Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on January 17, 2009 with permission of the Lowe Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Lowe Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Spring Bloom and Autumn Blaze: Topographies of American Landscape and Character

By John Wilmerding

 

William Cullen Bryant's words "spring bloom and autumn blaze" were but partial features of the "living image of our own bright land" which he urged his friend Thomas Cole to keep in mind as the painter left in 1829 to travel in Europe. The sentiments of that famous ode belonged to a generation who believed in asserting and celebrating the American character in all the arts. A few years later Cole himself wrote his "Essay on American Scenery," and Emerson published his important essays on "Nature" and "The American Scholar" -- all efforts to establish the independence and integrity of a national culture. These individuals and their colleagues initiated a major period of attention to the American landscape in both painting and literature, in which they perceived the country's identity and aspirations to be inextricably linked with the special character of its geography. For an extended time during the nineteenth century, in fact, their records of place came to embody a widely shared optimism and self-confidence. This exhibition vividly demonstrates the flourishing of those ideals during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, with works by well known figures along with happily surprising examples of great interest and fine quality by unfamiliar names.

Although the nineteenth century saw perhaps the greatest outpouring by American artists of topographical landscapes -- for it was largely during that period when the country's identity was most strongly molded-painters and engravers for some time before had recorded the coast of the New World and the landscape of colonial settlements with varying degrees of accuracy. With the earliest French expeditions in the 1560's came Jacques LeMoyne de Morgues, and with the English two decades later John White, both of whose drawings and watercolors of the New World's inhabitants, flora, and geographical features were subsequently engraved by the Dutch printer Theodore de Bry. In some instances their images are maps literally charting the Atlantic seaboard or are visual catalogues of the various species of birds, fish, flowers, and vegetables encountered ashore. Such impulses towards specificity in the record of place played a significant and continuing role in the experience of discovery, for making concrete what one saw became a metaphorical form of possession. As Robert Frost claimed, "The land was ours before we were the land's."

Indeed, mapmaking continued to be an important mode of clarifying a vision of the new continent, and it is no mere coincidence that J. F. W. des Barres printed his famous coastal charts, The Atlantic Neptune, during the 1770's, the years of the Revolution and independence. The country was gaining definition both geographically and politically, and each form of definition called for and complemented the other. Meanwhile, the first identifiable views of American scenery were appearing in the backgrounds of Colonial portraits. What is thought to be the first known view of Beacon Hill and Boston harbor appears in the background of Thomas Smith's portrait of Major Thomas Savage (Estate of Henry Shattuck, Brookline, Mass.), dating from c. 1679. Using mezzotints after English originals as sources for their compositions, the early Colonial portraitists translated these formats and settings into more simplified, less pretentious treatments. Straightforward glimpses onto stretches of open landscape or coastlines were substituted for the elegant garden scenery and picturesque vistas in the prototypes, as more suitable to the character or occupation of the Colonial patron. Usually, such views appearing as window vignettes to one side of the sitter remained rather fanciful and imaginary, although increasingly painters and subjects alike sought more specifically realistic and relevant settings.

For example, in 1729 John Smibert painted the wealthy Bostonian Francis Brinley (Metropolitan Museum, New York) standing before a distant view of Boston and Beacon Hill as seen from the owner's mansion, Datchet House, in Roxbury. John Singleton Copley, too, might be said to have depicted his sitters with telling accuracy as they stood or sat within the quite identifiable "interior landscapes" of their homes. William Williams, the onetime teacher of Benjamin West, painted several American sitters during the later eighteenth century standing before landscapes which combine realistic and invented details. And West himself began his career in America both by painting portraits in Williams' manner as well as rather naive scenes such as Landscape with Cow, c 1749-52 (Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia) with its apparent combination of observed local scenery and imaginary castle towers.

The Federal period saw the first concerted efforts by large numbers of American artists to record topographical views. Many were foreigners, especially English, who must have glimpsed special opportunities for productive careers in the rapidly growing ports and commercial centers of the new nation. Native or not, all appear to have been responding to the fresh desires of the republic's citizens to delineate features and special sites of the national landscape. Now, too, there was an increased stability and self-confidence which made possible the production of art forms that were not strictly or primarily functional (such as silver, furniture, book illustration, architecture, gravestones, or portraiture had been). The full emergence of landscape painting at this time thus reflects both a more prosperous social context and an aspiring collective pride.

There were a number of interesting figures sketching and painting American scenery in this formative period of the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first two of the nineteenth. Among them were William Birch and William Groombridge at work in the Philadelphia area, the former known for his various city prospects and the latter for his panoramas of prominent country estates nearby. Meanwhile, Francis Guy painted several closely observed city scenes in New York, the best known being The Tontine Coffee House, corner of Wall and Water Streets, c. 1797 (New York Historical Society) and Winter Scene in Brooklyn of two decades later (Museum of the City of New York). One might also note the two brothers from Scotland, Alexander and Archibald Robertson, who offered their services as instructors of drawing in New York around the turn of the century, and were noted as well for an extensive series of sketches documenting the countryside from Manhattan north along the Hudson River. In this regard we ought not to forget the group of watercolor drawings Charles Willson Peale made along the Hudson as he traveled from Philadelphia to upstate New York to undertake his famous exhumation of the mastodon bones in the early 1800's.

A somewhat younger generation of artists was even more active in an almost systematic exploration of American scenery along the Atlantic seaboard. In New England Alvan Fisher was one of the first to paint views of the rugged coast of Maine, including the Camden Hills and Mount Desert Island, both areas with great appeal for numerous painters from the 1830's to seventies. The English-born artist Robert Salmon settled in Boston in 1828, where he worked for over a decade before returning at the end of his life to Europe. In Salem Michele Felice Corne, a refugee from Elba during the Napoleonic wars, painted canvases and overmantels of local vessels and scenery, while his talented pupil George Ropes undertook among other subjects his impressive panorama of Crowninshield Wharf in 1812 (Peabody Museum, Salem). To the south Thomas Birch was establishing a highly successful career as recorder of marine engagements during the war of 1812, but became equally recognized for his canvases of both the Delaware Bay and New York harbor areas. At the same time John Lewis Krimmel was engaged in his several entertaining street scenes around central Philadelphia. The picture of life in America that Salmon and Birch especially give to us is one of lively and expansive activity. Often their harbors capes are filled with vessels under way, their wharves dense with people, their skylines animated by crowded rooflines -- all conveying the surging growth in population, commerce, and above all, national well-being.

The graphic arts played a special role in popularizing familiar or dramatic scenery. Lithography particularly, through its relative immediacy of means and effect, its technical simplicity and greater reproductive capacities, permitted the wide production and circulation of town vistas as well as the variety of picturesque vignettes to be found in rural and wilderness settings. One notes the emergence during the first quarter of the nineteenth century of such draftsmen as John W. Hill, William J. Bennett, and W. H. Bartlett, who were responsible for publishing some of the most comprehensive and best known views of American scenery. Typical of these endeavors were the paintings and prints produced by Joshua Shaw, who over a period of years toured much of the Eastern coast. The scenes that Shaw sketched from nature Hill engraved in 1820 for publication as Picturesque Views of American Scenery, the introduction to which grandly proclaimed:

In no quarter of the globe are the majesty and loveliness of nature more strikingly conspicuous than in America. The vast regions which are comprised in or subjected to the republic present to the eye every variety of the beautiful and sublime ... Striking however and original as the features of nature undoubtedly are in the United States, they have rarely been made the subjects of pictorial delineation ... America only, of all the countries of civilized man, is unsung and undescribed.

Over the next several decades Shaw and his contemporaries strove to fulfill this compelling vision of describing the beauties of nature that they perceived around them. Shaw's own art moved from works strongly within the sublime mode (such as his early vision of dramatic terror in The Deluge of c. 1813 in the Metropolitan Museum) to more picturesque scenes, some rather imaginary, others more explicit as to location.

The most familiar and cohesive group of early landscape painters in America is of course the Hudson River School, with Thomas Doughty as the senior figure by age, Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand the foremost practitioners. In Doughty's work one finds the full range of approaches to nature characteristic of Hudson River painting, from the formula "composition" on the one hand to views "from nature" on the other. Often he struck a middle ground, modifying his first-hand observations of a place with generalized details or harmonizing balances of design. Cole pushed this inherent duality between the philosophical and the specific even further. These two modes in his art and that of the Early Hudson River School have perhaps their most forceful summary respectively in Cole's Course of Empire (New York Historical Society) and The Oxbow on the Connecticut River near Northampton (Metropolitan Museum), both from 1836.

It is the strain of the real and identifiable seen in The Oxbow with which the present exhibition is most concerned, not least since it developed as one of the most enduring impulses in landscape painting through the central decades of the century. Cole spelled out what he saw as the role of American scenery in the cultivation of civilized taste in his 1835 essay: nature gives an understanding of history's evolution, pleasure in the contemplation of beauty, pride in knowing the spiritual and physical richness of one's country. By reflecting on the sublime virtues of New England's wilderness one might gain some intimation of a higher, Godly order. After Cole's premature death in 1848, Asher Durand turned increasing attention to depicting recognizable vistas or sites.

Yet both he and Cole were often disposed towards transforming their delineations of a particular place with certain devices which served more to convey symbolic content than to represent actual details. For example, in The Oxbow Cole chose a notably elevated vantage point for increased dramatic effect; across the background a clearing thunderstorm has physically (and spiritually) cleansed the wilderness before our eyes; and prominent in the foreground of this, and so many Hudson River pictures, stands a blasted tree trunk with the green branches of new growth nearby, signifying nature's purifying self-renewal. Durand, however, urged in his Letters appearing in the Crayon in 1855 that the artist "draw with scrupulous fidelity" each form he selects from nature, and" observe particularly wherein it differs from those of other species."

This exhibition offers the viewer a wide range of variations on these broad themes, and one may take pleasure in making a sequence of interesting and revealing comparisons, whether among similar subjects or different works by a single artist or a type of view treated at successive points during the nineteenth century. For example, there are several dense woodland views by Sanford Gifford, Thomas Hill, and David Johnson. Another is a collaboration between Gifford and Jasper Cropsey, while there is a further contrast to be drawn between the views of Kaaterskill Falls as recorded by Gifford and Ernest Lotichius. Then from a later generation come the changes in mood and technique evident in examples by Winslow Homer and George Inness.

Inness's Overlooking the Hudson at Milton also shares a spaciousness and glowing light characteristic of a different group of more panoramic woodland prospects. These would include the canvases surveying broad reaches of mountain ranges, usually with streams crossing the foreground and occasional animals or figures dwarfed by the implied vastness of nature: This was a popular format, as confirmed in the examples by familiar figures like Durand, Frederic Church, Homer D. Martin, and Ralph Blakelock,

as well as by lesser known names like Joseph Morviller and J. B. Hudson. Meanwhile, Doughty, John Mix Stanley, Inness, and Aaron Draper Shattuck varied their treatment of this composition with larger figures more prominently rowing or crossing the water in the foreground. With the works of James H. Beard and Richard P. Leitch we find the figural elements approaching a level of narrative interest more typical of pure genre painting.

By mid-century American topographical landscapes were displaying subtle but decisive shifts in style, away from the frequently anecdotal or patently moralistic works of the early generation, and towards more precisely identifiable scenes, a new expansiveness and reflective calm, and greater concentration on the poetic and evocative effects of light. These qualities are apparent in the large peaceful views of Jervis McEntee, Cropsey, John Casilaer, and Alexander Wyant. There are obvious parallels in the developments of marine and coastal painting during the same decades. From the thirties and forties date the harbor views of Salmon and Fitz Hugh Lane with their distinctive storytelling details. Yet the attention to the glowing effects of light and atmosphere anticipate their increased role in subsequent painting, as one can see by looking at the shoreline seascapes by Harrison Bird Brown (probably of Mount Desert, Maine), Edmund T. Dana, Alfred Thomson Bricher, and Francis A. Silva.

In one way or another many of these works embody characteristics now ascribed to luminism. the culminating phase of Hudson River painting and one of the truly indigenous movements of nineteenth-century American art. In Heade's Marshfield Meadows, McEntee's Catskill Mountains, and David Johnson's Lake Scene (probably Lake George) are the essential luminist qualities of measured calm, emphatically horizontal extension of space, and dissolving glazes of sunlight. As the physical elements of landscape seem to diminish, the presence of an airy radiance acquires enhanced meaning, both as methodically observed fact and as metaphysical sign of transcendent harmony. These are visions inherently American in their concreteness of place as well as of feeling.

Besides the examples so familiarly a part of Hudson River School developments in New England and the Northeast, there are here a number of unusual glimpses of more urban places and scenery elsewhere across America. In the former category are the little known but fine views of Highgate Bridge, Harlem River by Frederick Ballard Williams, New York Harbor from Bedloe's Island by N. Jorgensen, and The Artist's Residence at Glenside, Pa, (inscribed on the reverse, "Painting Room of the Academy of Music for 26 years") by Russell Smith. Such an exhibition as this would be lacking without at least one view of Niagara Falls, one of the principal icons of American scenery, and we are not disappointed by the dramatic beauty of Niagara Falls in Winter by Hippolyte Sebron. Beginning with John Trumbull and John Vanderlyn in the early years of the nineteenth century, almost every American painter felt compelled to record his own impressions of the Falls, in a sequence which culminates with the archetypal version by Frederic Church in 1857 (Corcoran Gallery).

That artists began to move to other parts of the country by mid-century in search of subjects was an indicator of the growing settlements in the Midwest and West. One had to push farther afield to find the virgin wilderness first celebrated by Cole and others in the Catskills or along the Maine coast. Of interest are the Mississippi and Rio Grande river views by Joseph Meeker and Solomon Nunes Carvalho respectively, or the more familiar Florida oils by Heade and their bright counterpart in Albert Bierstadt's House in the Bahamas. Bierstadt was Church's great rival during the 1870's, as each sought to put on enormous canvases their heroic visions of America's most sublime natural wonders. The great mountain ranges of the West attracted not only Bierstadt but also his New Bedford, Massachusetts, friend William Bradford, and another contemporary, Thomas Moran, all represented here with exemplary pictures of their western expeditions. Moran especially has come to be known for his spectacular compositions of the Grand Canyons of the Colorado and of the Yellowstone. His images remain as breathtaking today as they obviously were a century ago when they directly stimulated the moves to establish the country's first national parks.

The California mountains made frequent subjects for the canvases of William Keith, while the relatively new cities in that state found delineators in artists we would like to know more about. For example, there is George Tirrell's glowing View of Sacramento, California, from across the Sacramento River, c. 1860 (Boston Museum), and on the coast M. Moye's sweeping prospect across Santa Barbara. Bierstadt as well painted a number of oils along the California coast, some concentrated around San Francisco Bay and others executed during a voyage to Alaska. By the end of the seventies a number of his contemporaries, like Bradford, Heade, Gifford, and Church, had made excursions well beyond the continental limits of the United States. In search of the sublime undiscovered wilderness that this generation associated with the optimism and manifest destiny of the nation, they traveled to the volcanoes of South America, the icebergs of the Arctic, and the deserts of the Near East.

Yet in these very same years their celebratory and exclamatory interpretation of nature seemed increasingly hollow and bombastic to the public. In response, doubtless, to several factors -- the psychic shock of the Civil War, discontent with Reconstruction, the materialism of a new age, regionalism replacing a former consciousness of national unity, and the possibilities as well as incursions of technology -- a sober, more down-to-earth art seemed called for. Thus, the most profound artists of the later nineteenth century were to be figures like Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins, whose landscapes were to be weighted with a new gravity and sense of reflection. Where the founders of the Hudson River School had viewed America almost innocently and single-mindedly as the Promised Land, this late age was more troubled about the morality of men and nations

The commonly shared image of national identity defined by Cole and his friends mainly through the country's landscape now yielded to more personal visions and to disparate artistic styles. Albert Ryder's New Bedford landscapes softened under the glazes of his pigments and deeply introspective character, as did the Indian encampments painted by Ralph A. Blakelock. Towards the end of the century a large group of Americans depicted the outdoors through the adapted formulas of Impressionism, though some cared less for recording the forms of nature as pure optical sensations than for distilling their own feelings of elegy and wistfulness. The new century brought a World War and the Armory Show, decisive shocks to the older social and artistic orders. If anything, the city became the new landscape for artists, first in the Ash Can School, then in the strains of realism in Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler, and more recently in Pop Art. Perhaps in looking back from these later vantage points do we even more convincingly see how central the role of nature was in the American imagination during the last century. The topographical landscape became therefore a crucial mode of self-definition.

 

About the author

John Wilmerding, a widely published and respected authority on American art, was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Art in 2005. He announced the donation of his collection of 19th-century American art to the Gallery while it was on view in the Gallery's exhibition American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection, from May 9, 2004 through February 6, 2005. The collection of 51 works represents such masters as George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, William Stanley Haseltine, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Fitz Hugh Lane, John Marin, John F. Peto, and William Trost Richards. Previously Wilmerding donated The Chaperone (c. 1908) by Thomas Eakins on the occasion of the Gallery's 50th anniversary in 1991.

Born in Boston in 1938, Wilmerding comes from a family with a rich history of art collecting. Wilmerding's great-grandparents, Henry Osborne Havemeyer and his second wife Louisine Waldron Havemeyer, amassed an extraordinary group of European and Asian works of art that was eventually bequeathed to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Electra Havemeyer Webb (Wilmerding's grandmother), assembled a remarkable and vast collection of folk art that was the genesis of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, which she founded in 1947.

Following completion of his doctorate in art history from Harvard University, Wilmerding began teaching at Dartmouth College. In 1977 he came to work at the National Gallery of Art, initially as its curator of American art and senior curator. He served as deputy director from 1983 to 1988. In 1980 Wilmerding organized the landmark exhibition, American Light: The Luminist Movement. During his tenure, the Gallery's department of American art was created and important works were acquired, including Jasper Francis Cropsey's The Spirit of War (1851), Lane's Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay (1863), Heade's Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds (1871), and Rembrandt Peale's Rubens Peale with a Geranium (1801).

In 1988 Wilmerding returned to full-time teaching at Princeton University, as Christopher Binyon Sarofim '86 Professor of American Art Emeritus. In addition he is formerly the visiting curator of the department of American art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is the recipient of numerous awards in art history and education.

At the time of writing of the above essay Wilmerding was Leon E. Williams Professor of Art, Dartmouth College. (Source: National Gallery of Art press release dated October 19, 2007)

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 17, 2009, with permission of the Lowe Art Museum. The permission was granted to TFAO on January 12, 2009. Mr. Wilmerding's essay pertains to 19th Century American Topographic Painters, which was on view at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami from November 21 - January 5, 1975.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Kara L.Schneiderman, Assistant Director for Collections and Exhibition Services at the Lowe Art Museum, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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