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Fragments of Architecture and Glimpses of Nature: Paintings and Drawings by John Hartell

Professor John Hartell taught at Cornell for thirty-eight years, from 1930 to 1968. His students were legion, and devoted to him. In 1982, these students, along with his friends and colleagues, honored him by naming the John Hartell Gallery in Sibley Hall. A graduate of Cornell’s architecture school himself, John did graduate work at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and taught at Clemson University and the University of Illinois. He was also a designer in New York, work which included buildings for the 1939 World’s Fair.

Painting remained an interest, and John’s fine art reflects a gentle quiet. There is something wonderfully restful in looking at John’s work, the colors combining in delicate hues, creating a sense of calm and tranquillity. Though often traditional in his choice of subject, he could be very experimental in his methods, creating watercolors on fully wetted paper and taking advantage of the blurring effects, and using folded paper to give three-dimensionality to some of his pencil and pen-and-ink drawings. His playfulness and sense of fun can be seen in his enthusiasm for trying new media and combining disparate procedures to get his results.

John was also interested in layers, and the way the eye sees. Many of his images show a fascination with doorways and windows, allowing the viewer to follow the artist’s own vision, back into the far distance. Mostly these images are unpeopled, with John’s strong architectural training tempered by the softness of his color choice. The result is like taking in a scene, dappled by sunlight or cleanly washed after a rainstorm, obscure around the edges but enticing in its elusive simplicity.

Even when cataracts made it difficult for John to see clearly, he continued to create, and his work from this period emphasizes a use of intense color while moving toward a more abstract imagery. His interest in art, despite this disability, never waned. A consummate artist, images throughout his career, from the 1930s to his death in 1995, reflect his inquisitiveness and joy in the everyday things that make up life.

Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs