This last Saturday morning I set off on a quick trip to Manchester, Vermont. I had been looking forward to this bittersweet moment for almost 6 months. The destination was the Southern Vermont Art Center and an exhibit of 100 masterpieces all by the same person, my cousin Brian.
After Brian’s sudden death last year at only 61 years of age, his sister Mary Beth decided to devote the following months to gathering up over 500 of Brian’s paintings, having them all professionally photographed by George Bouret, the photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, publishing a book about Brian, and organizing an exhibit of 100 of Brian’s paintings at the Southern Vermont Art Center. Saturday August 2nd, 2014, was the culmination of all of Mary Beth’s hard work, the opening of Brian’s retrospective entitled Brian Sweetland’s Nature - A Vermont Artist’s Journey.
My brother, my sister, and I were all reuniting with our first cousins, four of Brian’s 5 siblings, some of whom we hadn’t seen in over 40 years! Brian’s paintings were bringing us all together. It was truly bittersweet, exciting to see our long lost relatives, exciting to see a significant collection of Brian’s work, and sad to see Brian’s palette, paints, easel and unfinished work as found in his studio, knowing all that the world will miss.
Brian was a solitary man whom everyone loved. He was a gentle, kind soul. He spoke fluent French. He had perfect pitch. He read the classics and had a vocabulary that would impress even the most intellectual. But his true passion was painting. He was a painter’s painter! He painted plein air in Vermont year round! He dedicated his life to painting and produced in his short lifetime over 1500 paintings.
I always knew Brian was a great painter. We own two of his paintings from his early years. He was an early influence in my decision to become an artist, an inspiration, and I always wanted to buy more of his work. As time would have it, years and years went by without me seeing his progression. I knew he was busy painting, selling his work, and loving what he was doing. That made me happy. But, I had no idea that he had developed, I dare say, into one of the all-time greatest Impressionist painters ever!
I use the term Impressionist loosely because his subjects have a very intimate sense of realism to them. My brother commented about the cows in the paintings looking like they could walk right out of the painting. The old farm tractors appear so realistic that you imagine that Brian probably could have done all of the repair work on them and made them run like new. There was a painting of the 1950s New York Yankee baseball greats with portraits of the players that rivals any sports painting at the National Portrait Gallery. His meadow scenes, and valley scenes rival any of the great French Impressionists and capture the soft Vermont light to perfection. A number of still lifes and portraits amazed all those who only knew Brian as a landscape painter.
Brian’s brother Bill told me that Brian sometimes would stand and look at his painting for 15 minutes before he would apply a dab of paint. Yet his paintings were filled with little dabs of paint - little brilliant, masterful dabs of paint. So many that I wondered how could he possibly have been so prolific? I marveled at the amount of work and love he put into each painting. I marveled at the creative use of color and how the colors all worked together in perfect harmony.
The opening was a huge success, with people coming from everywhere. We drove up to a full parking lot with the only parking available on the overflow grassy area. The modest, humble Brian Sweetland must have been looking down in amazement that so many people showed up to admire his work and reconnect with him.
I walked away feeling I had just witnessed history in the making. The collection of work was awe-inspiring. It was beyond anything that I imagined. Brian had developed his own unique style over the years, creating paintings filled with magical brushwork. He was a true genius with his brush. I think this exhibit that Mary Beth devoted so much time to, in loving memory of her brother, will help Brian’s paintings find their way into the large museums right alongside the other masters, where they truly belong.
The exhibition will continue through October 26th. If you love art, Impressionism, Realism, and have a chance to visit the Southern Vermont Art Center I guarantee you will love this show. If you can’t make it, remember the name Brian Sweetland, he is already one of the greats!