PEAK EXPERIENCE Henry Isaacs paints the Himalayas

words DANIEL KANY  |  photography JOHN PRESTON

Dancing at the Picnic Grounds,
Namo Buddha,
56 x 44 inches, oil on linen
Fish Mountain, over Pokhara, Nepal
44 x 44 inches, oil on linen
Eastern Himalayas 2, Nepal
44 x 44 inches, oil on linen
Painter Henry Issacs.
Black Mountain, Summer Maine,2018
6 x 6 inches, oil on linen

Henry Isaacs has a boyish face. He grins easily, particularly when talking about encounters with people while he is out painting.

“The people,” he explains, “are often just as much of my process as my ‘notes.’ They help me find good views. They add life to my paintings. They make it fun.”

It’s easy to believe him. Isaacs, sitting on a tall stool, was painting away while effortlessly chatting with me in his Portland studio. Dozens of brushes jutted from coffee cans. Two mountains of oil paint tubes were piled on small tables on either side of him. Often he would reach down to wipe the brush on a towel. The walls and floors were covered with scores of recently painted studies.

While he has painted the mountains of Maine and the rest of New England for decades, Isaacs recently returned from Nepal where he spent a month painting the Himalayas. Through Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay Harbor, a client found Isaacs’ work and ultimately—though not so easily—persuaded him to accept a commission to make paintings of the Himalayas.

While Isaacs has painted around the world—from volcanoes in Guatemala to lakes in Rwanda—the Nepal trip presented a new set of challenges because Isaacs, 68, was diagnosed with a condition similar to multiple sclerosis. This completely changed how he had worked over the previous three years. He turned away from the large and mid-sized paintings for which he is best known and reconsidered the thousands of notes he had piled in his studios at Little Cranberry Island, in Portland and in Vermont.

He doesn’t work from photographs, but instead makes many little paintings on site from which he develops his larger compositions. Some
of his notes look like finished paintings, but many are hardly more than
a few strokes of a single color, seemingly jotted off in seconds.

For about a year, Isaacs focused almost exclusively on finishing about 200 of the strongest of his notes. Because of their small size, the role of Isaacs’ brushstrokes became more important. Isaacs has always used a great deal of paint and let the brush fly over the surface, but the intimacy of scale pulls the viewer in much closer. Bold marks on the surface are easier to see—and much harder to ignore.

But the notes also began in a mode of high-energy efficiency: Painting outdoors adds a sense of urgency. Whether it’s the weather, the changing light or simply having a lot to capture on a temporary setup, time is a critical element of Maine’s traditional plein air painting. It rewards bravado and practically forces efficiency.

While he paints outdoors almost everywhere he goes—Isaacs is never without a bag of brushes, panels and paints—he is quick to point out that he doesn’t consider himself a pure plein air painter. “I like to find a sense of the place wherever I am working, but usually my notes are preliminary. They’re how I work out forms, gestures, relationships and passages,” he explains. “What I like best about working in the studio is inventing.”

He had planned to make 50, then 100 notes, but Issacs returned from Nepal with 175 of the small oil paintings. Re-energized and excited, Isaacs grabbed a brush the moment he got back to his Portland studio and set to work on a group of four-foot canvases bursting with life and color.

For his new Nepal paintings, Isaacs would often raise his viewpoint—the viewer’s perspective—well into the air. In Eastern Himalayas I, we see a vast and jagged range from well above the rice paddies in the foreground. The mountains begin blue and solid on the left and then melt into buttery yellows as the composition curves down and fades away. From the elevated perspective, the viewer cannot physically enter the space.

“It was something from Cubism that I liked—seeing from multiple perspectives—but it’s magical realism as well. I got it from the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich, who happens to be the only non-Asian painter to make a serious body of work about the Himalayas. My role models for this project were Roerich and Marsden Hartley.”

Hartley reinvented himself as “the painter of Maine” with a trek to Katahdin when he was in poor health in his 60s. Roerich too had a rather unlikely connection to Maine, having spent the summer of 1922 painting on Monhegan.

In the absence of painterly models for Everest and Nepal, Isaacs found his real connection to the landscape through the people. “There isn’t any plumbing but there sure are a lot of telephones,” he quips with a grin. “And there were a lot of people interested in helping me find those views. It was quite wonderful. I would have to wait sometimes for hours for the skies to open and then I would paint like crazy. It was fabulous. The stories that happened with the people in the long hours between were just as much part of the story as the time I spent with the brush in my hand.”

In the final, full-scale paintings, Isaacs sought “a balance between the mountains and the life below them.” In Eastern Himalayas, we see the mountains just as they emerge in colorful splendor from the clouds, dwarfing several temple towers on the shortened foreground plane. Dancing at the Picnic Grounds, Namo Buddha is a celebratory scene under hanging lines of colorful prayer flags. We see only the snowy cap of Everest at the very top of the canvas, but we sense its vast scale as it looms over everything, including tiny figures and 100-foot rhododendron trees.

Isaacs is often considered Maine’s leading colorist, but his approach is far more about nuance than vibrancy. He commonly uses areas of varying colors with similar values then sets those apart with high-contrast gestures, or areas of shifting logic—such as fading from a cool to a warm palette. (In the studio, Isaacs typically paints with two palettes—one warm, the other cool—and many brushes.) While there are subtle systems to his use of color, Isaacs also feels free to add strokes of color most anywhere. Seemingly arbitrary colors often appear at the very fringe of his images, such as a daub of orange on the edge of the canvas in an otherwise blue sky.

Now, with his even bolder sense of mark-making and enhanced approach to perspective, Isaacs’ highly energized Nepal paintings represent new ground for the artist. Dennis Gleason has worked with Isaacs for 35 years, but he senses a sea change. “To me [the new works] feel like they have more energy than ever because they represent the culmination of what he has been trying to do for the past few years. It’s all been pointing toward this moment and these paintings,” says Gleason.
Yet it was the local paths that led to this new body of work. Consider 
White Mountains, Maine painted near Bridgton in 2018: It provides the fundamental structure for Dancing at the Picnic Grounds. Instead of prayer flags hung on trees at the base of Everest, Isaacs pictures the impressive mountains through a wispy veil of color-dappled ash leaves and flowering plants.

“I was surprised,” Isaacs explains while dipping a loaded brush into a pan of oil, “that so many of the mountains of Nepal are isolated just like here in Maine, like Katahdin or Black Mountain. I have always been drawn to them. The geological term even comes from the New England mountain that Emerson and Thoreau made famous—they’re called ‘monadnocks.’”

It’s a common enough skill to be able to make a realistic rendering of a thing—even the tallest mountain in the world. But what painters like Isaacs and Hartley can do is build a bridge between the viewer, that thing and the artist’s own personal sense of being there. Hartley’s Katahdin images are powerful and sculpted. We sense his intimidation. So it is with Isaacs’ paintings of Nepal: We feel his excitement and his awe.

Represented by Gleason Fine Art:

Movie? Lost Horizon (1933).
Drink? Dark and Stormy (only with Ashley Bryan).
Maine restaurant? Empire Diner in Portland.
Place you’ve traveled to as an adult? Chain of Ponds in western Maine.
Shoes? Allbirds.
Way to relax? Painting.

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