Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 11, 2008 with permission of the High Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the High Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Introduction - American Landscape Paintings: Selections from the High Museum of Art, Atlanta

by Gudmund Vigtel


Although American 19th century landscape painting seldom strayed from European stylistic traditions, it took its characteristic form from the spectacular American scenery and from the American preoccupation with factual description marked by a sense of idealism. The American painters perceived the wilderness as clear evidence of a Divine Will and as superior to domesticated nature in Europe. This concept made American landscape painting a powerful expression of nationalism at a time when the young Republic was coming into its own, both politically and economically.

The rise of American landscape painting in the 19th century can be traced to other factors besides national pride. The accelerated influx of European artists during the years around 1800 brought to America skilled engravers of topographical views whose handsome prints attracted wide popularity. Such interests received added impulse from European Romanticism, which found a fervent response among Americans with strong ideas about landscape painting as a vehicle for poetic expression.

Idealism and faith in man as an individual attuned to the divine mysteries of nature had been expressed extensively by Rousseau, Goethe, and Schiller, who in turn influenced the younger English writers Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, among others. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson was to establish a circle of poets and thinkers concerned with Transcendentalism, which saw man's wisdom as being drawn from intuitive inspiration rather than from history -- in other words, a view of man as the child of God's nature. It was the perfect intellectual expression for the young nation preoccupied with individualism, independence, and its own destiny, and it is easy to see how the landscape painter of the period could become something of a folk hero.

European traditions remained, nevertheless, an undeniable presence in the work of these idealistic Americans. In 1801, the young Washington Allston of South Carolina went to Europe, where he immersed himself in the new Romantic concepts which became a pervasive element in his landscapes. There can be no more compelling communion with nature in American painting than his Moonlit Landscape in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, yet there is very little of America in it.

Thomas Doughty was another American who worked in the European idiom. He relied extensively on engravings of old masters, as did many of his American contemporaries; but he gave his work, such as Lake Scene (no. 1) in this exhibition, a remarkable air of freshness and innocence. His idealistic response to nature is expressed in the lonely figures contemplating the wonders of an heroic landscape under luminous skies.

These were harbingers of a full-blown American style, which was to be established by a young emigré from Europe. It is difficult to associate the young and somewhat effete Englishman, Thomas Cole, wandering in the Ohio wilderness in the early 1820s, wrapped against the cold in his mother's tablecloth, with the powerful role he was to play in developing a style of landscape painting which dominated American art for the better part of the century. He began under the obvious influence of the glowering, "sublime" manner of Salvator Rosa, of which he saw examples in the Pennsylvania Academy. While Cole could never quite shed his recollections of European culture, his best landscapes were absolutely convincing interpretations of America's vast nature. He set the style of American landscape painting with specific details painted with little academic finesse, showing nature directly, at times even abruptly, in the crisp, almost palpable light characteristic of this country.

Cole found his inspiration along the Hudson River. He wrote: "All nature here is new to art." His followers Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand, Jasper Cropsey, Worthington Whittredge, John Kensett, and others shared Cole's passion for the unspoiled scenery along the Hudson and in New England, which they painted with a pronounced sense for the specific locale, light, and weather. Church (regrettably, neither he nor Cole are represented in this collection) possessed an extraor-dinary gift for organizing a wealth of detail into panoramic landscapes from New England as well as South America, the Arctic, and the Old World. His sheer brilliance earned him -- and American landscape painting in general -- great popularity and prolonged a manner of painting well beyond its natural course of development.

Cropsey's and Whittredge's pictures in this exhibition are good examples of the American viewpoint at mid-century. Cropsey's work from the Isle of Wight is a perfectly executed view of accurately observed and controlled detail and light. Whittredge's unaffected, almost primitive painting of the Alleghenies (Rolling Hills, no. 5) shows Cole's distinctive manner and is in startling contrast to the artist's other painting in the exhibition, completed only six or seven years later, after he had spent four years at the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany. Landscape in the Harz Mountains (no. 6) is a tour de force of painterly control over detail and atmosphere. Fortunately, Whittredge did not fall prey to the fashionable and deadly formula painting practiced in the European academies. It is interesting to note parenthetically that Whittredge, writing his autobiography when he was very old, questioned the value of prolonged European studies by American artists.

Albert Bierstadt, another American Dusseldorf student, shows clear affinities with the German manner in the porcelain-like surface of Pioneers of the Woods, California (no. 13). For all its coldness, it is a beautiful and most appealing study of nature without the theatrical mannerisms of his later Western "spectaculars." At his best, Bierstadt could paint the American landscape with unstilted simplicity and affection, with keen accuracy and even brilliance.

Dusseldorf had a strong impact on midcentury art in America, but the influence was brief. The Academy taught Americans "correct" drawing and form, but its sentimentality could not attract them for long and they returned to a manner more honest and less glossy. William Trost Richards, for example, retained the precision of Dusseldorf form but, with his natural inclination toward close observation, fell in with the Pre-Raphaelites' predilection for faithful description of nature. Richards's rendering of light is especially convincing, with a feeling of time and space which rivals plein-air painting in Europe.

Light is the most important element of 19th century American landscape painting. "Luminism" was coined by the art historian John Baur to characterize our landscape art. This quality, which rests on meticulous rendering, represents a conscious effort to infuse these pictures with a calm and spiritual sense of a Divine Presence, giving clarity to what otherwise could be unrest and disorder. The American concern with light was different from that of the European artists, who saw it as a physical phenomenon. The Americans, on the other hand, showed nature as a state of grace, illuminated by the heavens above. John Kensett, a subtle colorist, strove for this quality in his broad panorama of Lake Champlain (no. 7). William Bradford's Coast of Labrador (no. 14) and William Hart's The Last Gleam (no. 9) are other instances of such symbolic intimations of light.

Martin Johnson Heade was a central figure in American Luminism. He was a restless wanderer with a taste for unusual and exotic subjects which set him apart, somewhat, from much of American painting. His pursuit of light as a theme of poetic mystery and his accurate depictions carried out in a rather inelegant technique mark him, nevertheless, as a profoundly American painter.

Few, if any, artists were moved more deeply by light as a symbol for spiritual values than George Inness. Yet he was the only major American landscape painter to remain consistently in the European tradition of generalized, classically arranged compositions. A Bit of the Roman Aqueduct (no. 3), an early work painted shortly after a visit to Italy, is laid out according to classic Claudian precepts; a comparison with Kensett's picture of Lake Champlain (no. 7), painted. the same year, shows the clear differences between these two viewpoints. As Inness matured, his generalizations of the landscape became even more pronounced and his later paintings in this exhibition (nos. 16, 17, and 27) are more related to European landscape as symbols for "mood" than to the concept of landscape as an expression of the Divine Will, as persistently practiced by Cole and his Hudson River followers.

Surprisingly, Americans were more enchanted by French Impressionism than were the French, and some of our best painters took to this new, down-to-earth interest in small bits of nature, generalized to conform to painting as explorations of picture surface and materials, as abstraction rather than interpretation. The American artists, however, never felt quite at home with Gallic intellectualism, and their Impressionism turned into a rather pallid version of the French, although the examples in this exhibition reveal both ability and conviction.

The common inspiration, the motivation for American landscape artists was the development of the United States as an independent nation, and it is this sense of pride, of a growing nationalistic identity, that formed the psychological basis for the Hudson River tradition of landscape painting even though so many of its practitioners had been born in the old countries and so much of their knowledge came from European sources. They were, after all, in deep communion with "those scenes of solitude," that nature which Thomas Cole described as "God's undefiled works."


About the author

Gudmund Vigtel was the Director of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta when he wrote this article. Mr. Vigtel has since retired from that position.


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 11, 2008, with permission of the High Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on May 22, 2008. Mr. Vigtel's essay pertains to American Landscape Paintings: Selections from the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, which was on view at various tour cities across North America September 15, 1981 - April 24, 1983. Participating institutions at the time of printing the catalogue included the Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum, Anchorage, AK; Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, FL; the R.W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, LA; the Wichita Falls Museum and Art Center, Wichita Falls, TX; Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum, Spokane, WA; Beaumont Art Museum, Beaumont, TX; Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, WI; and the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences, Peoria, IL.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Kelly Morris, of the High Museum of Art and editor of the catalogue, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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