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New Jersey native Louis Rowell spent the majority of his life in the picturesque foothills village of Tryon, North Carolina. Arriving there as a young man with no known academic art training, he nonetheless came to be praised as the Blue Ridge Mountains’ “most loving interpreter,” earning acclaim for vistas that captured “the quiet charms, [and] the inscrutable mystery of lights and shadows.” “The spirit of art is unteachable,” Rowell once told an interviewer. “The most that tutoring can be expected to do is to develop what is within. In my opinion, a painting has only two reasons for existing: it must express a great thought or it must be a thing of beauty within itself.”

The Rowell family’s move from New Jersey to North Carolina in the late nineteenth century was prompted by his mother’s contraction of tuberculosis. Famous for its fresh, healing air, western North Carolina was a popular destination for patients seeking relief from respiratory ailments. When both parents died, Rowell stayed on. A talented pianist, he was a popular performer and offered lessons as a source of income. Tryon was a vibrant cultural community at the time—and especially appealing to intellectual and creative artists from Northern states who preferred milder winters and slower paces, such as Lawrence Mazzanovich. One seasonal resident of the burgeoning art colony—plein air painter Amelia Montague Watson—became Rowell’s primary mentor. A superb watercolorist in the American Tonalist style, Watson instructed and inspired Rowell, who began to create works on paper that attracted the attention and patronage of local collectors and the critical establishment, as noted by one Asheville newspaper in 1908: “A characteristic of Mr. Rowell’s [watercolors] is the subtlety of the painting of the mountains, which loom vaguely in the distance, veiled in blue. . . . Another distinctive feature . . .  is his special gift for painting water. . . . Mr. Rowell has done some excellent work which has received flattering notice throughout the country.” Another friend and frequent visitor, Savannah-born artist Valentino Molina, also influenced Rowell’s artistic development, particularly Rowell’s technique with oil paints.

By 1910, Rowell was a regular exhibitor at the Lanier Club in Tryon, which served as an artistic center for the town. A prolific producer, he also frequently exhibited at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville and farther afield in various Atlanta galleries. As public appreciation for the Tryon school of painters grew in the 1920s, Rowell was often singled out as someone “who seems to get the spirit of the place.” Johns River Valley, N.C. is a fine example of his interest in contrasting form, as evidenced by the clearly delineated forested hillside, rendered in green, set against the vague distant landscape cloaked in subtle tones of mauve and grey. Based on the strength of oil paintings like this, Rowell had his first New York show in 1926. Held at Denks Gallery on 57th Street, the solo presentation was considered a complete success.

Unlike many of the artists associated with the Tryon style, Rowell came of age in the place and responded to it in the true arts and crafts style of the era, rendering honest impressions of what he saw, not what he imagined. His penchant for alcohol, however, was a perennial stumbling block to his creative activity, economic security, and health, particularly in the era of Prohibition. Estranged from his surviving family, Rowell spent the last two years of his life periodically hospitalized in an Asheville sanatorium, where he eventually died in the summer of 1928. The cause was officially noted as “exhaustion from mania,” although news of his death was not disclosed until after his burial. Later that year, the Denks Gallery hosted a memorial exhibition of Louis Rowell’s work.