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'Little piece of heaven': John D. Barrow's landscapes preserve Skaneateles of long ago

'Little piece of heaven': John D. Barrow's landscapes preserve Skaneateles of long ago


SKANEATELES — Visitors to the John D. Barrow Art Gallery, located inside the Skaneateles Library, might look at one particular painting in the collection and wonder why the artist painted an island in the middle of Skaneateles Lake toward the south end.

"Where some of the paintings you can say, 'Wow, I know exactly where that is,' people look at this painting 'Hemlock Island' and say, 'There's no island in Skaneateles Lake,'" said Peg Whitehouse, the gallery's director. "But there was. ... In John Barrow's time, there was an island in the middle of the lake."

When Barrow was alive — he was born in 1824 and died in 1906 — there was an island in the lake near Glen Haven in what is now a marshy area, Whitehouse said, and he captured it in a painting titled "Hemlock Island."

But, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, she said, a team from the Works Progress Administration timbered the island and used the lumber for utility poles for electrical and telephone wires.

Once the trees were gone and there was no root system to hold the soil in place, the island eroded and disappeared.

"It's proof positive that, yes, he captured the way things looked around here and they don't anymore," Whitehouse said.

Capturing the way things looked in his time is a common theme of Barrow's landscapes. Though he is nowadays more known for his landscapes, it was his portraits that flourished his career as a painter — the landscapes were more a hobby, Whitehouse said.

"It was a passion and recreation, but he really didn't depend on selling landscapes," she said. "They were what he chose to do. He really was an outdoors person. He didn't dream up these scenes. These are real places."

Those places include locations around Skaneateles and central New York as well as in the Adirondack Mountains and along the Hudson River.

As a landscape painter, Barrow was part of the Hudson River School, which Whitehouse described as a mid-19th century American movement founded by painters, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who expressed an appreciation of the American landscape and its natural beauty.

"Landscape painting was wonderful in Europe and everything, but people really hadn't addressed landscapes in American art movements until they did," she said, noting the painters paired their work with some of the prominent writers of the time, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The movement also coincided in terms of timing with the expansion of the American frontier.

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"Everybody was looking for their own little piece of heaven," Whitehouse said.

Even if Barrow never sold a landscape painting during his lifetime, Whitehouse said he did exhibit annually at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts' juried exhibition, though she doesn't know if he exhibited portraits or landscapes.

"But, I wouldn't be surprised if they were landscapes," she said.

Whitehouse said there are some common themes among Barrow's landscapes: hemlock trees — "All you have to do is look around and see that he had a passion for hemlock trees because we have a lot of them," she said — and agrarian life around the immediate area — "He liked his cows," she said. "There's lots of cows."

"I think that's because this was such an agricultural community, but I also believe he saw the advancement of population and that these views may not always be like this," she said. "A sense of preserving vanishing scenes."

Groups from Cornell University, Whitehouse said, have studied some of the forested scenes in Barrow's landscapes and found the Dutch elm tree in them.

"We know that that tree species is extinct now," she said, noting that a disease caused by fungi and spread by beetles killed them all. "In his day, they were everywhere."

Barrow may have created his landscapes in the 19th century, but the scenes can still be seen in a way today. Whitehouse said Gwen Birchenough, her husband, Bill, and their son, Dave, traveled the lake on a boat and pinpointed many of the places depicted in the paintings.

Particularly along the Staghorn Cliffs, Whitehouse said, the Birchenoughs identified several spots that match up with scenes in the paintings.

When Barrow paintings turn up on the open market, Whitehouse said, it is the landscapes that earn the most money. Those paintings are also popular in the gallery's Borrow A Barrow program through businesses and individuals can lease select paintings for a fee based on its value.

"It's the landscapes everybody wants to rent. They're easy to live with," Whitehouse said, noting the gallery currently has 70 paintings out on loan.

She said the program helps the gallery gain revenue toward restoration expenses as well as everyday bills for upkeep, utilities, insurance and more.

But, she added, the program also promotes the appreciation of Barrow's artwork.

"What better way than sharing those with local businesses and households?" Whitehouse said. "Any number of people who participate in the program, they have guests over, people want to know about the painting."

Journal Editor Jonathan Monfiletto can be reached at or (315) 283-1615. Follow him on Twitter @WOC_Monfiletto.


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