At Home and Abroad: The Transcendental Landscapes of Christopher Pearse Cranch

October 12, 2007 - February 25, 2008



Wall panel text for the exhibition:


Lured by the Muses

A true Romantic figure, Christopher Cranch could express himself most fully only through diverse means. He was an accomplished musician remembered by his contemporaries for his ability to play several instruments and for his wonderful baritone voice singing ballads and "melting to tears the more susceptible of his sympathetic audience."

His powers of entertainment were almost unlimited . . . he played piano, guitar, flute, or violin, as the occasion came . . . and his ventriloquism which embraced all sounds of nature and mechanical devices, from the denizens of the barnyard to the shriek of the railway locomotive, held the younger members spellbound with amusement.

He was hailed as the composer of the lyrics for Jenny Lind's "Farewell to America," performed to enormous crowds at Castle Garden in lower Manhattan in May of 1852.

Cranch is best known for his poetry, but he also wrote art criticism and essays on topics as diverse as Unitarianism and Rome's "Café Greco." Cranch was also an accomplished translator and his translation of Virgil's Aeneid (1872) was reprinted earlier this year by Barnes and Noble. Other 19th-century American Romantics wrote and painted but Cranch is unique for having explored both disciplines simultaneously in his illustrated children's books, successfully fusing visual with literary form. Word-image connections remained a source of interest for Cranch throughout his career.

James Russell Lowell, a lifelong friend, remarked that "Cranch is a good fellow with gifts enough for three," and Ralph Waldo Emerson confirmed to Cranch that he was "the victim of your own various gifts; that all the muses, jealous of the other, haunt your brain." Unfortunately Cranch saw his wealth of talents as his downfall. In "My Confession," jotted in his journal in 1877, he wrote "It is my misfortune (as regards worldly and pecuniary success) to have too many sides I have wooed too many mistresses and the world punishes me for not shutting my eyes to all charmers but one." However it was not reluctance on his part, but an absolute inability to confine his creative spirit to one medium. Lured by the muses, Cranch constantly battled his urges to shift back and forth between writing and painting.



"Transcendentalism" describes a movement in 19th-century New England that emerged with the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836) and which influenced religion and philosophy as well as literature.

Generally speaking, Transcendentalism was brought about by dissatisfaction with formal religion. Unitarianism was the dominant religion in the greater Boston area but it no longer held any emotional appeal or inspiration for many of the younger generation -- including Cranch and Emerson. They found "church" religion to be dry, rational, and drained of all emotion. They yearned for something "more satisfying to the soul." They wanted to find miracles. The Transcendentalists found the miraculous simply by leaving the church building and going outdoors. Standing beneath the trees with the sunshine beaming through the branches, they found the inspiration they sought.

In his essay, Nature, Emerson suggested that the entire material world was a symbol of the universal spirit or God. He encouraged his readers to go out into nature where one could engage in intimate dialogue with God without interference from churches, ministers, or the Bible. To many, however, Transcendentalism was heresy. It reduced the importance of the Bible: what was the importance of the Holy Scripture as an intermediary when it was possible to commune directly with God?

Many Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Cranch, began their careers as Unitarian ministers and later turned to other pursuits. Emerson immersed himself in nature and conveyed his experiences through writing and lecturing. Some turned to music, while others still tried communal living (Brook Farm is an example) where they spent their days working outdoors in nature. Cranch was the only Transcendentalist to become an artist.

The alignment of religion with landscape painting was not an unusual idea in 19th-century America. Americans in general saw nature as God's work and if art led men to God, then artists could, in some measure, replace preachers. Like Thoreau writing of the daily trials of life on Walden Pond and Emerson writing on nature, Cranch attempted, in his landscapes, to "create a living religion without recourse to . . . the obsolete jargon of theology" (Perry Miller, The Transcendentalists [1950]).


Cranch and Transcendentalism

Cranch read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Nature (1836), shortly after its publication. For him it was an eye-opening experience that he likened to a sunrise. Cranch gravitated towards the "new views" put forth in Emerson's essay -- views that would come to be called "Transcendentalism."

In the spring of 1840, Cranch moved to Boston and became active in Transcendental circles. He attended meetings of the Transcendental Club at George Ripley's. This informal club provided a forum for its members -- Emerson, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, John Sullivan Dwight, Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker among others -- to voice their frustration with the Unitarian Church. Cranch also frequented Elizabeth Peabody's bookstore and George Ripley's utopian experiment, Brook Farm in West Roxbury, near Boston. That summer he visited Emerson in Concord, where the two "walked a good deal together, saw Walden Pond, went huckleberrying . . . and had other adventures."

By the summer of 1840, the controversy surrounding Transcendentalism seriously affected Cranch, who complained: "Most of the religious societies were afraid of the 'New Views.' The pulpits were barred against me." Continuing to encounter opposition due to his ties to Transcendentalism and oppressed by the limitations of Unitarianism, he sought alternatives to preaching. Ultimately, the forest became Cranch's pulpit. He continued to write and pray, but after 1841 he began to see painting as an authentic form of religious expression.

For Cranch, theology and painting intertwine: preaching and painting were not separate activities but simply two sides of the same coin, celebrations of God in nature. Painting, like prayer, became an act of devotion, and thus, his goals remained constant. Cranch saw God everywhere around him in the landscape where he so often painted:

There is Religion in this Sabbath Moon
I never found in churches. The sweet spring
Yields life and joy and blessing everywhere.
My heart is lifted in unuttered prayer.
And every human rite falls cold and dead,
Dwarfed into vapid insignificance
Before the silent smile of Nature's God.
Drearily chime the church bells from afar
While the deep wood around me is alive.
(Cranch, "Sunday in the Woods"[1850])

Cranch and Italy

Very often, Christopher Cranch is perceived to have been a long-term expatriate in Italy. In truth, he lived in Italy only from 1846 until 1849, after which he returned for a few brief stays: to Rome, during the winter of 1858-1859, and to Venice, in 1860, 1862, and 1863. Yet, the influence of Italy on Cranch's work goes far beyond these scattered trips in importance. Late in his career he acknowledged: "The first great stimulus forward in my chosen profession was, I think, largely due to my European experiences. I think I can never over-estimate the immense advantages I enjoyed of a voyage to Italy in 1846 and a stay there of nearly three years."

It is impossible for the painter who has lived amid such scenes to leave them without carrying with him something more rich and rare than you will find in his portfolio or on his canvases. For the artist, though he may have made but a rough pencil outline from nature has had visions of his own which will return as in later years he looks over his drawings, eloquent with a language beyond their eye-contenting picturesqueness. (Cranch, "Reminiscences of a Landscape Painter," [c. 1876-1880])

In Italy, Cranch belonged to an English-speaking community of artists, writers, and intellectuals which included Hiram Powers (1805-1873), Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), Robert Browning (1812-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), and Margaret Fuller (1810-1850). They visited at each other's houses and studios and discussed topics ranging from the political instability in Italy to philosophy and aesthetics. Cranch flourished in this community abroad.

Back home in New York, Cranch painted Italian landscapes and composed poems, essays, and odes to Italy. Images and memories from the 1840s still carried with them a potency that was never to be diluted much less forgotten. Even at a distance of many years, he keenly felt the power of Italy on his imagination. Its long history and ancient landscape sparked Cranch's imagination and for the duration of his career he would paint Italian subjects.


Cranch and Venice

Christopher Cranch's paintings of Venice established his reputation in America: for many years his name was linked with Venetian scenes. He made three trips to Venice, in 1860, 1862, and 1863, arriving just ahead of the rush of Americans whose arrival peaked in the 1880s.

Venice was slow to attract American tourists in the first few decades of the 19th century because it was known as a crime-ridden city in decay. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited in 1833 and called it "a city for beavers . . . a most disagreeable residence," and "soon had enough of it." It was Lord Byron who transformed Venice into "a fairy city of the heart,"

A sea Cybele, fresh from the ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers.

Cranch carried his copy of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage as a sort of guidebook to Venice.

Cranch also popularized Venice, in his paintings as well as in the essays he wrote for the art magazine The Crayon. He commented on the political tension between the Italians and the Austrians, but created a poetic vision of Venice reinforcing Lord Byron's image. In Venice, Cranch found the elements and opportunities for creating his most successful and acclaimed works.

On his return to America in 1863, his paintings of Venice "at once attracted attention." It was on the merits of one of his Venetian paintings that Cranch was elected Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1864. (The Academy was the primary professional organization for artists in New York and among the most influential art institutions in America.) The popularity of these Venetian paintings and Cranch's election to the Academy were a godsend to the artist who often found himself in financial difficulties: happily, "almost every Venetian picture I painted and exhibited was sold, and I had some very good orders. It was quite a successful time pecuniarily for me."


The Paris Salon

Cranch arrived in Paris in 1853, ahead of the thousands of American artists who would flock there in the years following the Civil War. He and his young family settled into an apartment in the neighborhood of Passy. He took advantage of the numerous opportunities Paris offered, not the least of which was the occasion to submit paintings to the prestigious Paris Salon. The Salon was the government-sponsored exhibition of new paintings and sculpture in France attracting thousands of visitors who rushed to see the latest art on display. The art was chosen by a jury and the competition was formidable so that acceptance was coveted and went a long way to insure an artist's success.

In 1855, thirteen American artists, including Cranch, were chosen for the coveted spots in the Salon's exhibition galleries. The acceptance of Cranch's two paintings of Niagara is all the more remarkable because he had no ties to the French atelier system, never having studied with a French master. At the Salon of 1857, Cranch recalled that "my picture, an 'American Sunset' was hung on the line, though I knew no one on the Jury of Admittance." Paintings were hung floor to ceiling, making use of every available inch of wall space and prime wall locations were prized. That Cranch's landscape was given the honor and prestige of being hung "on the line," or at eye level -- the most visible location on the wall -- was an important accomplishment. Months afterwards he could report "I am . . . so full of orders, `chose rare pour moi' as the French say . . . ."

He continued to exhibit at the Salon every year it was held until his return to America in 1863. In gaining acceptance to the Paris Salon, Cranch had proven himself as an artist in the competitive international arena.


Cranch at Barbizon

Under Napoleon III's rule (1852-1870) Baron Haussmann rebuilt the city of Paris. Many buildings, including Cranch's Paris studio, were razed to make way for the erection of new buildings and wide avenues. Rural life at Barbizon offered a respite from the noise and industrialization of Paris.

The village of Barbizon is located about sixty kilometers southeast of Paris, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. In the mid-19th century, the train ride from Paris was "an hour or two . . . thence by omnibus . . . about seven miles." Cranch's first trip in 1856 proved so regenerative that he returned several times. He lodged at Vannier's auberge, where "I dine very simply, with a few French painters, who are vastly polite to me . . . and talk . . . and retire about nine o'clock." Evenings were "divided between our pipes, conversation, (in which my part was not large, owing to my diffidence in exposing my bad French), [and] occasional games of dominoes."

Modesty aside, Cranch's command of French was clearly adequate to allow him to take part in aesthetic discussions and there was intellectual exchange between Cranch and the Barbizon painters. For Cranch, one of the chief attractions of Barbizon was the camaraderie. He came to know Théodore Rousseau and Jean-Francois Millet, and a visit to their studios was a high point during his stay in Barbizon.

Barbizon painting flourished between 1830 and 1880. It developed in opposition to the classical formulaic landscapes produced by Claude Lorrain and the students of the French Academy. Academic artists painted in the studio from sketches; however, Barbizon artists preferred to work outdoors so that their compositions would be determined by nature, not by academic formula. They disregarded traditional expectations of finish as their brushstrokes were characteristically vigorous -- even rough and impastoed -- as a result of working quickly en plein air. They deliberately forfeited naturalistic detail in favor of the subjectivity necessary to capture a mood.

Inspired by the French painters, Cranch adopted their vigorous brushwork and began to work on some canvases exclusively en plein air. "Sometimes we would hide our painting things under a rock for the night," he remembered, "sure to find them untouched ... though once I discovered that my wet canvas had been . . . walked over by a squirrel."


Cranch and the Hudson River School

The term "Hudson River School" was first used in the late 1870s by critics sympathetic to the younger generation, who deemed the older painters stagnant and old-fashioned. Today we use the term, not to denigrate, but to describe the group of landscape painters who found their inspiration along the Hudson. The term denotes more than a geographical cohesiveness: it refers specifically to a style of painting. Hudson River School artists aim for a fidelity to the characteristics of the specific place in their paintings. Their landscapes were painted in the studio from sketches made outdoors, on the spot. They had a predilection for inserting their studies from nature into compositions inspired by 17th-century French artist Claude Lorrain -- the hand's-down favorite artist of the 19th-century Americans. As a result, these landscape paintings are often idealized, fictitious as a whole, but composed of real details carefully sketched en plein air.

Hudson River School artists typically made sketching expeditions during the summer months. Winters were spent painting in their studios. Cranch sketched throughout the Northeast -- in the White Mountains, Berkshires, Adirondacks, and Catskills. On occasion he sketched alone, but more often he traveled and sketched with other Hudson River School artists, most frequently with Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900), Jervis McEntee (1828-1891), and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886). These artists exhibited annually at the National Academy of Design in New York City. The Academy was the premier exhibition venue in New York and it played a major role in the development of landscape painting as a viable genre for production, collecting, and display.

Cranch worked in picturesque locales throughout Europe. Yet images of American scenery dominate his oeuvre. He was consistently attracted to the views along the Hudson River, from New York City to the Catskills, which he painted throughout his life. During the 1840s and 1860s, he lived in New York, dividing his time between Manhattan and his summer home in Fishkill Landing (now Beacon). He thrived in the social, artistic, and intellectual climate New York offered. Even as Cranch's style changed, as he adopted a Barbizon-inspired approach, for example, in the 1860s, he continued to devote himself to the landscape around his home in Fishkill Landing. He considered the landscape of the American Northeast to be his foundation and, in many ways, it was the source of his identity.


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