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An Artist's Paradise: Minnesota Landscapes 1840-1940
The Minnesota Museum of American Art presents the exhibition An Artist's Paradise: Minnesota Landscapes 1840-1940, through June 22, 2003 in its second floor galleries in Landmark Center, downtown Saint Paul, Organized by the Museum, it features 70 paintings, prints, and works on paper from eight museums and several private lenders. Included are works by Hudson River School artists Albert Bierstadt and Robert Duncanson; American Impressionists Alexis Fournier and Nicholas Brewer; and Midwest Regionalists Wanda Gág and Cameron Booth. The landscapes in this exhibition span a century of Minnesota history and represent both artistic interpretations of the land and experiences that have shaped the state. Lin Nelson-Mayson, former Curator of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, co-curated An Artist's Paradise with art scholar and Museum docent Bill Wittenbreer. Nelson-Mayson remarked, "Because American landscape painting reflects the current social attitude as well as documents the countryside, these pictures of Minnesota reveal the attraction of beautiful scenery, the pride of prosperous home places, and links to national concerns. Through this exhibition, a visitor will be able to observe 100 years of changes to Minnesota's land, communities, workplaces, and art." (left: Nicholas Brewer, Winter Scene, 1920, oil on canvas, 25 1/4 x 30 inches, Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art)
From its earliest history, Minnesota was closely tied to the myth of the West, which was considered a "Garden of Eden" or a "Paradise on Earth." For Minnesota, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha infused this myth with nineteenth century romanticism, linking the promise of the land to a trust in Divine Providence. Minnesota attracted painters from the East who traveled to the state to sketch and paint the scenery. They worked primarily in the French Barbizon or the Hudson River styles, emphasizing the grandeur of nature, and found that scenes of Minnesota's forests and waters had a ready market on the East Coast. As Minnesota's connections to the nation and the world increased, some artists softened their views of the land through the stylistic lens of Impressionism; others adopted the sharper edges and principles of European Modernism.Throughout this progression of styles, the one constant was the artist's attitude towards the land: a sense of promise. Artist Dewey Albinson said in 1921, "There is no place in America in which it is better to paint than Minnesota." This belief in the potential of the land is the lens through which artists interpreted the Minnesota landscape. Although at times this belief was challenged by adversity, it was never subdued. No distinct "Minnesota style" emerges, but these works provide a link to the artistic heritage of the nation through a Minnesota perspective. (left: Cameron Booth, Indian Camp, Leech Lake Indian Reservation, 1923, oil on canvas, 42 x 54 inches, Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art)
An Artist's Paradise is organized by the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Following is additional text excerpted from panels placed on the walls of the exhibition:
We must leave thee, Paradise. Good-bye, Minnesota, fair land of lake and prairie, of pleasant wood and rolling water.
Gail Hamilton, from her travelogue Gathering Wool, 1867
The landscapes in this exhibition span 100 years of Minnesota history, but they are more than that. They represent both artistic interpretations of the land and experiences that have shaped the state. From its earliest history, Minnesota was closely tied to the myth of the West. Considered a "Garden of Eden" or a "Paradise on Earth," the West was filled with the promise of unlimited opportunity. For Minnesota, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha infused this myth with nineteenth century romanticism, linking the promise of the land to a trust in divine providence.
Early artists who came to Minnesota worked primarily in the French Barbizon or the Hudson River style, emphasizing the grandeur of nature. As Minnesota's connections to the nation and the world increased, some artists softened their views of the land through the stylistic lens of Impressionism; others adopted the sharper edges and principles of European Modernism. Throughout this progression of styles, the one constant was the artist's attitude towards the land: a sense of promise. This belief in the potential of the land is the lens through which artists interpreted the Minnesota landscape. Although at times this belief was challenged by adversity, it was never subdued. No distinct "Minnesota style" emerges, but these works provide a link to the artistic heritage of the nation through a Minnesota perspective.
You'll find scenery between here and Saint Paul that can give the Hudson points.
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1874
A landscape painter, like a geographer, produces an image that is not totally objective. The image can be the result of direct observation, theory, personal attitude or long-standing myth. The most powerful of these factors is myth. The myth of an all-water passage to Asia was the basis for much of the early exploration of the Northwest Territory, an area that included what is now Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and part of Minnesota. The route was thought to be through a new Garden of Eden, a very beautiful, mineral rich and fertile land, ideally suited for human activities. "The West as Paradise" was the prevailing myth behind much of the settlement in the Western United States throughout the nineteenth century.
While the Western Paradise myth dominated nineteenth century thought in the United States, Americans had an almost insatiable appetite for news and images of the West. Because of this interest, Minnesota attracted painters from the East who traveled to the state to sketch and paint the scenery. They found that scenes of Minnesota's forests and waters had a ready market on the East Coast. These early artists were trained to paint European or Eastern landscapes and applied these techniques in their portrayal of Minnesota. Their legacy to later painters of the state was a focus on Minnesota through faithful allegiance to the myth of Paradise.
The statistics of the resources and possibilities, the growth and progress of Minnesota, reads like a fairy tale.
Governor Knute Nelson, Colombian Exposition, 1893
In 1890, Minnesota was full of confidence with its rapidly growing economy and population. No longer the frontier, the state was linked it to the rest of the nation by a network of railroads and ships. The landscape reflected this change. Saint Anthony Falls had operated over 45 mills, prairie lands were now farms, the forests were fueling the timber industry, Saint Paul and Minneapolis were recognized as national centers of commerce, and iron mining was changing the appearance of northern Minnesota. Over 20,000 Minnesotans traveled to the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago to celebrate their state's success.
Minnesota's artistic development reflected these prosperous conditions. Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Saint Cloud each had art schools. Art museums were established in Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Private galleries nourished, as well as collecting by wealthy individuals such as T. B. Walker and James J. Hill. In turn, these new collectors served as patrons to promising young artists such as Alexis Fournier and Wanda Gág.
Art produced in the state continued to reflect the latest trends in European and American art. If Minnesota artists did not study in Europe, they often went to New York to study under leading American artists of the time. Impressionism replaced the Hudson River School and Barbizon styles and aspects of European Modernism were beginning to be seen.
And to Make this earthly paradise complete and the fit home of a thrifty and hardy race, it is possessed and surrounded with an atmosphere pure, health-breeding and work inspiring....
Governor Knute Nelson, Colombian Exposition, 1893
There is no place in America in which it is better to paint than Minnesota.
Dewey Albinson, 1921
The Depression hit Minnesota hard. Iron mining in the North came to a standstill. Farmers were forced off their land as crops dried in the field. Manufacturing slowed to a trickle and experienced violent labor struggles, such as the trucker strike of 1934. Curiously, the art produced by Minnesota artists depicted little of this turmoil and is considered some of the best produced in the state.
Prior to the Depression, many artists began their careers in Minnesota, but had to move to more lucrative markets in the East to succeed with their art. The Depression changed this formula. When the art markets of the East Coast collapsed after the 1929 stock market crash, it was no longer financially viable to move there. It became more profitable to stay home.
Artists who returned to Minnesota during the Depression recreated the strong communities of artists they experienced in the East. They met in places like Clara Mairs' Nimbus Club to share ideas, technique and offer support. Painters Dewey Albinson and Cameron Booth each became influential teachers in the growing art schools of the Twin Cities. The State Fair became the major venue for the exhibition of new work. The biggest boon to Minnesota art was the federal art programs of the New Deal, administered locally by artist Clem Haupers. These programs provided jobs for many Minnesota artists.
The art of this period was optimistic and hopeful; it certainly did not portray the harshness of the time. The artists worked in a style termed "American Scene" painting, emphasizing themes of a peaceful country with a reassuring and usable past. Their styles ranged from carefully crafted Realism to broadly brushed images with shades of Modernism. Above all, artists worked with a passion for their subject material: Minnesota's land and people.
Local artists have only one choice: to depict the scene they were born in and the one they certainly know best.
Erle Loran, 1936
In the land of the Dacotahs, Where the Falls of Minnehaha Flash. . . ., From the waterfall he named her, Minnehaha, Laughing Water.
Mary Eastman, 1849
When Fort Snelling was established in 1819, few would have predicted that Brown's Falls or the Little Falls, a small waterfall on the northeast corner of the military reservation, was destined for national acclaim. Mary Eastman was probably the first white person to refer in print to the Falls as Minne-hah-hah or Laughing Waters in an 1849 poem written to accompany an illustration painted by her husband, Seth Eastman. The word "Minnehaha" is a combination of two Dakotah words: hah hah (fall) and minne (water).
Americans in the early nineteenth century were fascinated by the "picturesque," a romantic ideal of the grandeur of the American landscape. For many years, the Hudson River Valley of New York state was considered to be the prime example of the picturesque. However, by the 1840's, Americans began to look for new examples of the picturesque and the Mississippi River gradually replaced the Hudson River Valley. The Falls' popularity rose with Adolf Hoeffler"s statement in a 1853 Harper's article: "The Indians, in their exquisite appreciation of nature, had given a waterfall the appropriate name of Minnehaha, or the laughing water." By 1854, travelers went by rail and steamboat to Saint Paul on the "Fashionable Tour," to view Minnehaha Falls one of the most popular sites on the tour.
Alex Hesler, a daguerreotype artist and tourist, made the journey to Saint Paul. One of his daguerreotypes was shown to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was so inspired that he conceived the idea for his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, with a heroine called Minnehaha. It was published in 1855 without illustrations and sold 10,000 copies almost immediately. As a result of this increased attention, many artists came to Minnesota to paint the Falls. Images of Minnehaha Falls were so popular that Currier and Ives issued a lithograph. Today the Falls are still a popular subject for artists and it remains a Minnesota icon.
We went to the Falls (Minnehaha) that fell about 60 feet, they are said to equal Niagara.
Mary Jones, tourist, 1855
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