-lake-placid-9005

[ii] Native Land Digital. (2021, October 8). https://native-land.ca/

[iii]Rosenberg, E. (2016, June 7). Snow in June? it’s forecast for the Adirondacks. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/08/nyregion/snow-in-june-its-forecast-for-the-adirondacks.html

[iv] Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, University at Albany, State University of New York. (n.d.). History of the ASRC Whiteface Mountain Field Station. History of the ASRC whiteface mountain field station. https://whiteface.asrc.albany.edu/history.html

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