Historical society celebrates the work of former Bloomfield painter – Essex News Daily

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Photos Courtesy of the Historical Society of Bloomfield
Above left is a painting by Charles Warren Eaton and, above right, the photograph he took in Italy on which the painting is based.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The Historical Society of Bloomfield has added a section to its website containing photographs taken in Europe by the painter Charles Warren Eaton.

Generally considered a tonalist for his use of muted colors in depicting intimate landscapes, Eaton, 1857-1937, lived for many years in Bloomfield, at 63 Monroe Place, and is buried in the Bloomfield Cemetery. He often based his paintings on photographs and had traveled, with camera and tripod, to France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and England. The website also includes a stunning subsection pairing photographs to the paintings Eaton produced from them.

A cache of some 1,300 photograph negatives had been donated to the society in 1975 by a former township resident who knew Eaton. Richard Rockwell, an HSB member and Bloomfield councilman, undertook a personal project to print and research the images, when possible aligning them with the paintings they helped produce, and created the new website section, which recently went online.

In an interview at the society’s museum, located on the third floor of the Bloomfield Children’s Library at 90 Broad St., Rockwell said his project began three years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. He knew the trove of acetate negatives existed because he had come upon them by chance while working on a Morris Canal project for the Bloomfield 2012 bicentennial. The negatives of the waterway are attributed to Eaton, and their images can also be viewed on the society website. These were cataloged and captioned by Robert Goller in 1976.

“I was also learning how to scan negatives,” Rockwell said, “and I knew we had some of Eaton’s paintings in the museum and the Bloomfield Public Library.”

Rockwell located the Europe negatives. They had suffered limited damage over the years, including water damage, which ruined some.

“I knew we had the negatives, but I didn’t know where,” he said. “And I knew we had the Morris Canal negatives, too, but I didn’t know where. I knew they were here. They were in the containers in which we received them.”

According to Rockwell, when Eaton died he left his estate to Priscilla Polkinghorn, who had grown up in the neighborhood.

“She inherited 500 paintings, property and the negatives,” Rockwell said. “Her father was a close friend to Eaton. They spent a lot of time together, and Priscilla was like a niece to him. I’m sure she sold some of the paintings. She had to pay his debts. There was a time when Eaton was a popular painter.”

Rockwell said Eaton lived with a sister and built an Italian-inspired garden and a studio in the backyard. According to Rockwell, Eaton was a member of the Montclair Photography Club.

One of the reasons Rockwell wanted to find the negatives taken in Europe was because he wanted to see if he could connect them to the paintings.

“What I learned about negatives is you can’t tell what you have until you turn it into a positive,” he said.

Rockwell produced positive images by digitally scanning the negatives, which are approximately 3 by 4 inches each. He scanned all 1,300 negatives, minus the 50 or so that were too damaged to yield an image. Nine hundred of the images are on the website.

“I did this over three winters when I had nothing else to do,” he said. “It probably takes a few minutes to scan each negative. The ones that had really good compositions and locations, I straightened and cropped them and balanced the lighting. Some of the pictures were taken from really intense angles.”

He also colorized some of the positive images.

“It was a lot of work, but fun,” he said. “I loved looking at them and thinking how to break them up into meaningful groups for the website. It was like a trip to Europe for me. I had never heard of some of the places Eaton photographed.”

Eaton’s photography and the paintings they helped produce can be viewed at www.charleswarreneaton.org.