Country Road (1878) by George Hetzel

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

An accomplished and influential painter active in western Pennsylvania during the second half of the nineteenth century, George Hetzel (1826-1899) was fascinated by the vanishing-yet still rugged and beautiful-landscape of his adopted homeland. Today, he is credited with inspiring the creation of a school of painters and a style called the “Scalp Level Tradition,” after the region near Johnstown, in which he and his adherents worked.

Born in Alsace in France, Hetzel was a toddler when his family immigrated to Allegheny City, now known as Pittsburgh’s North Side. In his youth, he was apprenticed to a house and sign painter. In 1847, he sailed for Europe to take formal art lessons at the Dusseldorf Academy, where he studied for two years before Germany’s civil strife forced him to return to Pittsburgh. Upon returning, he opened a studio and began painting portraits and landscapes. Travel by railroad enabled Hetzel to tour the countryside of western Pennsylvania, where he discovered himself to be a naturalist at heart.

In 1866, he took a fishing trip to Scalp Level with fellow Pitts­burgh artist Charles Linford and John Hampton, lawyer and solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. So moved by the spectacular beauty of the area near the intersection of Paint Creek and Little Paint Creek, Hetzel organized a painting trip to the re­gion the following summer and persuaded every faculty member of the Pittsburgh School of Design for Women – where he taught landscape paint­ing – to accompany him and paint landscapes en plein air (or directly from nature). He subsequently purchased prop­erty at Scalp Level and established an artists colony with friends and followers, many of whom were associ­ated with the Pittsburgh School of Design for Women, of which he was appointed principal in 1870 (see “Pitts­burgh’s Designing Women” by Britta C. Dwyer in the winter 1991 edition).

The Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg recently acquired Country Road, an im­portant oil on canvas painted by George Hetzel in 1878. By the late 1870s, Hetzel achieved his mature, distinctive style, and his works of art attracted acclaim not only in Pittsburgh, but in Philadelphia and New York as well. Country Road is infused with a beautiful quality of light which filters through the leafy foliage to sprinkle patches of light on the path and creek. The detail of the foreground evidences the artist’s interest in realism; the scene is not an idealized composite but rather the documentation of a specific place – probably a loca­tion near Scalp Level.

Measuring twenty-two by thirty-five inches, Country Road was acquired by the museum at auction in California. Art historians believe that the painting may have been taken to the West Coast by a granddaughter. Country Road is currently on exhibit at the museum with examples of late nineteenth-century landscape paintings by artists of western and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Additional information is available by writing: Westmoreland Museum of Art, 221 North Main Street, Greensburg, Pennsylvania 15601; or by telephoning (412) 837-1500.