Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted on November 19, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of the author, Rob Evans The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Visions of the Susquehanna, guest curated by the author and on tour at museums in the United states. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the author at either this web address or email address:
The Susquehanna: An Evolving Vision
by Rob Evans
(Introductory essay from the catalog for Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Paintings by American Masters)
We are soon approaching the four hundredth anniversary of John Smith's first exploration, in 1608, of the lower reaches of the Susquehanna River. It seems fitting on this occasion to examine this extraordinary and influential river and honor it with perhaps its finest and most intimate portrait, an exhibition of paintings. Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Paintings by American Masters is a survey of the gradual transformation of this river and its watershed as seen in the landscapes created by the many prominent American artists who, over the last two and a half centuries, have gravitated there to paint it.
Flowing from its headwaters in the streams and lakes of upstate New York, then cutting and turning through the mountains and hills of central New York and Pennsylvania, where it is joined by its many tributaries (including the Juniata and Chenango rivers) and eventually to Maryland, where it widens into the head of the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River has long been an inspiration to artists.
While it is not as dramatically picturesque as the Hudson or Colorado rivers -- which traverse deep mountainous gorges or thunderous waterfalls -- the Susquehanna has had a quieter, more domestic allure. Its meandering course and fertile valleys have made it ideal for habitation, providing sanctuary and sustenance through the ages -- first for tribes of Native Americans, who enjoyed and respected its pristine waters and, in recent centuries, for the progression of settlements, towns, and cities that took hold along its banks. As its level shores became major incubators for colonial inland settlements, the river valley eventually provided a prime corridor for transportation and commerce, connecting to the rich bounty of coal, timber, and farm produce upriver. Generations of artists have chronicled and interpreted the growing network of roads, highways, canals, bridges, and railroads that were built to link the river's communities and that, over the years, have so profoundly changed the relationship between the river valley landscape and its inhabitants.
For all its historical triumphs, the Susquehanna has had its share of tragedies and notorious events, including great floods, the burning of the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge in 1863 (a major turning point during the Civil War), and the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979, to name just a few. And in a devastating current tragedy, the very network of factories, farms, industries, and power plants that gave the river its glory are what now threaten the magnificent Susquehanna: it has recently been placed at the top of the list of the nation's most endangered rivers. Teeming with raw sewage, animal waste, and fertilizer runoff, the river is now at a critical crossroads.
The works in Visions of the Susquehanna attest to how so many artists, from the Romantic generation right up to the present, have interpreted this whole range of development as metaphors of progress and larger human concerns. Rivers have long been among the most potent metaphors in all forms of the arts -- including literature, music, film, and painting. Across cultures and through all time, a river's seemingly endless flow and diverse passages have suggested to artists and writers a philosophical or spiritual life journey. So, too, the Susquehanna has inspired artists to find universal themes in its passages -- whether the waters are carefree, meandering, daunting, or unnavigable.
This survey examines the rich tapestry of Susquehanna iconography by arranging the works into two groups. The first is a cross section of the many important images of the river created from the mid-eighteenth century through the early twentieth century (some of these earlier works, due to availability and their fragile state, will only be on view at certain venues, and we reproduce here a few additional key works that were not available for the exhibit). The second group consists of paintings of or about the river by a cross section of nationally prominent contemporary artists, many of whom have agreed to create works specifically for this exhibit. While linked by the common thread of the Susquehanna, this survey also provides interesting contrasts between these two very different groups of work.
Using the actual riverbed as a canvas, the earliest visual artistic depictions of the river and its wildlife were no doubt the many extraordinary petroglyphs carved in the rocks by the Native American tribes who inhabited the river valleys long before the arrival of European explorers. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as settlers pushed farther upriver, the Susquehanna was documented by explorer-artists who presented the river valley as the embodiment of the European vision of America -- a place of lush, expansive, and dangerous wilderness; endless natural bounty; and limitless possibilities. In the following decades, thriving small villages and farms seemed to confirm this promise and artists depicted a romantic image of the river as provider and sustainer, a place where humanity and nature coexisted in harmony and prosperity. This idealized interpretation of the landscape peaked with the great works of such Hudson River School painters as Frederick Edwin Church, Louis Rémy Mignot, Thomas Moran, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and Jasper Francis Cropsey, all of whom painted the Susquehanna River in the mid-1800s. As the railroad pushed its way into the Susquehanna valley, bringing with it industry, logging, coal mining, and further development, this romanticized perception was soon replaced by nostalgia for a disappearing wilderness.
By the end of the nineteenth century, with the industrial era in full swing, artists such as Lloyd Mifflin, who continued to paint many romantic images of the Susquehanna well into the early twentieth century, soon found their work out of fashion as the seeds of European modernism took root in America. Abstract Expressionism and other modernist styles would dominate the American art scene for the next fifty years, creating an atmosphere hostile to almost any traditional form of pictorial representation. It's not surprising that the early modernist painter Charles Demuth, who resided just a short distance from the Susquehanna, seems to have produced only one known image of the river, focusing his attention instead on the possibilities of the urban and industrial landscape as it related to new and innovative Precisionist forms of expression. Modernism and abstraction emphasized social and artistic progress and a fervor to dominate and "civilize" nature for profit, replacing the idea of our equilibrium with the grandeur of nature that marked the great nineteenth-century paintings of the river.
Not until the 1970s, arising out of the previous decade's social revolution and revival of environmental awareness, did a new generation of young realist painters emerge who revived the art of landscape painting with a vigor that continues today. Influenced by the great Romantic landscape painters of the past (with their large formats, dramatic light, and sublime subject matter) and the bold compositions and brushwork of modernism, they expanded on the tradition through a wide and inventive variety of approaches to the subject. The Susquehanna becomes for these contemporary painters a vehicle for presenting a multitude of perspectives and commentaries on culture, ranging from simple reverence and lyrical narratives of nature to social criticisms of environmental decay, nuclear energy, and urban sprawl.
Rarely are we presented with such an opportunity to view a single subject through the eyes of so many extraordinary artists over such an extended period of time. This is perhaps best exemplified by the group of paintings in the exhibit depicting Wright's Crossing (at Columbia and Wrightsville, Pennsylvania). We first glimpse this important crossing point on the river for east-west travelers, at near water level, as wild and untamed in Benjamin West's 1767 portrayal, A View on the Susquehanna. In Lloyd Mifflin's 1873 panoramic view, Susquehanna River Below Wrightsville, we see the network of canals, railroads, and iron furnaces that have sprung up along the river's shores along with a single expansive covered bridge crossing the river. That bridge, destroyed by a hurricane in 1896, was replaced by two newer bridges and further development in the town of Wrightsville, which frames the view of the river in Stephen Etnier's 1931 The Susquehanna River. Finally, in Matthew Daub's 2006 painting, Foundry, depicting an operating iron foundry along the waterfront in Wrightsville, the river is barely visible through the foundry's complex infrastructure of ducts and industrial framework. Civilization has gradually closed in on the river, which was so dominant in the first painting, but almost obscured in the last. In these four views we see summarized so eloquently the evolution of the river's importance as our society and our consumptive needs continue to expand.
As this progression clearly portrays, the Susquehanna River valley represents a microcosm of the American experience at large: a vast wilderness of great natural abundance explored, settled, farmed, industrialized, and now threatened. Throughout this gradual progression, the artists of the day have expressed their personal take on this process, providing insight not only into the current mode of artistic thinking, but, in many cases, also reflecting the collective viewpoint of their society toward the landscape, revealing how this perception has changed with each generation. As we witness, through the eyes of the artists, this intimate portrait of the Susquehanna -- from its headwaters to its mouth, whether from high above or below its waters, in all forms of seasonal and shifting light, in its many moods and manifestations, and through the gradual transformation along its shores brought about by the yearnings of its residents -- we are reminded not only of its powerful and sublime beauty, but also of the urgent need to protect the delicate balance between the natural and civilized worlds that this magnificent river so potently represents.
About the author
About the exhibition
The magnificent exhibition Visions of the Susquehanna gathers two and a half centuries of art depicting the Susquehanna River from the eighteenth century to the present day. These paintings and watercolors depict the course of the river and its tributaries from Lake Otsego, New York, through Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.
The exhibition mirrors the abiding love of the American landscape that characterizes the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Many artists featured in the exhibition are also represented in the Museum's permanent collection. "Visions of the Susquehanna" features a rare 1767 landscape by famed artist Benjamin West (1738-1820) as well as depictions of the lovely green mountains and tree-lined shallows of the Susquehanna River basin by nineteenth-century masters such as George Inness (1825-1894) and twentieth- and twenty-first century artists like Stephen Hancock (b. 1951).
The human history of the river plays out across the nineteenth century in works by such major American artists as Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) and Thomas Moran (1837-1926) that show the growth of farms, towns, railroads and viaducts along the river. Shown above is "Starrucca Viaduct," an 1865 oil by Cropsey on loan from the Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey bequest, in memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott. Then in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, natural beauty vies with industrialization and pollution in paintings like a striking 2006 watercolor of a foundry by the river by Matthew Daub (b. 1953) and Rob Evans' (b. 1959) haunting 1997 depiction of flocks of birds migrating above a bridge over the river.
The exhibition is curated by scholar and artist Rob Evans, who grew up visiting his grandparents in the Susquehanna River valley and now lives and works by the river near Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. "Visions of the Susquehanna" is mounted by the Lancaster Museum of Art, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The lushly illustrated catalogue "Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Paintings by American Masters," featuring essays by Rob Evans, Leo G. Mazow and David B. Dearinger, will be available in the Museum Shop. (right: front cover of Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Paintings by American Masters)
-- the above text is adapted from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts website announcement of the exhibit.
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