Frederick Ferdinand Schafer Painting Catalog

3.1 Constructing the art: Brushwork, detail, finish, and drawing

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Constructing the art

Brushwork and detail

Figure 1.
13X detail of Silver Lake
Figure 2.
8X detail of [Yosemite Valley and Bridal Veil Fall from the Valley Floor 2]
Figure 3.
7X detail of Indians in the Lava Beds
Figure 4.
8X detail of [Desert landscape with Indians and tepee I]

Schafer usually varies the level of control of the brush and the amount of detail greatly within a single picture. Background mountains, especially foothills and intermediate ranges, may be shapes developed with wide brushstrokes while foreground rocks and branches in the same painting are much more controlled and with more detail. Items that draw the attention of the eye, such as a campfire or tepee, are usually much more detailed than their surroundings, even when extremely small in the composition. In Figure 1, the blue patch at the top, a distant hillside, exhibits no detail at all. The grey-green central region, a nearby hilside, has a texture that imparts the impression of roughness and the impasto and changing direction of the brush strokes impart an intermediate level of detail. The brown patches near the bottom, the leaves of a tree, are controlled, but again with only a modest level of detail; they impart the distinct impression of foliage. (The magnifications given in the captions are relative to the image of the full painting.)


One way in which Schafer's painting style diverged strongly from the Düsseldorf school is that his paintings do not exhibit a high level of finish. Most Schafer paintings, while quite convincing when viewed at a suitable distance, do not stand close inspection. Upon a close look, a horse is discovered to have only three legs, a fishing pole isn't really there (as in Figure 2), or a branch falls apart into two or three visible, though carefully arranged, brushstrokes. In this characteristic, Schafer's work resembles that of Jasper Francis Cropsey, rather than the tight, invisible, highly finished brushwork usually associated with Hudson River painters. Impasto is often evident (as in Figure 1); the texture of the canvas is largely suppressed in a Schafer painting, although occasionally one will find the ground exposed. (In addition, to suppressing the texture of the canvas, this technique also tends to hide evidence of underlying drawings.) The brushwork often gives the impression of being laid on rapidly, an impression confirmed by an 1886 newspaper feature, in which the reporter describes the artist as "laying in trees and hills, water and snags with the most marvelous speed—his brush never stopping in its rapid flight over the canvas."1

Patricia Trenton and Peter Hassrick comment on this point that "Schafer's work was often uneven in appearance, varying in technique from meticulous brushwork to a more vigorous handling that sometimes borders on a slapdash treatment."2


Like many other landscape artists of the American west, 3 Schafer was effective at sketching grand panoramas but he seems to have been minimally skilled when it comes to drawing realistic figures of people or animals. He recognized this limitation, and usually countered it by making figures so small that detailed drawing was not required to capture the desired effect. The two people fishing in Figure two and the two women around the campfire in Figure 3 illustrate this point. In both cases, it is quite apparent what is being depicted, but the figures are faceless and have only very general shapes. The drawing is minimal, yet the coloration is remarkably effective and carries the day.

But there are occasional exceptions where he made the attempt—usually not very successfully—such as in the drawing of a horse in Figure 4, which is most unconvincing, even awkward. Incidentally, Figure 4 provides another illustration of a point made earlier: note the great difference in detail between the distant mountains and the decoration on the basket.

As already mentioned, Schafer's oil painting technique systematically hides any evidence of underlying drawing, but in at least one watercolor, [Eucalyptus grove] there is clearly an underlying pencil sketch.

[Next section: Signature inscriptions]


1. See "What is art?", San Francisco Chronicle.

2. Trenton, Patricia and Peter H. Hassrick, The Rocky Mountains, page 155.

3. For example, consider this comment about another contemporary artist: "Bierstadt discovered that he had more talent for scenery than for people, so he concentrated on landscape…" Samuels, Peggy, Harold, and Joan and Daniel Fabian, Techniques of Artists of the American West, page 26.

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Mar 10, 2024, 11:47 MDT Accessibility