Landscape in America 1850-1890: Dreaming of Paradise

By Elizabeth Bryant

 



 

Many have learned to look beyond the seamless reality of turn-of-the-century photographs of Native Americans to see not simply documentation but reconstruction -- the man with the costumes and the camera standing just out of sight. We learn now to see the same discontinuity in many paintings of American Indian life. Ralph Albert Blakelock's paintings of Indian encampments depict a people in serene harmony, bathed in the golden light of memory, in a preternatural calm. The dark silhouettes of his trees may eat into the sky like acid but not a leaf stirs. Time is stilled, a breath held, a moment committed to memory before the world begins again and these first American people are gone as if they never were. Winslow Homer's woodland trapper, too, was vanishing with the wilderness, the jolly echo of George Caleb Bingham's frolicking traders fading in the distance. The trapper stands, his back to us, looking into the far horizon, a faint green light glimmering in the west, toward the frontier of wilderness and hope. The dream of that same green light was still to beckon F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby in the 1920s.

Nostalgia is structured into these paintings: in the stillness, in the certain distance that leads to contemplation more than engagement, the smoothness of the strokes, the light caught in the act of changing. Nostalgic light is not the hard light of midday, not harsh shadows and hard edges, but one that dissolves and suffuses, a liminal light caught between one state and another. It is light as a threshold, a passage, a door; golden or rosy, coagulated to a crystalline substance: the moment preserved like a fly in amber.

These characteristics are common to most of the pictures exhibited here. It's difficult, sometimes, for us to see their differences. Our own nostalgia now extends not only to the subject matter, but to the painting as an object in itself Here is art the way we once thought it should be: meticulously painted and recognizable; showing us what can soothe and comfort, with skill which can be measured by its correspondence with what we know of reality, by artists who knew geology and botany and could make them beautiful -- art that was crafted and comprehensible.

Given how similar these paintings look to our own eyes, it's curious to note now the extreme sensitivity of nineteenth-century viewers to their variations. Their reactions showed a clear understanding that these paintings were codes for something beyond themselves. These were viewers who, in the course of a decade, could move from praise to condemnation of the sublime realism of Church and Bierstadt, and from condemnation to praise of the steeped subjectivity of Inness.

There was a change of taste in landscape after mid-century. The showy panoramas of Bierstadt and Church lost favor by the 1870s: the expansion of the railroad allowed for tourism in places previously accessible only to adventurers, and the glamour of the artist-explorer wore thin. By the 1870s, the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution began to take hold as well, the brutality of survival of the fittest borne out by the Civil War, staining the pages of the Transcendentalists' Holy Book of Nature with blood. The American followers of Emerson learned what British followers of Thomas Carlyle had known for decades: Nature was as capricious and cruel as she was beautiful. The vision of Eden depicted in postbellum American landscape began to take on a different cast: dreamy and overtly nostalgic, expressive and memory-based. Cain had slain Abel, and paradise seemed lost.

Paintings of natural vistas took on a different intonation: Thomas Hill's depictions of Yosemite lobbied for its preservation as a national park: a recognition that such splendors were not inexhaustible resources. By the end of the century, true wilderness remained only in the far north, and the market for grand wilderness landscapes was pushed to the far Western edge of the continent, flourishing only where the railroad barons still gloried in the memory of magnificent conquest.

 


 

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