Landscape in America 1850-1890

By Barbara Johns

 



 

In the East by the 1870s landscapes filled with descriptive detail had fallen from fashion in favor of more abstract modes, while in California, railroad construction and mining produced new wealth and sustained patronage for naturalistic paintings. Several artists who worked only in the West continued the earlier representative style. Coming to California during the Gold Rush, William Marple's favored sites were the Bay Area's marshes afire in glowing sunlight. Norton Bush shows the Bay Area landscape under transformation by the railroad and urban settlement. Grafton Tyler Brown, who lived variously in San Francisco, Portland, Tacoma, and Victoria, B.C., pictures Puget Sound with its Native inhabitants in a sharply defined style. Cleveland Rockwell's Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor, set within the painting conventions of mid-century, was painted only a year before completion of the second transcontinental railroad from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Tacoma, and envisions the Columbia River as a concourse thronged with commerce.

By 1890, painting on both coasts had moved from descriptive realism to generalized, moodily evocative views. Images appealing to private, even introspective, experience replaced the public trumpeting of territorial vistas.

Now, once again, we hold in esteem these paintings of the American landscape. Besides the value we place on past accomplishments, and a newly enriched understanding of their historical context, nineteenth-century landscape paintings often invoke an emotional response beyond historical appreciation. Can this response be characterized as nostalgia? If, as sociologist Fred Davis proposes (Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, 1979), nostalgia is a longing for the recent rather than the distant past -- experience we can remember (or imagine remembering) -- what is the source of such emotion in these paintings today? What qualities of these paintings elicit longing? Noting that longing for the past becomes more intense during times of rapid change, when a collective sense of identity seems threatened by discontinuities, Davis suggests that nostalgia not only stabilizes such uncertainty by inventing a shared, reassuring past, but also can serve as an operative dynamic that enables each generation to make transition to the new and unknown. With these questions in mind, and respectful of the informed and creative point of view she has brought to her critical writing in the Northwest, I have asked Elizabeth Bryant to consider these paintings in relationship to nostalgia; I am grateful for her contribution to this exhibition.

The Tacoma Art Museum's presentation of this exhibition means that many individuals and museums have agreed to part with works of art that have become national treasures. Each has been exceedingly generous in loaning them, as well as offering advice during the research process. They eagerly supported the effort to bring such historical legacy to the. Northwest. On behalf of the Museum, its members, and visitors, I extend deepest thanks.

 


 

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