Notes on Landscape Painting, Sentimentality and Denial

by Gail Spaien

Throughout my career I have explored the intersection of nature and culture guided by the question – how do I bring the natural world into a static gallery setting? So last year, when Interim Director, Andy Verzosa asked me to exhibit work in the 2017 season, my first thought was to develop a series inspired by the physical experience I have when I walk into the great hall of the museum —a sensation of walking into an architectural space that is both inside and outside at the same time.  

LEFT: Gail Spaien, “Serenade 6,” 34×36″, acrylic on linen, 2017

Here are some notes that I made throughout the year in preparation for my exhibition Serenade.

1. A painting is an object that functions as a window, a decoration and as a thing that can transform one’s surroundings and psychological state.

2. Landscape paintings emphasize the fact that walls separate us from nature. Hanging pictures of the outdoors on the walls of a home makes a room feel larger by adding a vista that connects one to the natural world.

3. As a handmade simulation of the environment, landscape paintings offer respite, escape and an opportunity to sit, look and contemplate.

4. Because I believe our times are asking for places to pause and neutralize strong emotion I paint the world as I would like it to be — a place where emotions remain light.  In doing so, I consider the idea that denial is a productive state. Translating the sensations of the world around me, my paintings depict an idealized view of nature and a denial of unpleasant things.

5. I choose landscape and still life as subject matter and invite the viewer to experience a painting as an object that holds an opportunity for renewal, physical intimacy and affective power.

6. “Just as Norman Rockwell painted pictures of middle class America as it wanted to see itself, many artists today draw on sentimental iconography to represent the world as they wish it could be or as they long to remember it.  Inherent to this earnest sentimental imagery is the yearning to transcend a disturbing or mundane reality for a sweeter, gentler existence.”(1).   (1)Nick Capasso, Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art, catalog essay, DeCordova Museum, 2005)

7. Objects and images that have a sentimental quality are not concerned with beauty or longing or strong emotions. Sentimentality neutralizes emotion to a safe strength. Sentimental imagery and aesthetic pleasure for it’s own sake is a way to express life’s poignancy.

8. I think a lot about what I am seeing how to get others to see.

9. Exacting placement is essential.  I spend hours moving one flower here and there to get it just right.  My purview is limited to what I want to see.  Perception is controlled. All chaotic parts are eliminated.  I have to consciously remind myself to let things over lap because I’m inclined to have every shape isolated from every other shape.

10. Painting is a physical manifestation of life.  In the best case it brings us in closer contact with what it means to be alive, to be human and heightens our awareness about that which is not visible.

11. Painting is the enactment of pure freedom.  It is the enactment of denial, escape and pleasure. It is the enactment of uncertainty and visual display of process.

12. Painting is a philosophical pursuit because it involves deep focus and thinking involves deep focus as well.  Deep focus is akin to prayer.  Painting and philosophy are just other ways of being involved in prayer. It is the enactment of deep thought.

13. I am a painter of seasons.  I want to be more than a painter of seasons yet being from New England — what else is there to paint about really?

14. The progression of my art mirrors the arc of my life. Personal experiences of loss and my integration of those losses underlie the content of my paintings. My core inquiry as an artist – how do I give form to life’s poignancy?

15. My work is humanistic and as such is concerned with emotion. Well-being and mortality, pleasure and sorrow are the reoccurring themes that are referenced. Daily life is at the heart of my content.

16.The artists of Ukiyo-e, samplers, mourning paintings, botanical watercolors and Japanese embroidery; Early American portraiture and the epic landscapes of the Hudson River school; Dutch still life painters, American Folk Art traditions, decorative and hobby techniques, Giotto, Walt Disney, digital animation, and American painters like Florene Stettheimer, Arthur Dove, Milton Avery, Helen Torr, Agnes Martin, Horace Pippin are artworks I look at again and again. Repetitive handwork, genre painting and the charm of the New England landscape are core sources. Labor, dignity, humility and integrity are regional values and ones that are manifest in my paintings.

17.My artistic lineage includes the Impressionists and Post Impressionists – Rousseau, Monet, Morandi, and Bonnard and contemporary artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Jane Freilicher, Chris Martin, Anne Craven and William Wiley.







Henry Rousseau, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” 129.5×200.7 cm, oil on canvas, 1897.
Giorgio Morandi, “Still Life,” 21×24 inches, oil on canvas, 1946, London, Tate. not in exhibition. reproduced from Resistance and Memory, p.9 (c)Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008.
Jane Freilicher, “Jar of Forsythia,” 1990.
Ann Craven, “Dear and Daises (Life of the Fawn), 72×108 inches, oil on canvas, 2004, courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Macaroni, New York.


Thanks for sharing this note. I’m glad I read it. Landscape painting seems to be top notch and most popular in painting. I’ll bookmark this page for further reading.

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