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Benjamin Champney

Benjamin Champney: White Mountain wildflowers by Benjamin Champney

White Mountain wildflowers by Benjamin Champney

American

1817 - 1907

Benjamin Champney is virtually synonymous with the White Mountain School.

He was born in 1817 in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, near the state’s border with Massachusetts. His early training was as a lithographer under noted maritime artist Fitz Henry Lane at Pendleton’s Lithography shop in Boston. He first visited the North Conway area of New Hampshire, nestled in the White Mountains, in 1838. Under the advice of American painter Washington Allston, Champney spent much of the next decade studying and traveling throughout Europe, often accompanied by Hudson River School painter John Frederick Kensett. 

The two traveled together to North Conway in 1850 and were immediately drawn to the grandeur of the area, where bucolic villages were buttressed against untamed wilderness. Like the Hudson River Valley, the White Mountain region exemplified the natural beauty of the American landscape, a source of pride for the young country still establishing its national identity. Romantic portrayals of these distinctly American vistas were emblematic of the country’s character, religion and philosophy of the era. Champney and Kensett encouraged fellow artists to join them in the area, a move that helped establish the White Mountain region as one of America’s first artist colonies.

The growth of the art colony was interwoven with the area’s expansion as a tourist destination. The majestic scenery that enamored artists also appealed to wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers. Soon the region was dotted with grand hotels easily accessible by rail. Because the scenic paintings they produced served as both an attractive souvenir and a way to market the area, hotels encouraged artists to work in and around the property; some even hired a full-time artist-in-residence, notably Edward Hill and Frank Henry Shapleigh. As tourism spread to an increasingly prosperous middle class of professionals, who saw art patronage as a symbol of rising economic status and cultural gentility, White Mountain art gained even more popularity, so much so that artists, Champney included, would make chromolithographs to sell to tourists who couldn’t afford originals. 

In 1853 Champney purchased a house on the Saco River between Conway and North Conway that would be his summer home, studio and school for the next fifty years. It became a popular tourist destination and also served as the social hub for area artists, helping to establish Champney as the “dean” of the burgeoning White Mountain School.

Although Champney taught Hudson River School techniques, emphasizing detail within a broad panorama, the White Mountain School is not a singular artistic approach but instead encompasses a wider range of style and method. All told, more than 400 artists including such notables Bierstadt, Bricher, Casilear and Homer are known to have painted White Mountain views in the second half of the 19th Century. Champney’s autobiography, Sixty Years’ Memories of Art and Artists, published in 1900, provides an invaluable account of that period in American art. Champney died in 1907.

Last updated: March 27, 2014

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