The Museum of Fine Arts recently acquired one of his cityscapes.
by Bob Keyes, staff writer
Artist Joel Babb poses for a photo in his studio in Sumner on August 24. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
SUMNER — It was on the streets of Rome where Joel Babb became a painter, and it was above the streets of Boston where he became a master. But it was deep in the Maine woods, where he’s been coming since 1971 for solitude, light and air, that Babb became a Renaissance man.
A modern master of vision and technique, Babb combines the traditions of European masters with his own contemporary sensibilities to create large-scale, near photo-realistic oil paintings of complex cityscapes, the tangled woods of his western Maine home and the austere Down East coast.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston recently acquired one of his cityscapes, “Copley Plunge,” which Babb painted in exacting detail from the perspective of the top of New England’s tallest building, the former John Hancock Tower in Copley Square, looking directly down over the Back Bay, showing the rooftops, treetops and the car-cluttered streets from a birds-eye perspective. The museum’s acquisition of “Copley Plunge” completed something of an artistic circle for Babb, who came to Boston in the early 1970s when he enrolled in the master’s program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. “The museum helped build me into the artist I am,” he said.
Placing the painting in the MFA’s collection – it was offered as a gift of a collector and accepted by a committee of curators – is both gratifying and rewarding, he said, a highlight of his career.
In the near 50 years since his grad school days, he’s become the contemporary painter of Boston, occupying the hallowed ground of John Singleton Copley, Childe Hassam and Winslow Homer as artists whose work is closely identified with the city. His paintings anchor public and private collections in university libraries, hotels, hospitals and the board rooms of banks and law firms across Boston, Cambridge and beyond.
Longtime curator Wes LaFountain compared Babb to the great European landscape painters of old. “For all his beautiful wooded landscapes and rocky seascapes, Joel Babb is to Boston what Canaletto was to Venice,” said LaFountain, who met Babb when LaFountain directed the former New O’Farrell Gallery in Brunswick. He organized an exhibition about Mount Katahdin and included a sketchbook of Babb’s that documented a series of climbs.
“I learned what a great craftsman he is,” said LaFountain, who is now the interim director and curator of the Lamont Gallery at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Babb cites the French painter Camille Corot as a key influence. Beginning the summer after college, Babb has made a habit of going to Rome for extended stays and painting scenes that Corot painted, following in the artist’s footsteps to see what he saw and to learn how he did it.
After taking a break from the cityscapes that established his reputation in the 1980s, Babb has recently returned to them with renewed vigor and interest. His new cityscapes feel less contemporary and more traditional than the earlier ones, including “Copley Plunge,” which he painted in 1990.
They’re still of photo-realistic quality, but one senses the influence of the Raphaelists and the Hudson River School of painters in Babb’s new canvases. They evoke reverence for a higher wonder. Amid the ordered chaos of a high-rise landscape, the artist expresses an awe of nature and weather and the complexity of the natural world. His newer paintings of the city are layered with atmosphere and feel almost three-dimensional. He wants people to feel that they are looking not at paint, but through space.
MAKING OF A MASTER
Babb, 71, is a product of his time and place, and his path to art was not something he necessarily chose as much as an instinct he followed. He was born in Georgia in 1947. His father worked for the federal government as an agricultural engineer, and the family moved often, mostly around the Midwest. Babb graduated from high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, a place he most identified as home but has not been back to visit since he left for college in 1965.
His exposure to art came from visits to the Sheldon Museum on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – now directed by Wally Mason, who formerly directed the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor. It was at the Sheldon where Babb saw his first Andrew Wyeth painting, a watercolor of a tree stump and roots from 1943 called “Spring Beauty.” Babb liked the feeling of being out in the woods that the painting inspired, and that sense of being in a specific place, among nature or on a city sidewalk, is something he’s tried to achieve in all his work.
He came east to Princeton University, an earnest kid from the Midwest with a sense of adventure. “Everybody there is so damn smart, and they’re all good at something,” he said. “At Princeton, you’ve got play to your strong suit, and art was mine. Art became my identity before I realized what I had to do to become an artist.”
He figured it out quickly, by the sheer will of survival. After graduating, he went to Europe to work first as an intern at the Bavarian National Museum and then to live on his own in Italy, where he studied directly from the work of European masters. He spent seven months there, mostly in Rome, drawing the city and immersing himself in its history of architecture, sculpture and art. Before the money ran out and he had to go home, he learned to be frugal and industrious and to take advantage of the circumstances.
“I got to Italy, and I got stuck there – and it gave me a shot at being an artist,” he said.
The next lesson came soon after he returned to the states and enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. To make ends meet, he reluctantly took a job as a night watchman in the museum’s galleries. He wanted to be an artist, not a gallery guard, and the necessity of work was a hard but valuable reality to accept. “It was demoralizing and depressing, the whole scene. But it was perfect. It turned out to be fabulous,” he said.
Being a night watchman gave him unfettered access to the galleries, and Babb, who recognized his shortcomings as an artist, used his time to sketch and sketch and sketch, just as he did in Rome. He studied the art on the walls, practiced techniques and absorbed everything he encountered. “Every patrol, I would stop and find a painting and do a drawing,” he said. “I still have a pile of sketchbooks from then.”
He came to Maine for the first time in 1971, at the invitation of a friend. A few years later, that friend gave him an acre of land in Sumner, understanding what such a gift could mean to an emerging artist of modest means. Babb began building his studio in 1975 and moved here permanently with his wife, Frannie, in 1988.
When he arrived in Sumner, he sat for long periods of time on his land, making pen and ink drawings of plants in the field. It was his way of getting to know the place at the root level. Later, when he decided to pursue paintings of medical surgeries, he bought a human skeleton, which he still owns, to study anatomy. He felt like Leonardo da Vinci, whose interest in botany, anatomy and the sciences formed the foundation of his art.
Babb’s career ascended in 1984, when he landed two commissions for large paintings. One was for the lobby of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, a panoramic view that became “Harvard Square Panorama,” a painting that’s 5 feet high and 20 feet long. The other was another 20-foot painting for Cambridge Savings Bank at Harvard Square.
The paintings did at least three things for Babb. They established him in Boston as a painter and put his work in front of curators and collectors. They forced him to experiment with and conquer the technique of creating perspective, leading to dramatic transformations in his art. In addition to seeking out Boston’s best views from tall buildings, Babb hired a helicopter pilot to fly him over the city with the doors of the small craft removed, so he could take better source photos for his paintings.
Equally important, the commissions also led him to fully entrench in his studio practice in Maine. For the Charles Hotel painting, he encamped to Sumner with a seven-week deadline, painting through the early winter in his uninsulated studio. Four years later, in 1988, the Museum of Fine Arts built a workshop on its Boston campus to accommodate a visiting artist. When the artist finished his work, the museum auctioned the workshop. Babb won it and moved it to Maine, and that year, he and his wife moved here full-time. They lived simply and frugally, with Babb traveling to Boston to teach. He gave up teaching in 2003 and has been painting full-time since. They expanded their home and studio in 2009.
NATURE AND SCIENCE
His studio today is large and airy, filled with paintings on the wall and on the easels, some finished, others just under way. There are art books everywhere, and classical music plays softly.
Maine also gave him something to paint. He finds as much challenge and reward making large-scale paintings of the deep Maine woods as he does painting the city. But they are very different experiences as an artist.
He writes of his Maine experience, “Nature is relatively untended in the Maine woods, and one soon becomes entangled in anarchic competition of self-organized processes of growth and succession in the forest. Linear perspective, which order the recession of city streets, seems nowhere in evidence in the woods. And there is hardly any atmospheric perspective to express distance and recession as in a Claude Lorrain painting – in fact there are so many trees there is hardly even a view.”
In the mid-1990s, Babb accepted a commission from a trio of doctors who participated in the first organ transplant in a human, a kidney transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in 1954. The subject of surgery was of personal interest. Babb underwent a heart operation when he was 13, and it created trauma in his life. The painting helped him process his feelings surrounding that event. It also presented an artistic challenge of another sort. This would be a historical painting based on interviews with participants and a handful of existing photos. Babb wanted it to be exactly right, down to the pattern of light as it passed through a glass brick wall in the surgical suite.
Babb used one of the historical photos to get started and worked through several stages of the composition. The doctors gave him sketches, and one of the original surgeons laid out all the instruments in an operating room at the hospital so Babb could photograph them.
His painting depicts the morning of the operation just before Christmas, with the team scrubbed and gowned as the doctors prepare to receive the kidney from a donor. “It was a great experience in giving insight into the way artists of the past created history paintings, gathering information from many sources to make some past event come to life before your eyes,” Babb said.
“The First Successful Organ Transplantation in Man” hangs in the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School, opposite Robert Hinkley’s “First Operation Under Ether.” The two paintings are seen as landmark artworks, expertly and accurately representing important moments in medical history.
“They took down a John Singleton Copley to put this painting up,” Babb said with a measure of pride. “It was and still is a wonderful adventure. I wanted to do a history painting, and I was thinking of Rembrandt and Eakins.”
Babb wasn’t done with his medical pursuits. He arranged to witness and photograph a coronary bypass operation, which he turned into another epic painting that documents a modern surgery with a room full of equipment and machines. This one remains in his private collection.
Babb is as busy as ever. He is working on new paintings for his next Portland exhibition in 2019, at Greenhut Galleries. He also shows regularly at Vose Galleries in Boston. He and Frannie recently spent a short vacation at Biddeford Pool, and several paintings that he started there may end up in an upcoming show. His easels are filled with paintings from Boston and Maine in various stages of completion.
One thing he knows is that his paintings are timeless. In art, fashions come and go. What’s hot today we may forget in a decade. Babb’s paintings will survive, because the art of masters always does.