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Which Road to Take
Marka Rifat on finding new worlds while stuck at home.
In the olden days, that is, pre-2020, in a legitimately crowded restaurant, I overheard a woman celebrating her 100th birthday: “When I was a girl, we never went beyond the next village. And we were happy,” she announced. Incredible, I thought then. Now it is the norm. And so, this week, I venture, safe and fancy-free, into Thomas Proudley Otter’s 1860 oil painting On the Road.
Otter lived, worked, and died in the place he closely studied and loved, Pennsylvania. It took a century from its completion for On the Road to be appreciated widely, in a touring Smithsonian Institute exhibition, but I had to wait until 2008 before his spacious painting traveled yet farther, in the exhibition Art in the Age of Steam, to Liverpool, England.
His picture speaks to exploration, the long, robust Conestoga wagon leaving the viewer to cross the continent for a better life, although I discovered that this emblem of the great trek was rarely used west of Missouri. Its rough path follows the natural curves of the land while a rail track slices clean across the painting and country. A steam train—with puffs of smoke echoing the dust clouds created by the Conestoga—approaches a smart, low bridge which spans the wagon driver’s uneven route. The old ways and the new, as J.M.W. Turner painted in his dynamic Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway, exhibited sixteen years earlier. But Turner’s interpretation is more akin to Grant Wood’s 1935 Death on the Ridge Road—the viewer has no choice about velocity and danger. Otter calmly lets you decide.
Stepping into On the Road, I can relish the slow path, observe nature, converse with pioneers, or hurtle West through the landscape, schmutz in my hair, or simply sit beside the listing milestone in the foreground and rest in Otter’s peaceful Pennsylvania countryside.
Marka Rifat writes reviews, plays, stories, and poems from her base in a small Scottish town. She greatly misses art galleries and museums and traveling.
Thomas Proudley Otter (1832-1890) trained at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was known for his depictions of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His work fell into obscurity until the 1970s, when interest in his realistic paintings was renewed.