Landscape in America 1850-1890

By Barbara Johns



Most famous of this generation of painters was Frederic Church. His magisterial compositions combine detailed observation of topography, vegetation, and atmospheric light with a grandness of conception and a new theatricality. During a time of intense scientific interest in the origins of the world and the processes of nature (Darwin's The Origin of Species was published in 1859), Church's paintings were admired as scientific evidence as well as aesthetic compositions. Cayambe, made following the artist's second trip to South America, is a concert of contrasts -- verdant lowlands and barren heights, watery flux and rocky stability, sun and moon, fire and ice, and the generative and destructive forces of nature -- that encapsulates a universe.

Following the dictate to observe nature, some painters focused on the optical qualities of light, which may obscure as well as reveal structure and detail. John F. Kensett's stilled, silent coastal views include the crisply defined, but spare, View of the Beach at Beverly, Massachusetts, and the nearly abstract Shrewsbury River, N.J., in which light shimmering through haze merges ground and sky. Sanford Robinson Gifford's eastern and western subjects display a new softness of palette and atmospheric fullness. This luminist variation of the Hudson River style, represented by Kensett and Gifford, counters the territorial theatricality of much mid-century painting, and in its quietude forecasts the introspective mood that was to develop at century's end. Light is also a central interest in Winslow Homer's An Adirondack Lake. Here, in his first woodland subject, Homer chooses a site in which the strong light reflected by the water's surface envelops the figure of the trapper and lends it a heroic but contemplative aura.

More painterly approaches to landscape are represented in work by George Inness and William Morris Hunt. A decade after the Civil War, a new ideal of art as a conceptual, interior activity colored by individual sensibilities came into favor. In Old Homestead and California, Inness chose the domesticated countryside rather than wilderness as his subject and emphasized imaginary composition rather than transcription of detail. Hunt, a Boston artist who took up landscape only in the 1870s, evokes the lush Everglades environment by his sensuous use of oil paint in Governor's Creek, Florida.

Artists journeyed to the West, especially after the defeat of Mexico in 1848 and California's admission to statehood in 1850. Albert Bierstadt was the first major artist to picture the West for Eastern audiences eager to know about the new land. The Artist Painting in Yosemite, from his first trip to California, shows the sparkling, form-defining light for which Bierstadt was acclaimed. Donner Lake from the Summit was painted on commission for railroad baron Collis Huntington to celebrate the completion of track through the Sierras. To this "exhibition size" picture, Bierstadt adds some of the theatrical exaggeration that made his paintings public sensations. Showing the pass at sunrise, invoking the railroad as the dawn of a new era, he fills a rather dark composition with a burning, light-filled center and contrasts the precipitous drop to the lake with the upward lilt of higher-than-life peaks. Another Easterner to come West, Thomas Hill was appreciated as much for his small, sun-flecked paintings of recreation, such as Fishing Party in the Mountains (a White Mountain subject), as he was for dramatic views of spectacles such as the monumental Yosemite Valley. Yosemite was a subject of intense interest as much for science as for aesthetic appeal, for its unique land formations offered a case study for contemporary debates on geologic processes. William Keith, later a friend of naturalist John Muir, portrays the glacier as a formative source in Headwaters of the Tuolumne. The paintings of Ralph Albert Blakelock, made years after he returned home from traveling alone throughout the West, are muted tonal compositions with minimal description. They picture an imaginary free, open place, even though treaties had already assigned Native people to enclosed lands.



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