George Soppelsa – Henry Hammond Ahl (1869 – 1953)
Born in East Hartford in 1869, Henry Hammond Ahl showed early talent in drawing and with some private lessons he was by the age of 17 also a skilled painter.
While his mother saw to it that he had private painting lessons at home, in 1889, at age 20, he departed for the first of his two extended stays in Munich, Germany for more formal training studying at the Royal Academy with distinguished teachers of lasting influence on his work.
Here he became a skilled academic painter of figures and landscape. Later he traveled to Paris to study painting at Ecole des Beaux with the noted painter, Jean-Leon Gérome, a teacher popular with American students, among them the likes of Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt.
While in France he also explored the work of the artists of the Barbizon School noted for painting pure nature as inspirational and nurturing. This opened the door for Ahl’s long-lasting attachment to the atmospheric qualities of American Tonalism.
By the time he reached 30, he was a successful artist, his reputation assured as a distinguished portraitist, muralist, and, most notably, landscape painter. His first work of note, In the Shadow of the Cross, an illusionistic religious painting, was even exhibited on a popularly received national tour, and later entered into the St. Louis Exhibition of 1904.
In between his travels to Europe he set up studios in Springfield, Mass. and then Washington, DC.. There he was a sought-after portrait painter of politicians and the social establishment. Settling in Springfield, he met and married Eleanor Curtis in 1902.
He and Eleanor traveled to Europe where they briefly took studio space at the Royal Academy in Munich. But following a tour of European museums, they returned to the States, settling in New York City where son Curtis was born in 1905.
In this period, which included an extensive sketching tour of England, Ahl experimented with Impressionism while continuing his fascination with American Tonalism, especially with the effects attained from the atmospheric contrast of darkness and luminous glowing light.
Ahl and his family settled down in New England, first in Boston and later in a large 20 room, 17th century house in Newbury, Massachusetts. Here Eleanor, and later Curtis, also developed their own, more modest, art careers.
Injuries from a fall from the scaffolding ended his most ambitious undertaking as a successful and respected painter of large-scale religious murals in various churches of Boston and Providence.
Prolific as always, Ahl remained thereafter an easel painter, totally unaffected by the revolutionary movements transforming the art of his time.
His interest in Tonalism faded away, Ahl’s palette brightened for an output of mostly landscapes done in a modified and increasingly prosaic style of impressionism until his death.
The Ahl collection of the Raymond Library has a number of paintings done during his early times in Munich. His paintings of people and villages of Bavaria are quite accomplished examples of work in the Academic Style, and clearly support why he was a prize winner when he later exhibited with the Academy.
His talent with portraiture could not be better exemplified than by his fine self-portrait in top hat.
There are a number of rather fine examples of his moody, atmospheric Tonal works, and a number of his impressionistic landscapes. There is also an especially fine group of his outstanding drawings.
Following his death, Ahl’s fame and reputation rapidly disappeared and he was largely forgotten until the Raymond Library exhibition of its Ahl collection in 1971 revived interest in his work.
The library always has a varying selection of work on display.