One day a few summers ago Joel Babb was painting in his canoe on the Nezinscot River near his home in East Sumner, in Maine’s Oxford County. He was beginning to understand why so many Impressionist and Barbizon School painters of the nineteenth century had houseboat studios: they offered a means of entering the landscape unlike any other.
At some point, Babb pulled up to the riverbank to stretch his legs. As he looked back at the canoe, his easel in it, and the curving river beyond, he realized that here was a terrific subject, “a reflection on the whole experience of painting outside.”
Babb photographed the scene. Back in his studio, instead of creating a meticulous under-painting as he would normally with a large landscape, he used big brushes and a knife to simulate how he would work en plein air, quickly and freely, using the photograph as a reference.
This approach offered more than just an interlude from the highly detailed topographical cityscapes for which Babb is known. The painter found the work reinvigorating. “It brought back the joy of painting again,” he said. That joy carried over to other images of easels outdoors—on Mount Desert Island and alongside brooks in his neck of interior Maine—and it added energy to his studio work.
Babb is not new to working outdoors; he painted 50 or so works on site in Rome about ten years ago. Color becomes intoxicating when he is outside under a white umbrella, he said. “You are dealing with a Niagara of light, which is always changing minute to minute.” By contrast, when working in the studio, especially with photographs, he can explore “the fine structure and the complexity of things.”
Born in Waycross, Georgia, in 1947, Babb went through various phases as he developed as a painter, influenced by what he found in magazines. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, he immersed himself in the study of art history while making forays into modern art (famed sculptor George Segal was one of his teachers). Then a year-long stay in Europe following his 1969 graduation set him on a course he’s been following ever since. Confronted by the detailed, literal canvases of the old masters, Babb chose to learn the ways of realism. When he returned to the United States, he studied and then taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He went on to teach at the Harvard University Extension School for 16 years.
Babb’s life revolved around the Museum of Fine Arts. He studied, worked, and met many of his friends and his wife there (Frannie Babb was the book buyer in the museum bookstore).
Over time Babb became a consummate representational painter; his landscapes of Boston, sometimes based on photographs and sketches made from the air or tall buildings, are considered among the finest achievements of their kind. His skill at rendering seemingly impossibly detailed sections of the city led to a number of major commissions for cityscapes, which can be found in hotels, hospitals, and financial institutions in and around Cambridge and Boston.
He began coming to Maine in 1971. A fellow museum employee George Wilkinson and his wife, Mary, had purchased a farmstead in East Sumner and invited him to visit. Originally called West Butterfield Plantation, East Sumner consists of farms and woodland bisected by two branches of the Nezinscot, which runs into the Androscoggin River.