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Brush with Greatness

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Charles Morris Young at work in 1963.One of the guiding lights of the Radnor Hunt in the first decades of the 20th century, J. Stanley Reeve was a seasoned sportsman and snappy dresser celebrated for his colorful straw bowlers and, on occasion, a nearly orange suit. Married to a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, Reeve was dubbed “the leading foxhunter of the leading foxhunting city in the country” by Town & Country magazine. With its superb hounds, spirited steeplechase races, balls, social buzz, and glorious grounds and clubhouse, the Radnor Hunt Club was the place to be for local society in the 1920s.

A noted historian, Reeve kept a detailed account of all things Radnor. And, along with master of the hunt Horace Hare, he also forged a close bond with Charles Morris Young, who was commissioned to paint portraits of the club’s members and many scenes.

Setting up his easel atop a hill, Young captured the romance of the foxhunter and his country.

What intrigued Young most was the interplay between the wily fox and the disciplined pack of hounds. “Far from suffering, I believe the foxes enjoy the sport,” related Young, 95, in a newspaper interview in 1964, the year he died. “The foxes also like to watch me at work.”

Morris’ iconic collection of timeless Radnor hunting moments is clearly unique in the context of sporting art in America. Leonard King is a Hunt member, an artist who paints country scenes, and the director of the Devon Horse Show. He owns two of Young’s paintings and a drawing from the 1920s. “Young was able to take color and a brush, and splash it on the canvas—and there is no detail. But when you step back, it’s a foxhound,” says King. “It’s simply miraculous.”

In 2008, Collin McNeil authored Bright Hunting Morn, a superbly presented history of the Radnor Fox Hunting Club. “Young is the unsung master of the Pennsylvania impressionists,” says McNeil. “His landscapes and seascapes are very colorful and evocative. If you put the best of [Daniel] Garber up against the best of Young, they’re equally appealing.”

Charles Morris Young was born in Gettysburg, six years after the monumental Civil War battle. His love of the land was forged on long walks to his uncle’s school at Selin’s Grove and while trotting along country lanes on the back of his horse, Cigaret. A book from his father’s library on the great English landscape painter John Constable and sculptors of battlefield monuments provided his first introduction to art.

Young started painting at age 16, and soon he was etching quarter-size battle scenes on walking sticks that were snapped up by tourists for 50 cents each. The funds helped put Young through art school at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. When he enrolled in 1891, the Philadelphia region harbored the leading impressionists—Edward Willis Redfield, Walter Schofield and Garber.

Young studied with Thomas Eakins and trained under Robert Vonnoh and Thomas Anshutz, the academy’s most prominent teachers. He knew John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

In 1893, Young married Eliza Middleton Coxe, a beautiful woman with a high-society background who also was a PAFA student. The couple took their easels to Paris in 1903. Fellow Philadelphian artist Mary Cassatt suggested they visit Giverny, where an artist colony had sprung up around Claude Monet. The Youngs spent two summers there. Like Monet, Young was especially skillful at capturing the quality of light at certain times of the day.
 

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Known nearly as well for his wit as his work, Young liked to poke fun at Monet. “His son, a garage man, behaved better than his father,” Young recalled in various newspaper interviews. “Monet would throw his canvases into his lily pond, and the family would have to fish them out.”

Young astonished the French impressionists by working outside in all types of weather. One of his earliest works, “Snow Scene, Moret France,” was a showstopper when it was exhibited in Paris. “It was painted outdoors—impossible,” declared one painter. “The paint would freeze.”

Esteemed French art critic Henri Wolfe visited Young’s studio one day and, upon investigating Young’s efforts, commented, “Monsieur Young gives not only the weather today but gives a forecast of tomorrow.”

“Frosty Morn,” a painting of misty morning blues, pinks and purples along a canal, was exhibited in Brussels and won a gold medal. Later, the work was purchased by the Academy of the Fine Arts for its permanent collection.

In 1906, the Youngs returned from France to live on the Alverthorpe estate near Jenkintown that belonged to Eliza Young’s grandmother. Five years later, the artist’s paintings were singled out for a one-man exhibition at the Academy of the Fine Arts.

At this time, Young favored a sun-drenched, impressionist palette and light, quick brushwork. His enchanting winter scenes earned numerous awards and medals in the early 1900s.

The Youngs, meanwhile, had five sons: Arthur, Christopher, Alexander, Phillip and Brinton. Arthur Young invented the Bell Helicopter, one of which is displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He was also a philosopher.

In 1917, the couple settled on the Main Line, purchasing a spacious Radnor mansion designed by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandson. Young’s trees, roadways, red mills, barns and stone fences all bespoke a territory the artist knew well.

Young’s most treasured oil paintings—upwards of 300, including his favorite “Frosty Morn”—went up in flames in a fire that destroyed his home in November 1962. He escaped the fire-blackened ruins with barely the clothes on his back. “I am crushed,” Young said, then age 93, in an interview with the Philadelphia Bulletin. “They were true records of the past. They were the cream of the crop.”

Young had gathered his favorite paintings for a documentary filmed by his son Christopher. Titled Nature Is My Mistress, it’s the only visual record of many of the lost paintings.

But Young didn’t let the fire defeat him. Amazingly keen and alert despite his years, he played 18 holes of golf twice a week. He moved into a brown-shingle carriage house down the hill from the old-frame mansion. He lived three more years, recapturing his favorite scenes of long ago.

“The landscapes were gone forever unless I mustered enough strength to paint them again,” he said. “My knowledge has grown. If I had the physical vigor, I could paint better than ever.”
 

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The charm of his pictures lies in his sensitivity to the precise light, shade, temperature and moisture. Many of his works still hang in homes and galleries all over the world.

And yet, these days, Young’s work is an enigma in the arts market—especially compared to Bucks County impressionists Redfield and Garber. Their output has been heavily marketed on a national scale over the past 25 years, in part thanks to an article in Antiques magazine. At a recent Sotheby’s auction, a Redfield painting brought in $996,000. By comparison, Philip Rosenfeld, director of the Pennsylvania Art Conservancy in Berwyn, sold two of Young’s paintings for $85,000 and $50,000 apiece in late 2009.

“Redfield and Garber have much larger bodies of work, so they are more available,” says Rosenfeld. “So many of Young’s foxhunting paintings are in the Chester County area, and they’re difficult to shake out of a collection.”

Beyond the scores of paintings lost in the fire, there are other disadvantages to consider. Young married a wealthy woman and wasn’t a part of the New York art scene, so he never gained that type of notoriety. “Young led a very comfortable Philadelphia lifestyle and wasn’t driven to pursue the dangerous art world beyond,” says Hunt historian McNeil. “He didn’t have that fire in the belly like Garber or [Hugh] Breckenridge.”

Young devoted much of his late career to a series of fishing and golf scenes at St. Davids Golf Club in Radnor. A serious look at those half-dozen oils reveals an artist painting in an increasingly free and expressive manner.

Shortly before this, Young appeared in the celebrated Alfred Hitchcock film Marnie. “Part of it was filmed in this region,” says Radnor Hunt member Leonard King. “And Young turns up in one scene as, what else? An artist standing at his easel painting a foxhunt from a hilltop.”
 

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