Champney (1817-1907) began as an apprentice to a lithographer in Boston. Reportedly, the American old master Washington Allston advised Champney to study in Paris, then the young artist departed in 1841. He must have been a success, since his landscape views of the outskirts of Paris appeared at the Salons of 1843 and 1844. In the Louvre Champney made copies of landscapes by Claude Lorrain, Joseph Vernet and Ruysdael. He said that he fell in love with the landscapes of Diaz de la Peña, the Barbizon painter, and he also appreciated the progressive techniques of Constant Troyon: “the green tones of which were marvellously rich and juicy,” while some critics called the French painter’s landscapes “plates of spinach.” Often Champney would dine with his roommate John Kensett and John Casilear (1811-1893). In addition, he met John Vanderlyn and William M. Thackeray. When Kensett went off to London to claim an inheritance, Champney got his own studio near the Eglise de la Madeleine. After Kensett returned, the two went off to explore Italy (Champney was in Rome with Worthington Whittredge and Kensett in 1845-46), Germany and Switzerland. At Basel, he discovered the art of Hans Holbein.
Champney would return to Europe later to execute a panorama of the Rhine but returned to America upon the Revolution of 1848. Champney was rejoined by his old friends Casilear and Kensett in North Conway, New Hampshire where he was one of the first to work at what became an artists’ colony at the White Mountains. Many consider him to be the founder of the White Mountain School.
Besides landscapes, Champney was interested in flower painting. The painter wrote in his memoirs, Sixty Years’ Memories of Art and Artists (1900), that his garden was “a constant source of pleasure and profit.” He added, “Mrs. Champney is very fond of flowers. . . these swirling masses of rich, brilliant colors are very attractive to me, and I can not resist the impulse to plant my easel in some corner, and try what paints and brushes can do in my hands to put down the fleeting, evanescent colors flashing before me in the sunlight.” Champney sought to “arrange a picture with contrasts of light, shade and color” and to avoid excessive detail of the Dutch.
Champney married Mary C. Brooks, from Indiana, in 1853. A year later he had a son and they named him Kensett. J. Wells Champney (1843-1903) was the artist’s other son. Champney was one of the founders of the Boston Art Club, in 1855. He exhibited there between 1874 and 1908, at the Boston Atheneum (1842-72), at the American Art-Union (1850 and 1852), and once at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1863). After the Civil War, he took his family to Europe, first to Paris, then down the Rhine through Switzerland. They took the St. Gotthard Pass to Italy. Champney also met Robert Wylie and his circle in Brittany. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has Champney’s Mount Chocorua, New Hampshire (1858) and the Butler Institute of American Art has a later Landscape dated 1878.
Champney, Benjamin. Sixty Years’ Memories of Art and Artists. Woburn, MA: 1900; Hennessy, William G. and Frederic Sharf. “Benjamin Champney and the American Barbizon School, 1850-1857.” Antiques (November 1963): 566-569; Hennessy, William G. “Benjamin Champney,” New Hampshire Profiles (June-September 1965); Keyes, Donald D., et al. The White Mountains: Place and Perceptions. Exh. cat. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire, 1980; Zellman, Michael David. 300 Years of American Art. Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press, 1987, p. 179; Soria, Regina. Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century American Artists in Italy 1760-1914. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1982, p. 81; Campbell, Catherine H. New Hampshire Scenery: A Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Artists of New Hampshire Mountain Landscapes. Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing, 1985, pp. 26-32; Sobieski, Phyllis Knapp. To Draw from Nature: The Dr. and Mrs. Albert R. Miller, Jr. Collection. Hagerstown, MD: The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, n.d., p. 25.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.