Editor's note: The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted with permission of the Palmer Museum of Art. The essay is included in the catalogue titled "An Endless Panorama of Beauty: Selections from the Jean and Alvin Snowiss Collection of American Art," published by the Palmer Museum of Art in 2002, ISBN 0-911209-55-7. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or if you would like to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Palmer Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Panoramic Sensibilities in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Painting

by Leo G. Mazow

 

This book takes its title from a diary entry by Charles Burchfield, who is represented here by two works, A Flash of Lightning at Night, 1916, and Country Road in December, 1949. Musing on nature's life cycles, the artist noted his excitement for both the "decay of vegetation in the winter" and the "resurgence of plant life in the spring." In 1952, when Burchfield wrote these lines, the critical fortunes of Abstract Expressionist painting were approaching a zenith, and he frequently recorded his disillusionment with the waning popularity of his version of modernism, a cosmically inspired American scene painting. In spite of the public's neglect, Burchfield noted, he still found in those natural transformations "an endless panorama of beauty and drama."[l] With the dark, curvilinear reverberations in A Flash of Lightning at Night and the softly illuminated, gently rolling landscape in Country Road in December, the artist certainly evokes the "beauty and drama" of the natural world.

Of particular interest, however, is his choice of the phrase "endless panorama." "Panorama" derives from Greek roots meaning "view all," and Burchfield's preceding adjective captures the word's suggestion of a seemingly infinite vista.[2] Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the painted panorama offered English, French, and German audiences elaborate views of rural and urban landscapes, often with intricately drawn battles and other historical incidents spanning the length of the surface. With imagery on long, curved panels and canvases whose very shape emphasized the bounty of vision, the horizon-exaggerating medium was usually viewed in a rotunda, where audiences would be barraged by 360 degrees of hyper-realistic imagery. Those partaking of this wildly popular form of entertainment reported the dazzling sensation of being immersed in an all-enveloping environment.[3] An understanding of the panorama and its appropriation on American shores can be particularly useful for interpreting Burchfield's paintings and many other works in the Snowiss collection.


AMERICANIZING THE PANORAMA

Panoramas first appeared in New York in 1804 and, shortly thereafter, would be found in Boston and Baltimore. In 1819, John Vanderlyn produced the elaborate Panorama: Palace and Garden of Versailles, which can still be seen in its entirety at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Vanderlyn's minutely detailed, enormous painting was widely toured, but neither it nor other American examples generated quite the excitement that the medium was eliciting among contemporary European audiences.[4] The panorama did enjoy a brief but significant period of popularity in America from 1846 through 1850, when John Banvard's Panorama of the Mississippi River -- promoted as "The Largest Painting in the World" -- helped galvanize support for western settlement.[5] In America, as in Europe, the panorama was often exploited for propagandistic purposes. Message and medium were distinctively intertwined. Indeed, the unbound, moving panorama matched nineteenth-century American metaphors of progress, freedom, growth, and optimism.[6]

Today, when we use the word panorama, we often have in mind not the medium of visual entertainment, but the sort of view it denoted and the sensation it produced. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, panorama carried secondary meanings of "continuous passing scene" and "an unbroken view of the whole surrounding region," and by the 1880s, panoramic, meaning "commanding a view of the whole landscape," entered the vernacular.[7] Architecture, landscape painting, and garden design were certainly influenced by the panorama, and by the Civil War the term itself had become a popular classification with which to understand each of these visual experiences. Even when the term was not used, the panoramic sensibility -- the desire to encapsulate as much as possible in one's glance -- was frequently invoked. This expansive mode of vision is found in the prose and poetry of some of America's most renowned writers, notably William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman.

These writers sought to put in verse the optical and imaginative potential of human vision, as well as the rewards for those who took the time to scan the bounty of nature. In his poem "Monument Mountain," for example, Bryant comments that "Thou who wouldst

Ascend our rocky mountains ...
Shall feel a kindred with that loftier world
To which thou art translated, and partake
The enlargement of thy vision."[8]


Artists joined poets in grafting the panoramic vocabulary onto identifiably American subject matter. In Descent from the Mountains, 1833, Robert Street demonstrates the manner in which landscape painters also sought to "enlarge vision." With the tree at left holding in check the dramatically unfolding chasm, the painting pays homage to several conventions of European art and anticipates more than a half-century of Hudson River School painting. Works like Descent from the Mountains utilize meticulous modeling and deeply receding vistas to emphasize the grandeur of nature and the hope and historical promise of republicanism and popular Christianity.
[9]

In contrast to the rough-hewn group of figures in the right foreground of the Street painting, who appear oblivious to the majestic vista, the man and woman at left are outfitted in sumptuous fabrics and elaborate headwear, suggesting that the enlightened appreciation of nature had become, by the 1830s, a genteel activity. Encouraged by ever-popular guidebooks and related tourist literature, individuals could attain a sort of "visual etiquette," armed with which they sought to appreciate such natural attractions as Niagara Falls, the White Mountains, and the Catskill and Allegheny ranges. Momentarily stopping under the tree, the male figure gestures into the distance, as if comprehending the entirety of the scene before him and instructing his female companion on the best way to appreciate the view.

Centuries prior to Street's work, certainly since the Baroque era, painters had enlisted foreground staffage figures to direct one's gaze upon a landscape. But Street's variation on the pictorial motif -- placing a well-dressed, gesturing couple at lower left or right -- was especially popular in early and mid-nineteenth-century America.[10] Appropriating British theories of the "picturesque," particularly as popularized by the artist and travel writer William Gilpin, American tourist literature provided strategies with which to behold the land for maximum visual stimulation.[11] Street's protagonists display a keen understanding of how to position one's view before a rolling landscape. Like actual tourists of the period, who were frequently instructed to climb to those precipices offering the most expansive view, the figures extend their gaze across the broad sweeping vista of mountains, plains, river, and foliage.

 

PAINTING AS PANORAMA

Art historian Alan Wallach has coined the phrase "panoptic sublime" to characterize the overwhelming sensation yielded by the sudden unfolding of such dramatic scenery. Wallach points out that excursionists went to great lengths to find precipices that, once ascended, would grant the viewer this dizzying elation.[12] The view in Street's painting is typical of the kind tourists sought for bemusement. With the rapid development of the genre of landscape painting in the nineteenth century, however, artists increasingly catered to the taste for such panoramic views, and audiences could entertain themselves visually and imagine exotic terrains without actually traveling to them. Although looking at art was not a surrogate for immersion in the landscape, American audiences could certainly experience panoramic sensations similar to those proscribed in the landscape literature and reported by tourists. Landscape paintings, that is, were a vehicle for "the enlargement of thy vision."

Samuel Colman's River Bend, 1863, and David Johnson's Rogers Slide, Lake George, New York, 1870, exemplify the broad, romantic views of nature toward which readers of tourist literature would have been predisposed. Often called "Big Slide" and "Great Slide," Rogers Slide -- from which one can see all the way to Vermont -- for example, is described in several guidebooks.[13] With its varying terrain of river, hills, plains, and foliage, River Bend addresses both picturesque and panoramic sensibilities. Providing both a compositional axis and an attention-grabbing lateral stripe, the horizon line is especially significant in the picture's creation of expansiveness. In River Bend, Rogers Slide, and other works in the Snowiss collection, translucent layers of light tones create an ethereal haze on the horizon, suggesting a spatial recession beyond what is actually seen on the canvas. These blurred lines function as vanishing points in the perspectival systems of many of these paintings, connoting hope and potential, as well as infinite progression to sites the beholder cannot at present see.[14]

Perhaps more than any other work in the Snowiss collection, Alfred Thompson Bricher's Low Tide, Bradford's Cove, Grand Manan, n.d., exploits the elongated horizon to emphasize an all-encompassing panoramic gaze. The watercolor's width is two-and-a-half times its height, thereby evoking lateral immensity in spite of its modest size. Located on the south part of Grand Manan Island, in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Bradford's Cove is periodically subject to dense fog, a phenomenon captured in this watercolor. About the time Bricher painted Low Tide, topographical engineers working for the U.S. Geological Survey commented on the deceptive nature and strange effects of blurred vision. One Survey member wrote the following lines about the Grand Canyon, but his remarks illuminate Bricher's view of Grand Manan: "[In] the ever-present haze ... a thousand forms, hitherto unseen or obscure, start up ... and stand forth in strength and animation."[15] Low Tide is one of many works from the period that demonstrate the manner in which cloaked vision, paradoxically, reveals nature.[16] What is significant here, however, is that the gauze-like middle- and background suggests an ever-expanding vista, as if the view itself is in the process of becoming, ebbing and flowing like the tide depicted.

The vogue for all-enveloping, expansive vision persisted well into the twentieth century. As paintings like Childe Hassam's Ice on the Hudson, 1908, demonstrate, however, the terms with which artists and audiences engaged the landscape changed dramatically in this period. As in several landscape paintings reproduced in this book, the uninterrupted horizon extends the width of the canvas, luring our gaze across its expanse. The thin stretch of sky is rendered majestic -- if not ethereal -- by the light painterly tones with which it is modeled. Like other well-known American landscape paintings from the decades around the turn of the century, Ice on the Hudson reduces the composition to a series of horizontal bands whose thin elongation exaggerates the width of the vista.

More than the above-mentioned painters, however, Hassam offsets the pastoral mood with the presence of industry and commerce, signaled by the factory and smokestacks just right of center on the far bank of the river. The rich broken brushwork, rendering the scene a tableau of converging tones, yields the sense of an easy give-and-take between these two regions -- that is, between nature and civilization. Perhaps more than any other device, though, the panoramic format naturalizes the industrial interruption; Hassam's expansive mode allows viewers to move optically between these horizontal zones without much visual adjustment. In this logic, the factory becomes another abstract form, harmonizing with other irregular shapes (note the floating ice in the foreground) in an airy mosaic of atmosphere and color.

 

INVERTING THE PANORAMA

Several of the panoramic sensibilities discussed above are challenged, and ultimately collapsed, in Winslow Homer's watercolor, Sea and Rocks During a Storm, 1894. As we have seen, Street's Descent from the Mountains and Colman's River Bend presented vistas from elevated perspectives, where actual and implied viewers enjoyed the safety of dry land and seemingly firm footing. In Homer's painting, however, the viewer is brought precariously close to the frothy waters and craggy rocks in the rapidly shifting space of the foreground. In the two former works, as well as in Johnson's Rogers Slide, gently receding mountaintops act as orthogonals in the paintings' perspectival plans, inviting the viewer into the work and creating compositional stability in spite of the vast, dizzying depths portrayed. Homer, conversely, flattens the perspective and guides the diagonals not in the direction of a distant vanishing point but, rather, directly toward the viewer, eliminating the possibility of detached observation.

Yet Homer's painting may be considered as panoramic as any in the Snowiss collection. Many contemporaries visited the site depicted -- Prout's Neck, Maine -- precisely for the all-encompassing dramatic views it afforded.[17] In Sea and Rocks, a prolonged back-and-forth, lateral gaze is required to comprehend the work in its entirety. Further, much as the panorama sought to overwhelm and entertain audiences with 360 degrees of minutely detailed imagery, so Homer's work barrages its beholders, formally and thematically enveloping them within a total environment of rocks, ocean, and hazy mist. The close observation of nature, meticulously rendered with carefully applied washes, adds to the sense of a vast, overpowering force.

What is at stake here may well be the viewer's ability to behold and make sense of a site. Homer's vision robs us of the familiarity of place -- the image might be said to depict not Prout's Neck but the unyielding elements of nature. The beholder has neither a clear view nor an assurance of a navigable route to the figures at top right, individuals whose miniature scale accentuates the incapacity of humans before nature's wrath. Late nineteenth-century audiences on both sides of the Atlantic were accustomed to depictions of waves breaking on shorelines by such artists as Bricher and Alexander Harrison.[18] These artists, however, followed the time-honored landscape conventions seen in paintings by Hudson River School artists. In their works, waters are placid and largely unthreatening, the lighting romantic and often ethereal. Perhaps most importantly, in striking contrast to Homer's watercolor, this romantic landscape tradition used several devices (foreground repoussoir figures and symmetrical, intelligible vistas) to facilitate the viewer's perspective. In Homer's Sea and Rocks, beholders approach the image more from the vantage point of an explorer than that of a picturesque traveler or leisurely tourist.

Nineteenth-century Americans made an equation between seeing and knowing, that is, between looking and possessing.[19] By the end of the century, the nation's expansionist ethos came to match neatly this logic, and art historians have coined such phrases as "imperial sublime" and "magisterial gaze" to characterize the ways in which visual containment facilitated a sense of territorial possession.[20] It is precisely this ability to see -- one might say to have "visual power" -- that is denied in Homer's work. The leisure to look, so celebrated by Street and romanticized by Bricher, is challenged in Sea and Rocks. The tables are now turned, with the painting disabling the beholder from visually taking hold of the landscape; rather, in this case, the forces of nature dominate the viewer. "We feel the awful, elemental force" of Homer's late seascapes, wrote the early twentieth-century art historian Samuel Isham. The artist's biographer, William Howe Downes, concurred: "it is natural to be carried away by the sheer strength and swiftness of the movements of these ocean symphonies."[21]

With its high horizon line, irregular rocky abutments, and deceptively calm foreground waters, Reddy on the Rocks, 1917, by John Sloan inverts the panoramic sensibility in a manner consistent with Homer's watercolor.[22] Instead of guiding our view across the Gloucester shore, the little boy looks back to us, introducing a psychological inwardness instead of the visual outwardness of earlier landscape painting. In several other paintings in the Snowiss collection -- including Charles Demuth's Roofs and Tree Forms, 1919, Arthur Dove's From Lake, Geneva, 1938, and Stuart Davis' Coast Town Landscape Study, 1940 -- our gaze is similarly restricted. Modern architecture dominates at least half of the picture plane in each painting, with the "machine" blocking the view of the "garden," to quote the title of Leo Marx's classic study of the awkward intrusion of industry in the American pastoral.[23]

 

CONCLUSION: The Value of the Vernacular

Demuth, Dove, and Davis confine the viewer's gaze by way of compressed foreground architecture, yet their works nonetheless pay homage to the American panoramic tradition. A crucial difference between images by the latter trio and those by Hudson River School artists concerns what is encapsulated in the panoramic gaze. The complex manner in which American modernists experimented with and ultimately poeticized "enlarged vision" is also demonstrated in John Marin's painting Sailboat and Sea, Maine, 1938. Here, our eyes quickly move beyond the rhythmic triad of masts in the middle ground toward the immensity suggested by the horizon. Where the earlier generation created a pictorial inventory of flora and fauna, often romanticizing nature and rendering it nostalgic, twentieth-century modernists reckoned with the reality of the inhabited American landscape. Flour mills, fish markets, and anonymous façades have replaced valleys, streams, and sunsets, If there is a continuum from antebellum panoramic sensibilities to the occasionally expansive mode of modernism, it would suggest the manner in which both groups sought to locate value in the vernacular and culture in the commonplace.

Still, for all their horizontal elongation, many early American modernist pieces present views that are neither vast nor unobstructed. Modernists often intimate but do not represent "plenty;" the "more" and the "merrier" are frequently conceptual, not actual. Yet herein rests the hope of American modernism, as well as the promise of its forebears: that a world of experience lies just beneath the pictorial surface.'" Through their paintings, the artists in the Snowiss collection suggest that in this sometimes real, sometimes imaginary place resides an "endless panorama of beauty and drama," a place to see more.

That insatiable appetite for more is as old as the republic itself. As early as 1787, Thomas Jefferson noted the "immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman," his words only an early version of what would soon be repeated refrains equating "more" with "merrier," and "peace" with "plenty."[25] By the mid-nineteenth century, of course, industrialists and, eventually, advertisers would effectively "cash in" on the romantic longing for either a mythic nostalgia or a future utopia, where elbow-room is aplenty and vision is vast and unobstructed.[26]

That several non-landscape works reproduced in this book also hint at panoramic sensibilities is a testament to the unyielding longing for more in American culture. Consider, for example, John F. Francis's Still Life.- Peaches and Grapes, 1860, a painting rife with allusions to such themes as abundantia, cornucopia, and the horn of plenty. It is not land -- as in the original moving panorama -- but fruit -- grapes and peaches -- that engulf us in this variation on voracious vision. Simultaneously appealing to our senses of touch, taste, and sight, the fruit seems to overflow from the basket, plate, and stone surface, as if on the verge of bursting forth from its fictive two-dimensional space. In the background, at upper right, a landscape is allotted only a part of the pictorial space, its abundance replaced by the all-enveloping still life in the foreground.

It is a tribute to the richness and variety of the Snowiss collection that we are able to trace a narrowly circumscribed theme in American art and culture from the early republic into the twentieth century through a representative selection of artworks. As the images in the present volume amply demonstrate, the Snowiss collection indeed supports the exploration of several other topics in American painting, from the industrial revolution to popular entertainment to the lure of foreign lands. Ultimately, the panorama and its essential meaning, "view all," symbolize a heartfelt mission to see, know, and experience one's time and place. This drive permeates the art represented here and has played a crucial role in the development of the Snowiss collection.


Notes

1. Charles Burchfield, journal entry, October 29, 1952; in Burchfield's Seasons (New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1982), n.p.

2. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.

3. For a history of the European panorama, see Oliver Grau, "Into the Belly of the Image: Historical Aspects of Virtual Reality," Leonardo 32 (1999): 365-71, and Stephan Oettermann, The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (New York: Zone Books, 1997).

4. See Oettermann, 314-15, 317.

5. Banvard's panorama is thoughtfully examined in Angela Miller, "Space as Destiny: The Panorama Vogue in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," in Irving Lavin, ed., World Art: Themes of Unity in Diversity (University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), 739-42. See also Oettermann, 327-33.

6. Miller, 741.

7. Oxford English Dictionary, see entries for "panorama" and "panoramic."

8. William Cullen Bryant, "Monument Mountain" (1824), lines 1, 10-12, as quoted in Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze. Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830-1865 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 13.

9. For two especially clear, critically informed introductions to Hudson River School landscape painting, see Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993) and William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, Thomas Cole. Landscape into History (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1994).

10. For similar contemporary landscape paintings depicting a well-dressed couple pointing to the middle ground and distance, see Charles Fraser, Trenton Falls, c. 1830, oil on canvas (collection of Victor D. Spark), and Thomas Davies, Chaudière Falls near Quebec, Canada, 1792, watercolor and gouache over pencil on paper (Public Archives Canada, Ottawa); reproduced in Edward J. Nygren with Bruce Robertson, Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830 (Washington, D.C.; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 57, 251, respectively.

11. Literally "like a picture," picturesque has two time-honored but contested meanings. Some travelers deemed the picturesque to inhere physically within a landscape, a pleasing condition generated by the admixture of various terrains and natural features. Others thought that the picturesque existed not in the land but in one's mind, where beholders arranged the landscape before them in an edifying tableau.

12. Alan Wallach, "Making a Picture of the View from Mt. Holyoke," in David C. Miller, ed., American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth- Century Art and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), especially 83-84, 90-91.

13. See for example Alfred B. Street, Woods and Waters; or, The Saranacs and Racket (New York: M. Doolady, 1860), 330-34.

14. I am indebted here to Ernst Bloch's concept of "anticipatory illumination," which a painterly or literary passage elicits when it suggests a temporal or spatial realm beyond itself. Such illumination fills in the gaps of banal existence with that which has yet to happen, what Bloch calls "not-yet-conscious" and the "not-yet-become." See Jack Zipes, "Toward a Realization of anticipatory Illumination," in Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, Selected Essays, trans. Zipes and Frank Mecklenberg (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988), xi-xliii.

15. Clarence E. Dutton, "The Panorama from Point Sublime," in Dutton, Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District, with Atlas, Monographs of the U.S. Geological Survey (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1882); as quoted in Henry Sayre, "Surveying the Vast Profound: The Panoramic Landscape in American Consciousness," Massachusetts Review 24 (Winter 1983): 733.

16. Typifying this philosophy, Bricher's contemporary, the landscape painter George Inness, noted "you must suggest to me reality, you can never show me reality." "Mr Inness on Art Matters," The Art Journal [London] n.s. 5 (1879): 377.

17. Patricia Junker, "Expressions of Art and Life in The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog," in Philip C. Beam et al., Winslow Homer in the 1890s: Prout's Neck Observed (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), especially 34, 36.

18. See Franklin Kelly, "Time and Narrative Erased," in Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.. and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1995), 303.

19. Wallach, 80-91, is probably the most insightful investigation of this dynamic.

20. See Boime and Sayre, 733.

21. Samuel Isham, History of American Painting (New York: Macmillan, 1905), 355; William Howe Downes, The Life and Works of Winslow Homer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1911), 10; both authors are quoted in David Tatham, "Winslow Homer and the Sea," in Beam et al., Winslow Homer in the 1890s, 67.

22. On the Sloan-Homer relationship, see Bruce Robertson, Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1990), 141-45.

23. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden. Technology and Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

24. See Daniel Joseph Singal, "Towards a Definition of American Modernism," American Quarterly 39 (Spring 1987): 7-26.

25. Thomas Jefferson, "Query XIX: Manufactures," from Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), in David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition.· A Sourcebook. Volume 1: 1620-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 158.

26. In his insightful recounting of American advertising, historian Jackson Lears observes that by the twentieth century "a reified notion of 'the machine' would replace the nurturant earth as the cornucopia." Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), 38.

 

About the Author

Leo G. Mazow is Curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art.

 

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