On my first day as an intern in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, I was thumbing through the guidebook A Perfect Harmony: The American Collection in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. I found myself captivated by a series titled Sea Moods by Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925), a painter and friend of museum founder Charles Lang Freer. My favorite of Tryon’s “moods,” created in 1915 during a summer fishing expedition to Ogunquit, Maine, is Sunrise. Something in the image reminded me of my home back in California. I became mesmerized by the light lavenders, soft yellows, and textured blues. The overall surface of the painting glistens, reiterating the rhythmic movement and shimmer of the waves. The seemingly spontaneous effect contrasts Tryon’s laborious process of layering pastel twenty to thirty times.
An avid outdoorsman, Tryon often spent his summers on the coast of Maine, finding inspiration from the sea. It wasn’t until the winter months that Tryon retreated into his studio, where he would eventually create nineteen of these seaside pastels from memory. Describing the time between inspiration and execution, Tryon wrote that his pastels “went through the alembic of my mind before they were writ onto canvas.” I became fascinated by his artistic process of allowing the experience of a specific moment to evolve over time into a more evocative and spiritual image. The opalescent, layered pastels on rough brown paper are literally palpable: Sunrise has a pulse, making the image deeply personal. Because of the way Tryon layered the pastel, applying coats of fixative between each, the final image is a type of palimpsest, or record of time passing.
The morning before I left for DC, I woke early to watch the full moon set over the horizon. Viewing Sunrise transported me back to that peaceful morning of swimming in the ocean, watching the moon, and observing the sun as it began to rise. Sunrise is imbued with a subtle vitality that inspired an affectionate remembrance of home.