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Central Park was designed as a sanctuary for all, at all times. With New Yorkers finding respite among its trees and blooms, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us that a place for people to take a break from the stresses of the City is more crucial than ever before. But the Park is more than just a beautiful natural space; the people that walk its trails and explore its hidden corners are what makes Central Park the heartbeat of New York and serve as the inspiration behind Janet Ruttenberg’s vast watercolors.
Janet Ruttenberg, renowned plein air artist, paints the people and colors of Central Park on canvasses as expansive as the Park that inspires her. Among the foremost artists of her generation, she has spent almost every nice day for the last 20 years painting in the Park. But right now, she is staying at home like the rest of us.
Charles Stuckey, a widely published independent scholar who has served as curator in major US museums, reminds us that until we can be physically together again in the Park, we can seek its solace through Ruttenberg’s immersive and impressive watercolors. He shares his story here.
Since I take long walks every day in Central Park, sometimes I pass by and see what Janet is doing. To my amazement she creates enormous watercolors outside, bigger than any I’ve ever seen, unrolling 15-foot long paper strips and anchoring them to the grass, then applying paint from brushes that she has attached to broom handles, maintaining a form of “social distance” between herself and her art. Why go through such lengths? She replies that she needs to see what she is painting from the same distance that she observes her subject. Was painting in Central Park what she always wanted to do? Yes, indeed, and she works tirelessly every day, weather permitting, at the same spot on the north side of Central Park’s Sheep Meadow.
Although she often chases me away rather than lose her train of thought, she just as often offers insightful commentary on her work. Like how after painting the same scene repeatedly for nearly 20 years, she finally realizes that the space is all based on geometric laws. Or, sounding like a visionary of sorts, how the only way to get the color of the grass under the sun’s glare is with fluorescent chartreuse. Sometimes she asks if I am familiar with some poem by Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost on her mind as she watches the Park with wide-eyed wonder.
I first appreciated the scope and splendor of Janet’s Central Park paintings when the Museum of the City of New York exhibited them in late 2013. Her work has only become more complex and exciting since then. Always in the same place in Central Park, always with more on her mind than I can imagine — as if conducting a full orchestra with her broomstick brushes — correcting herself, enjoying herself, Janet embraces the Park like a 21st-century Georges Seurat. For me, her majestic pieces rival the best landscape paintings ever made, anywhere. Although Janet points out that she is not painting landscapes, but rather group portraits. Her inspiration is the people, for Central Park is truly the “People’s Park,” unaware that she is capturing the vibrance they lend to the landscape. During the hours when Janet attentively paints Sheep Meadow at vast scale, she simultaneously makes little notebook sketches of strangers who come and go; and she sneaks snapshots and quick videos of squirrels and birds, unleashed children, picnickers, amateur musicians, lovers, tourists, and more than a few oddballs. Eventually, when the weather forbids working outside, she adds these characters to her paintings. Her works overflow with figures up close and at a distance, creating the heartbeat of Central Park.
Charles Stuckey is a widely published independent scholar who has served as curator in major US museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, helping organize highly acclaimed retrospectives for Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, and others.
To learn more about Janet Ruttenberg and view more of her work, please visit www.janetruttenberg.com or follow her on Instagram @studiofjanetruttenberg.