The locks at Panama signed and dated 'Alson Clark 13.' (lower left) oil on canvas 51 1/2 x 38 1/2in overall: 62 3/4 x 49 3/4in Painted in 1913
Provenance With Ulrike Kantor Gallery, Los Angeles, California
Exhibited Pasadena, California Institute of Technology, circa 1980.
A skilled landscape painter, Alson Skinner Clark, was strongly influenced by French Impressionism adopted plein-air techniques, ambient lighting, and an enigmatic painterly hand. Classically trained stateside as well as in France, Clark embraced the subtle palette of Impressionism, and was heartily influenced by James McNeill Whistler. Clark was a devoted world traveler and lived in several foreign countries before settling in Southern California in 1922 and befriending fellow painter, Guy Rose. Adventurous and determined, he developed his artistic range by completing several murals, in tandem working as an art educator at Pasadena's Stickney Art School. Clark most emblematic works include rural landscapes, industrial scenes, urban interiors, and figure studies of his wife whom served as his central muse.
Clark's comfortable living situation in Southern California did not inhibit his penchant for worldly exploration, frequently traveling to the Southwest and Central America. The Locks at Panama painting demonstrates Clark's accuracy and attention to industrialized cityscapes, with masterful execution of atmospheric nuances and the subtle use of color that transforms a historically treacherous construction site into a serene setting through the implementation of pastel purples, green, and blue hues.
The Panama Canal lock system, considered a titan of engineering for its time, propelled maritime commerce into the modern era. The first vessel passed through the locks on August 15, 1914, facilitating a more expedient and safer route, bypassing the previous Cape Horn course located at the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage, also known as the Strait of Magellan. A manufactured connection of the Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean carved out of the forbidding and treacherous terrain of the Colombian Province, required the financial efforts of several nations and thirty-three years to complete. The French government broke ground on the canal in 1881, however failed to advance the construction due to engineering failures, unstable mountains, torrential rainstorms, and hundreds of worker fatalities due to disease. The United States purchased the canal in 1904 and it took an additional decade to finalize the project.
As the Panama Canal was nearing completion in 1913, Clark ventured to Central America to memorialize this significant accomplishment. He gained full access to the construction site and painted numerous landscapes and industrial scenes, each painting exemplified his love for en plein-air, soft palette, and painterly style. At the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco eighteen landscapes from this series were exhibited in a solo room and where Clark won a bronze medal.
The artistic representation of the construction of the great canal, in The Locks at Panama, pays homage to the human investment, innovation, and persistence needed to actualize the monumental structure. Miniscule figures meander through the foreground, dwarfed by industrial forms, metal structures, and hulking retaining walls. Clark utilized a soft, ethereal palette applied with painterly expressionism evoking an atmospheric quality capturing the ephemeral light of dawn. The juxtaposition of the grand proportion of industrial design and soft-hued palette enhances the legendary sacrifice to complete one of the modern wonders of the world.
R.L. Westphal, Plein Air Painters of California, The Southland, Irvine, 1988, p. 9, illustrated in color.
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