Russell Chatham 1939-2019

Moonrise Over Sweet Grass Basin by Russell Chatham, 2005


Russell Chatham (born October 27, 1939) was a contemporary American landscape artist and author who spent most of his career living in Livingston, Montana. The artist is the grandson of landscape painter Gottardo Piazzoni, though he is essentially a self-taught artist. His work has been exhibited in over 400 one man shows and in museums and galleries over the last five decades. Notable art critic Robert Hughes is numbered one of Chatham’s collectors and there are others as diverse as Paul Allen and actor Jack Nicholson. Chatham’s work eschews the narrative tendency of much western art and presents landscapes that stand in intimate relationship towards the human figure even in the absence of it. In the early 1980’s Chatham began making lithographs and now stands as one of the world’s foremost practitioners of that craft.

In addition to Lithography, Chatham also produced original oil paintings. His oil paintings currently sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and there is a multi-year waiting list for commissions, but according to his dealers, he prefers printing lithographs as the more challenging art form. (Longtime Livingston residents can recall a time when early in his career Chatham traded his canvases for essential services in a barter arrangement.) Despite being a print, Chatham’s lithographs have little to do with modern process lithography, which always starts from a photograph and typically only uses 4 colors. His art lithographs may have 30 or 40 different layers of color, all of which have to be hand drawn on to the printing plate, and the colors selected for the final effect. To see some of the early proofs of one of his prints is to see a study in vivid and unusual colors from which it is almost impossible to conceive of the final subtle shadings and quiet colors.

In addition to his work as a painter, Chatham has also authored several books. a series of short stories “Dark Waters” in which he details the exploits of his hunting friends, like the author Jim Harrison. The stories are Rabelaisian, vulgar, and exquisitely written (one suspects with a little help from his literary friends). William Hjortsberg disputed this during a presentation in Livingston on 9/12/2008. “He is quite a good writer in his own right,” Hjortsberg said. They center on hunting, fly fishing, food, wine and life changes. One story centers around preparing roast duck on an annual outing devoted solely to excess. In addition to “Dark Waters’, Chatham authored several books about fly fishing.

In 2011, Chatham moved from Livingston back to California. He had a studio in Point Reyes, California and created until the very end of his life

Russell David Chatham passed away with his family in California, Nov, 10, 2019.

Curt Hanson 1949-2017

Back in the early 70’s I came across an essay and catalogue by Robert Herbert which accompanied an exhibition called Barbizon Revisited. I never saw the show and the reproductions in the little book where not very good but it caught my interest. It led to a growing interest in what is called the Barbizon School and what later became referred to as tonalist painting here in America. This basically set the course of my life work over the past 45 years. There is something about the somber quite mood of the tonalist landscape that has never left me even though impressionism and open air painting has had its affect on my development. Now, most of the work is done in the studio, beginning with a wash of thin transparent layers of tone and then a process of layering and scumbling and adding heavier paint if it is called for.  It is not so much based on what is actually seen as I was doing when I was younger as it is a visual poem that may have reference to a particular view. The decisions about what goes in, what is left out or when to leave off, comes more from the painting itself and not from the fleeting conditions of working directly from nature. This is not to say that fine work can not be done painting directly from nature but there comes a point when it is time to step back and let the painting speak on its own terms.The purpose of the work is to convey a certain feeling. That feeling in this case is a quite mood. A reflective mood. Sometime melancholy but with a sense of peace about it. That is what I took away from those tonalist paintings many years ago and caused an investigation to a deeper place than only appearances.
Curt Hanson
October 16, 2012

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