'October is the month for painted leaves,'' Henry David Thoreau declared in his 19th-century essay ``Autumnal Tints.'' He meant it figuratively, but he might as well have been literal.
A tourist magnet of the first order in New England, the fall foliage has for even longer been an object of inspiration among artists. In fact, many think the landscape paintings of 19th-century artists contributed to the region's reputation for dazzlingly colorful leaves in autumn.
``If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look farther within or without the tree or the wood,'' Thoreau wrote. As if to challenge the artists, he asked, ``What School of Design can vie with this?''
Whether the artists succeeded is in the eye of the beholder, but there seems little question that painters over the centuries have interpreted the season's colors and moods in almost every conceivable way.
There are paintings that dare to represent the peak of New England foliage -- lots of reds, yellows and orange -- as we have now. And there are paintings that seek to capture a moment in the season or an element of the landscape, like a stand of birches with yellow leaves, or the first red maple turning amid a forest of green, and make a statement with those images.
Among those who grabbed paint and brush and attempted to capture the glory of the season was Jasper F. Cropsey, a member of the Hudson River School, a group of mostly 19th-century artists who specialized in romantic images of rugged American scenes, especially in the Northeast. Cropsey made autumn scenes his specialty, and did them well. The English, especially Queen Victoria, flipped over them.
``Of all the artists in the Hudson River School, I think it was Cropsey who was able to capture that incredible light and color of autumn foliage,'' said Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum of American Art.
A Cropsey titled ``Lake Wawayanda, Sussex County, New Jersey,'' hangs at the New Britain museum. It is a landscape dominated by the lake, but the left shore is characteristically ablaze in orange, red and yellow leaves.
``It's like music, a little fall sonata,'' Hyland said.
Considering that on a sunny October day with a deep blue sky, a hillside of sugar maples, hickories, ashes and birches can be an almost painfully bright pastiche of reds, oranges, greens, yellows and shades of purple and blue, artists have done a remarkable job capturing the essence of the season.
Even abstract painters have been inspired. One of Jackson Pollock's most famous works, ``Autumn Rhythm (Number 30),'' from 1950, while nonrepresentational, is said to evoke the season with its colors and texture.
Of course, a leaf isn't necessarily just a leaf, or a splatter of paint a splatter of paint, whatever its color.
``Hook Mountain,'' a painting by Hudson River School artist Sanford Gifford, is an example. Bryan J. Wolf, professor of American Studies and English at Yale University, who specializes in American art history and culture, says that painting of a mountain near West Point shows water and sky with a foreground of autumnal colors. Missing from the scene are the industrial works of the period, including steamboats and factories.
``What he was trying to do was evoke the colors of autumn as a way of healing after the Civil War,'' Wolf said. ``This is a landscape that does not know North or South. We can all share this scene of beauty.''
Likewise, the blood-red leaves in the foreground of Winslow Homer's ``Skirmish in the Wilderness,'' an 1864 painting also at New Britain, convey a message beyond pretty leaves. The painting shows soldiers bogged down in a dark, dense forest.
Jack Becker, curator of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, said some of the Connecticut Impressionists, part of the broader Impressionist movement, had a strong interest in fall scenes.
For many of them, preoccupied with light and color, it was a season of great opportunity, a chance to work with the entire palette.
Childe Hassam's ``The Ledges, October in Old Lyme,'' is a 1907 painting on exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum. It is a landscape of granite ledges and what appear to be black birches, the work dominated by blues and autumnal gold that are evocative of a certain kind of day and light in October.
That art imitates life is no surprise. But in the case of colorful leaves, there is at least one great example in Connecticut of life inspiring art that in turn inspired art and life.
Among the influences on Frederick Law Olmstead, the Hartford-born father of American landscape architecture, were the landscapes painted by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, inspired by nature. Those paintings inspired Olmstead, who took into account tree shapes and leaf colors as he designed the landscaping for many parks, including New Britain's Walnut Hill Park, adjacent to the museum.
``So it is art inspiring landscape design,'' Hyland said.