Cameos of Art Museums' Collections of Historic American Art

Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Buffalo, New York



The Marina Piccola, Capri, 1859

Albert Bierstadt, The Marina Piccola, Capri


The I9th century saw a stream of American artists traveling to Italy attracted by the vestiges of antiquity and the beauties of the country side. In this tradition Albert Bierstadt spent the winter of 1856-57 in Rome in the company of Worthington Whittredge, and in May 1857 he and Sanford R. Gifford set out on a journey to the south. Their experiences are chronicled in Cifford's unpublished journals in the Archives of American Art. Traveling primarily on foot with knapsacks and sketching equipment they stopped wherever scenery or local subjects diverted them. They went to Naples, Avernum and Vesuvius first, then to Capri, Sorrento, Amalfi and Paestum. Following the methods practiced at Dusseldorf, Bierstadt made many open-air sketches to be assembled later into finished paintings in his studio. During a month-long stay in Capri he must have produced a number of studies, some of which can be seen in the Karolik Collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.

One product of this visit to Capri was the painting The Marina Piccola, Capri, for many years mistitled Marina Grande, which depicts the smaller of Capri's two bays, with the picturesque Faraglioni Rocks in the background. Gifford reports that the two artists spent fifteen days sketching at this location. The final painting, however, was not executed until the spring of I859, well after Bierstadt's return to the United States. It was then exhibited at the National Academy in May.

Just beginning his professional career and obviously eager to make an impression at the National Academy exhibition of which he had become an Honorary Member that year, Bierstadt created a highly ambitious and complex composition. Multiple points of focus, from the carefully detailed genre scenes in the foreground to the distant, mist-enshrouded rocks, are unified through strong lighting and an emphatic perspective construction. Along the mountains at the left, color and atmosphere are evenly graded to create a gradual recession into space. In the water this transition is more abrupt, especially at the extreme right where perspective is foreshortened and the dark foreground rocks are poetically echoed by the eccentric formations in the distance. The center of the composition is commanded by a strip of dazzling reflections, despite the fact that this involves an overhead light source inconsistent with the long shadows on the beach. A lone sailboat, suspended in mist and light becomes the main focal point of the picture and summarizes its romantic mood. Although Bierstadt may have been familiar with earlier American paintings of Italian views, a close parallel being The Isle of Capri, 1848, by Jasper F. Cropsey, he is primarily indebted to the Dusseldorf landscape tradition as established by Johann Wilhelm Schirmer and the brothers Achenbach for his crisp technique and concern for detail.

The Marina Piccola, Capri was the first painting to enter the collection of The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, a gift of the artist in 1863. At the time of its presentation Bierstadt wrote:

May I ask you to accept whatever is good in it, as a sincere expression of my best wishes for the true and abundant success of the Academy, and a small payment on account of the large debt which every artist owes to his profession.


Peaceable Kingdom, c. 1848


Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom


A man of staunch religious conviction, Edward Hicks found in the Biblical theme of the Peaceable Kingdom an inexhaustible source of inspiration. He is thought to have repeated it in as many as a hundred different "painted sermons," of which some fifty survive today. These vary in date from about 1820, when Hicks first took up easel painting, to 1849, the year of his death, and generally were produced as gifts or commissioned work for relatives, neighbors and friends. His textual source was Isaiah XI: 6-9, which prophesies the coming of the Messiah and his gift of peace:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice's den;

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

This painting is among those that illustrate the text most faithfully. It has been shown, however, that underlying the series as a whole is a strong element of personal symbolism. This symbolism is rooted in Hicks's Quaker beliefs. He interprets Isaiah not only as a message of salvation but also as a statement on human nature (he spoke of the animals as representing the four temperaments) and on man's ability to transcend his inward and worldly struggles. Understood in this broader sense, therefore, the Kingdoms may be seen as veiled comments on moral issues as diverse as pacifism, Hicks's torment over his artistic vocation (disapproved by many Quaker friends) and conflicts within the church. The small scene at the left in which William Penn signs a treaty with the Indians, derived from a print after Benjamin West's famous painting, underscores the painter's conviction that Penn's agreement announced a stage in the establishment of the foretold peaceable kingdom on earth.

Although few of the Kingdoms can be dated with precision, Alice Ford has grouped the many versions into several distinct periods, placing this painting in the final one, 1845-49. The Kingdoms of this last period are the most technically advanced and the most peaceful in mood. Space is less cramped. The treaty scene is played down, and children and animals now occupy with equanimity the "awful pit" in the foreground. Previously awkward beasts take on a new grace and appealing charm, while greater openness of composition heightens the sense of serenity and easy movement. Hicks's increased facility as well, perhaps, as an awareness of his own impending death, help account for the fact that he produced in his last years a larger number of Kingdoms than in any previous period.

The Coming Storm, 1878


George Inness, The Coming Storm


The subject of the coming storm, a popular one in 19th century romantic painting, appears more than two dozen times in Inness's oeuvre over a thirty-year period. Unlike many of his contemporaries who chose to portray untamed wilderness, George Inness, like the French Barbizon painters, preferred an intimate, domesticated or, in his words, a "civilized" landscape.

A convert in middle-age to Swedenborgian thought, Inness saw nature as reflecting a spiritual realm in which man is part of a harmonious Whole, neither subordinate to nature nor totally her master. The Coming Storm presents a heroic vision in which the small human figure gives scale to the storm, psychologically as well as physically. Painted in 1878, it comes from Inness's middle period when he had achieved a balance between the requirements of realistic representation and painterly process. The billowing clouds and unnatural lighting caused by the storm enable him to explore painterly effects, but with a strong sense of structure usually lacking in his later, more diffuse compositions.

The Coming Storm was given by Inness to Mrs. William Bryan, headmistress of the boarding school in Batavia, New York, attended by his daughters, to help defray the expenses of their schooling. The locale depicted has not been conclusively identified but may be near North Conway, New Hampshire.

Read more about the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Resource Library Magazine

Text and images courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1998 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.