Landscape in America 1850-1890

By Barbara Johns

 



 

Landscape painting was the first American art to be called a national style. Depicting American topography and vegetation, the descriptive realism and idealized compositions of this type of painting fulfilled a desire that the United States develop an art of its own, distinct from that of Europe, a half-century after the founding of the new nation.

In scenes infused with radiant light, with elements endowed with symbolic meanings, landscape painting developed in the 1830s in relationship to contemporary spiritual and democratic values. It gave vision to a pantheistic democratic ideal, best articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, that human life and nature were a harmonious whole, and that one could apprehend divine spirit and infer the free person's rightful place in the world by observing nature's laws. English-émigré artist Thomas Cole was the first to choose American landscape as his subject, and he identified his moral vision with the unspoiled virtues of the wilderness.

Landscape painting was practiced in full vigor by the 1850s. It expressed an optimistic view of settlement and industrialization, even as it also implied a longing for conditions of the recent past that were changing under these same pressures. The balance between fact and imagination in landscape painting changed in succeeding decades in response to shifting social pressures: the growth of a market economy, concurrent with new transportation systems; the discovery of gold, and later of silver, in the West; the drive to realize Manifest Destiny with coast-to-coast settlement; the great divide of the Civil War; the postwar surge in industrial production; massive immigration; unprecedented new fortunes alongside new urban blight. During the past thirty years, a wealth of new scholarship in American art has revealed the social context in which these paintings were produced, and demonstrated how fundamentally they gave expression to contemporary assumptions, ambitions, and anxieties.

Landscape in America centers on the heyday of this genre of landscape painting and contains both East and West Coast subjects. While it is not a historical survey, the exhibition has four aspects: the national style, later called the Hudson River School; Western subjects by artists who traveled in search of natural splendors; the more abstract, painterly alternative that arose alongside descriptive realism in the 1870s; and in the West, where there was a noticeable lag, as one might expect from its different pattern of immigration and economic development, the continuation of the descriptive style in later years.

The Hudson River School, which spread beyond its namesake locale, was in full flourish at mid-century. Asher B. Durand wrote a definitive statement of the style in a series of essays in 1855. Insisting upon the naturalistic detail of specifically American places and invoking the intimate familiarity with natural things he remembered as a child, Durand admonished painters to study the distinctive features of each species of tree, such as the ones in Shandaken Ridge, Kingston, N. Y. William Trost Richards took such specificity a step further in seeming to depict nearly every leaf in June Woods. In this painting, which Richards considered one of his best, a filtering light unifies the almost hallucinatory clarity of detail.

 


 

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