Illuminating the Hudson
Nyack artist John Beerman’s light-filled canvases depict the mighty river discovered by his famous ancestor
Photographs by Ken Gabrielsen
You can smell the oil paint by the time you get to the top of the second flight of steps leading to artist John Beerman’s studio. Located on the third floor of a rambling 19th-century Victorian home in Nyack, the studio is overflowing with glass jars filled with paint brushes; small tubs of oil paint in a rainbow of colors; gold frames hanging from the walls; and art books piled high on shelves, chairs, and tables. Light floods the room through the large windows and affords a partial view of Beerman’s favorite subject — the Hudson River.
In the center of the studio is an easel with the artist’s historical oil sketch of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon sailing on the river in 1609. Painted in beautiful sun-soaked shades of blue, yellow, gold, orange, and brown, the sketch was made in preparation for The Half Moon, the painting Beerman is working on for the American Heritage Rivers Alliance (AHRA) in celebration of the Hudson Valley’s Quadricentennial. On June 19, the work will be unveiled at Riverspace, Nyack’s community arts center; in September, the AHRA will give the painting as a gift to President Obama during a White House ceremony.
A native of Greensboro, NC, Beerman, 50, says he was drawn to the Hudson River from the first time he came to the area to visit his wife, Susan Roth Beerman, back when they were dating in the early 1980s. “I came to visit and never left,” he recalls. The couple met while attending a summer program given by the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Beerman moved into his wife’s childhood home even before he graduated from college at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the two continue to live in the Nyack abode with their two children and Susan’s mother.
“We’re a block away from the Hudson River. I fell in love with it and started painting all around here, capturing the landscape along the river,” Beerman says. Confirming that the Valley has become his adoptive home, he points out, “I feel this is where I belong and I can work the rest of my lifetime right here.”
Another thing drawing Beerman to the Hudson is his relationship to the man who discovered it. “Henry Hudson is my great-grandfather times six,” he says. While he has long known that his mother’s ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, Beerman had only heard rumors about his connection to the famous explorer. At his wife’s urging a couple of years ago, he got in touch with an uncle, John Thorne. Thorne, the family historian, was able to uncover documentation that confirmed his relationship to Hudson. “Now, I also have a historical connection to the river,” he says.
When Beerman first started his career as an artist, he created abstract paintings. His focus soon changed after he and his wife moved to East Hampton for a few seasons. While living there, he visited the local library and discovered a book on the American Luminists, a school of painting characterized by the effects of light in landscapes. The Luminists were working at the same time as the Hudson River School artists, but as Beerman points out, “They had less drama and more quietude.
“I couldn’t believe I had gone to art school and learned all about European artists and American artists post-World War II, but had never learned a thing about these 19th-century American painters. It really was a revelation to me,” Beerman recalls. “I started seeing the landscape through their eyes, and it was really the landscape of that area — big wide open spaces, water, and boats. I just took to it and never went back to abstract painting.”
According to his mother-in-law Sylvia Roth, an art consultant and owner of Hudson River Editions, a fine art printing company, “John doesn’t copy the 19th century, he brings the 19th-century imagery and sensibility to the 21st century. He’s also incorporated everything he knows about abstract painting — color, composition, light, and layering. I’d call him a contemporary painter of the American landscape.”
Over the past 25 years, Beerman has built quite a name for himself as a painter of the Hudson River and other locales that range from the Eastern Seaboard to the Southwest. He is represented by the prestigious Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City, and also exhibits at Weber Fine Art in Scarsdale and Greenwich as well as the Somerhill Gallery in his native North Carolina. In addition to having his work in the permanent collections of such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, he has the distinction of having received a commission for the governor’s mansion from George Pataki when he was in office.
Beerman says he chose to paint the picture for Pataki from Trophy Point, the promontory at West Point where George Washington once positioned troops to fire cannonballs down on the British as they were coming up the river. “I went there specifically for this painting because Pataki was born across the river [from Trophy Point] in Peekskill,” says Beerman. “I had a beautiful view of the area. You can’t see the town, and it looks like raw, untouched land the whole way up north.”
In 2006, the artist was commissioned to create 10 paintings for X20 Xaviars on the Hudson, the award-winning restaurant situated on a Victorian pier that is still in use on the Yonkers riverfront. In the last one he completed — the largest, at six-by-ten feet — he depicted a view of the river from Yonkers. If you look closely at the lower right-hand corner of the canvas, you’ll see restaurant owner and chef Peter X. Kelly leaning against a railing by the river. Another insider’s note is that Beerman actually put himself in the picture, returning two months after the painting was hung in the restaurant. “I’m sitting on a stool sketching a scene in the lower left-hand corner,” he points out.
In order to get the river vista from Yonkers just right, Beerman secured an invitation to be a guest on the Riverkeeper’s patrol boat and spent the entire day sketching. “I went out there in the fall and spent quite a bit of time on the water,” he recalls. “I stayed until the sun set and came back in the dark.”
Among the artist’s favorite Hudson Valley spots to paint these days is Hook Mountain, which is located about three miles north of the Tappan Zee Bridge in Rockland County. In fact, it’s the mountain in the background of the painting he is creating for the Quadricentennial. “It is so sculptural and dramatic in the way that it goes right into the water,” he says. “It catches the light beautifully. At certain times of year when the sun is setting, the exposed rock turns this beautiful orangey-red-ochre color. It’s greens and blues and that orange color in the summer, and in the winter it’s reds and violets.”
Sketching from the “Half Moon House,” a property in Upper Nyack, the artist was able to capture the scenery where the Half Moon would have docked at a nearby a stream. “Legend has it that on Henry Hudson’s first trip up the Hudson River, he stopped there to fill the ship with fresh water for his crew,” says Beerman.
Although the artist was unable to see the Half Moon replica when it was docked nearby, he did extensive research to find an accurate depiction of the boat. “I had pictures and also went on the Internet to find and print out a lot of reproductions of the boat. I wanted it to be at a certain angle, and I finally found what I was looking for and then turned it around in Photoshop,” he explains.
Looking closely at Beerman’s serene paintings, you feel that there is something looming there beyond what’s actually depicted. “What I hope to convey in my work is a great spirit, God, or whatever you want to call it; but something beyond just a representational work of nature, something that hints at things that aren’t seen. I feel that all true art reaches this point,” he says. “It transcends the subject matter that it’s representing and speaks to you in other ways, emotionally and spiritually.”