Crowning the New Haven skyline and visible from afar are two distinctive cliffs, East Rock and West Rock, that have inspired and fascinated artists and scientists for centuries.
Famous artists like Hartford-born Frederic Church, a major figure in the Hudson River School of landscape artists, and Childe Hassam, one of the most celebrated of the American Impressionists, painted them.
Prominent geologists for decades during the 19th century argued about their origins, one side saying they emerged from a once vast sea, the other saying they were the result of volcanic eruption.
Now, in the just-published "New Haven Sentinels: The Art and Science of East Rock and West Rock," (Wesleyan University Press, 180 pages, hardcover $30, e-book $23.99) Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and John Wareham bring it all together, providing in text and images the scientific and artistic significance of these two distinctive formations.
Wareham, the video production manager at Wesleyan, photographed many of the artworks that appear in the book, some of them otherwise little known today but nonetheless compelling, evocative and far more numerous than might be expected. Other images, some of them internationally regarded, were provided by institutions where the original art is exhibited.
De Boer, Wesleyan's Harold T. Stearns professor of earth science, emeritus, believes that East Rock and West Rock are not only geologically significant, but also important for the role they played in the development of American art.
The two cliffs became a source of inspiration at the very time when American art was morphing from portraiture to landscapes, and by later in the 19th century they were significant subjects as painters explored en plein air painting, French for painting in the outdoors.
Geologically, the Metacomet Ridge, which runs north-south through the central part of Connecticut and into Massachusetts, along with nearby East Rock and West Rock, "formed in the embryonic stage of the opening of the Atlantic Ocean basin, at the time when Africa and North America were still glued together," de Boer said in an interview.
De Boer used to tell his students that in those days, about 201 million years ago, "you could ride your bike in New Haven and in a few days be in West Africa."
The Metacomet Ridge and East and West rocks were central to 19th-century debate over the geological origins of the rock features, with one school of thought — they were known as Neptunists — holding that all rocks had formed from precipitation and growth of minerals at the bottom of a universal ocean, only to be exposed when the sea receded in places.
That idea clashed with another held by the so-called Plutonists who believed that the origins of basalt mountains such as East and West rocks were volcanic, and the rocks had been first emitted from Earth's interior in molten form. It took many years, but the Plutonist theory won out.
Both mountains are what geologists call geotypes, "geologic sites with noteworthy aesthetic, cultural, historic and scientific value," de Boer writes.
Among the many cultural associations with the two cliffs is the story behind the large, highly recognizable rock formation perched on top of West Rock that was left behind when the ice sheet that once covered Connecticut receded. It was there that two of the judges who signed the death warrant of Charles I in England were pursued by agents of Charles II. They fled to New Haven and hid for almost a month in what is known to this day as Judges Cave Rock.
In what amounts to a fascinating hypothesis, de Boer also makes a persuasive case for the likelihood that Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School, used West Rock and the distinctive and famous rock that tops it as a recurring iconic image in his famous, allegorical, five-painting series called "The Course of Empire."
In each of the Cole paintings, an unusual geological formation with a steep cliff on one side and a huge boulder on top can be seen. In planning his major work, Cole said he wanted to include a landmark of peculiar form to show that each painting represented the same location.
"There is no other spot in New England or New York State with a huge, weird rock sitting on top of an asymmetrical mountain right above its cliff face," de Boer said. Moreover, he said, his research shows Cole was familiar with East Rock, West Rock and the Metacomet Ridge, having visited with friends in the Hartford and New Haven areas and hiked along the ridge to paint landscapes at least twice.
Also, about three years before beginning "The Course of Empire" paintings, Cole, in a list of "Subjects for pictures," said the story of the judges was a subject worthy of exploration in poetry and painting.
Moreover, Cole visited New Haven just before beginning work on the five paintings and met with famed Yale geologist Benjamin Silliman. De Boer thinks Silliman "no doubt" took Cole to West Rock to see Judges Cave Rock.
That distinctive mountain in Cole's series of paintings — the book includes a color image of one of the paintings — is, de Boer believes, "New Haven's glorious West Rock."
Elizabeth B. Jacks, executive director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N. H., is intrigued by de Boer's hypothesis.
"It is a very interesting idea, I'll have to look into it," she said. A first step would be to contact Cole scholars who are consultants for the Hudson River School art trail, an assemblage of sites made famous by painters of the school including Cole, she said.
Given the evidence de Boer has gathered, she said, it might well be possible that West Rock could be added to the art trail. "This would be a pretty neat addition," she said.
"New Haven's Sentinels" includes a helpful geologic glossary of more of the technical terms used in the text. Information on the Hudson River School art trail is available at http://www.hudsonriverschool.org.
Contact Steve Grant at email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun