The Art of Pleasant Hill Lake Park

George Biddle and the Art Guild painting at the beach

Before there was a Mansfield Art Center, there was the Mansfield Fine Arts Guild; and before there was an Art Guild there was simply a gang of artists in post-war Richland County who all loved to paint; who all got together every week so they could enjoy one another’s company.  They would travel as a group to some local landmark, and each of them would make an interpretation of the scene in watercolor or pencil or oil, rendered in their own style.

Between 1946 and 1950 the group of artists who founded the Fine Arts Guild used their common enthusiasm for art and local scenery to find inspiration all over the county.  One day they would meet in Bellville and find a street scene to paint; another day they all went to the Steel Mill, or Park Avenue West, or North Lake Park.

One summer in July a handful of painters showed up on the beach at Pleasant Hill Lake Park, and set to work sketching the folks swimming and sunning.  As artists who were schooled in the classical traditions—who knew their art history—they were excited to try their skills in an art motif that has been traditional since the 17th century: creating a composition of an outdoor ‘landscape with bathers.’

Dating back before the European Modernists and Impressionist, and extending through history up to the American Realists and beyond, every new wave of artists has found a contemporary way to interpret the classical image of people relaxing by the waterside.  In mid-20th century, the Richland County School formally embraced this tradition at Pleasant Hill.

The tradition of artists painting Landscape With Bathers reaches clear back to the 17th century, and includes Delacroix, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and Picasso; as well as these by Georges Seurat in 1884, John Sloan in 1907, and Maurice Prendergast in 1916.

For one of the artists, George Biddle, the experience at Pleasant Hill unlocked a mode of expression that gradually led him into a realm of abstract interpretation that became a hallmark of his later works and success.

This essay in images traces his transformation of vision on the shore of Pleasant Hill Lake Park.

This 1955 George Biddle Bathers, painted at Pleasant Hill, won an honorable mention in the 42nd Annual Exhibit of the Allied Artists of American in New York City; provided a breakthrough for him into the world of the American art scene.

With this introduction, he went on to show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and in galleries in New York and Chicago.

It is easy to date this Biddle Bathers painting to early in his Pleasant Hill days, because the people in the picture are clearly recognizable as figures in a scene: as the series of paintings progressed, the figures become more and more abstract, and the composition focuses more on color and rhythm than on any realistic capturing of the scene.

Sometimes George would do his bather studies on site at the Pleasant Hill beach, and then rush back to his studio to complete the painting; in this way the works became less and less focused on realistic imagery, and more about composition, balance, and the surface of the painting as an object in itself.  The figures were simply a point of departure to a more abstract expression of art.

These two paintings, this by Alice Twitchell and the one immediately below by George Biddle, both came from their Art Guild outing to Pleasant Hill; and show how differently two artists can interpret the same material. 

The last Bathers paintings that George produced were colorful, rhythmic compositions of dots and lines that clearly prefigure the next phase of his painting career, when he gave up depicting objects altogether and began creating canvasses of color and movement that were wholly abstract.  
George Biddle 1919-1959.

The story was told by Mary Biddle, that after spending many afternoons painting on the beach at Pleasant Hill, there was a polite request that George not return… after some woman in her new bathing attire failed to notice that she was sitting on George’s palette of wet oil paints.

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