In 1953 Helen Haseltine Plowden, the daughter of William Stanley Haseltine (1835–1900), gave the National Gallery of Art one of her father's earliest oil studies, Marina Piccola, Capri, 1858. In 1991, in honor of the Gallery's fiftieth anniversary, Guest Services Corporation gave the museum Haseltine's stunningly beautiful Natural Arch at Capri, 1871. Until recently, however, the Gallery's collection did not include one of Haseltine's celebrated American "rock portraits"—the geologically precise views of New England's rocky coast that brought the artist his earliest acclaim. That gap has now been filled with a splendid—and previously unknown—view of Narragansett Bay completed in 1864. In pristine condition, unlined, and on its original stretcher, the painting is a gift of Alexander and Judith Laughlin.
William Stanley Haseltine was born in Philadelphia, the son of a successful businessman and an amateur landscape painter. Educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard College, he studied with German-born artist Paul Weber before traveling in 1855 to Düsseldorf where he quickly joined the large contingent of young American artists already drawn to the city by its famous art academy. In 1858, before returning to Philadelphia, Haseltine undertook an extensive sketching trip along the southern coast of Italy. For an artist who would later gain fame for his views of coastal New England, the experience of sketching the rugged cliffs of Capri and the vertiginous rock walls near Sorrento and Amalfi served as near-perfect preparation.
Shortly after his return to the United States, Haseltine moved to New York City, took a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, and set out on a summer sketching tour along the New England coast. In the fall he returned to New York with a portfolio of plein-air studies—the raw material he would use to create studio paintings during the winter months. Shortly after he began exhibiting his meticulously rendered coastal views, critics praised the paintings, declaring that science and art were equally well served in such works. At a time when art critic John Ruskin was preaching "truth to nature" and Harvard's Louis Agassiz was extolling the wonders of geology in public lectures, Haseltine's rock portraits found an audience already keenly aware of the ancient story told by New England's coastal rocks.
Narragansett Bay is a superb example of Haseltine's best work. Foreground rocks shelter still pools of water as waves break against more distant boulders. Two figures are visible near the center of the composition—a seated woman and a man with a fishing pole. In the middle distance, sailboats skim the waves, and on the far shore is the granite tower of Beavertail Lighthouse. At the horizon, in the far distance, is Newport. In the American galleries, Narragansett Bay will join equally accomplished works by Haseltine's friends and contemporaries John Frederick Kensett, John La Farge, and Alfred Thompson Bricher.
lower left: W.S.H / 64
Rolla L. Bigelow [d. 1952], Winter Park, Florida; by inheritance to his wife, Doris Bissell Bigelow [d. 1984], Lexington, Massachusetts; by inheritance to their son, Robert P. Bigelow, Winchester, Massachusetts; purchased April 2010 by NGA.