I know many New Englanders who despise this time of year, but I’m not one of them. Even in January, you’ll rarely hear me pine for the return of summer. I keep better in the cold. For me, summer can feel like an endless stream of sticky, steamy, listless days, when even the air lies heavily upon my skin. But winter’s harsh snap gets my attention like the hard thwack of a schoolmarm’s ruler. I feel alert, alive, and in the moment. While summer’s sun can scorch, in winter it warms; low on the horizon, it strikes the landscape askance, elongating shadows and illuminating the bones of leafless trees set against frozen earth. If it sounds stark, it is–but therein lies its odd appeal.
Still, winter’s cold comfort can be hard to grasp by the soul, mind, and body. It’s even harder to capture its beauty on canvas. New England painter Aldro T. Hibbard managed to do that skillfully and superbly–perhaps better than anyone else in 20th-century America. Born in 1886 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and raised in Boston and on Cape Cod, A. T. Hibbard became one of the most successful American landscape painters of his time. He’s best remembered for quintessential New England scenes: the rocky coast of Cape Ann and, most notably, snowy vistas of Vermont’s countryside.
Ironically, in his youth this winter painter was a celebrated “boy of summer.” A gifted baseball player, he was recruited by several pro teams, but chose instead to pursue his dreams as an artist. Hibbard trained at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art & Design) and later at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, under the tutelage of luminaries such as Edmund Tarbell, Frank W. Benson, Frederick Bosley, and Joseph DeCamp. There followed a stint in Europe, cut short by the advent of the Great War. In 1920, he moved to Rockport, Massachusetts, and established the Rockport Art Association the following year. Summering on Cape Ann, Hibbard spent his winters in Jamaica, Vermont, in the West River Valley.
There he created some of his most beautiful works, depicting frozen farm fields, snowy mountains, winding river views, and scenes of logging and maple sugaring.
“A. T. Hibbard’s Vermont landscapes are all about snow, light, and shadow,” notes Robin Starr, director of American and European art at Skinner Auctioneers & Appraisers. “He was constantly playing with aspects of light and temperature and how they affect each other: winter light on snow, with a little violet thrown in; sunlight illuminating ice on a pond, with water moving below it; bright sunlight on a crisp day and how it differs from late-afternoon light in the middle of a pine forest.”
Hibbard’s ability to detect and portray these subtle differences in tone, texture, and temperature made his oil canvases exceptional. He achieved realness by spending long hours painting outdoors–no small feat in wintry Vermont–enabling him to capture the fleeting light and exaggerated shadows that come only from nature, and only during the bleakest months of the year.
Hibbard died in 1972, but owing to his commercial success and a long, prolific career, you’ll find his works at auctions and art shows and available through dealers. Prices for a Hibbard, especially his earlier works, can be daunting. Values vary from the $7,000 to $10, 000 range to more than $88,000–a world-record price for a Hibbard, set at a Skinner auction in February 2012.
If this winter finds you longing for summer’s warmth, take heart in how Hibbard found inspiration in the light of that frozen landscape outside your window–“cold comfort” indeed.