Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscape 1860-1918

June 18 - September 27, 2009

 



 

Crossed Destinies: Manifesting the Paths of Nationhood in the United States and Canada through Landscapes, 1860-1918

by Hilliard Goldfarb, Associate Chief Curator and Curator of Old Masters , The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Curator of the Exhibition

The years seared at their margins by the experiences of the American Civil War and the First World War witnessed the fulfilment of a transcontinental territorial ambition in the United States that had originated in the early nineteenth century. The fulfilment of this ambition and the changing economic, political and social realities of this epoch fundamentally moulded a sensibility of American-ness related to yet quite distinctive from that of the antebellum years, from which a modern national identity emerged. Farther north, events leading to the 1867 Act of Confederation, the integration of territories and provinces into a federal system and a westward expansion (facilitated, as in the United States, by the railroad) also led to changing economic, political and social realities within Canada. The evolution of a more broadly envisioned national identity yet continuing regional tensions, notably among Anglophone, Francophone and Metis constituencies, culminated in the contrasting images of the conflicting and violent domestic reactions to the conscription during the First World War between Quebec and the other provinces, and the victory of the Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge. In both countries, regionalism, the powerful assertion of distinct cultural identities and heritages within expanding national frontiers, the mythologizing of history, and the perception and treatment of Native populations were the crucibles through which these national self-consciousnesses were forged.

 

(The United States)

 

In the United States, this expansion outward into the North American continent was given conscious expression in the concept of Manifest Destiny, which originally promoted annexation of Texas, the Oregon Territory and territorial appropriations from Mexico, but also encompassed at various historical moments Canada, Mexico itself, Cuba and Central America. The term was coined by the journalist John L. O'Sullivan in 1845, in an article arguing for the annexation of the Republic of Texas. The article, appropriately entitled "Annexation," appeared in the July­August issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, of which he was editor. Later that year, in a column that appeared in the December 27 issue of the New York Morning News, of which he was also editor, he extended his argument to the Oregon Territory, whose borders were in dispute with the British. O'Sullivan went as far as to state that the entire territory should be American and was justifiably so "by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us." These arguments had been presaged in an earlier article by him, "The Great Nation of Futurity," published in the November 1839 issue of the Democratic Review, in which he affirmed that, in the diversity of their citizenship and in the great democratic freedoms and moral virtues embodied in their governmental system, the American people were destined, with Divine blessing, to establish across the western hemisphere a "Union of many Republics." While the origins of the concept of American exceptionalism can be traced back to New England writers and preachers of the seventeenth century, its full territorial implications were a phenomenon of the nineteenth century, and O'Sullivan was articulating ambitions already expressed in 1811 by John Quincy Adams. In correspondence with his father, Adams spoke to the destiny of that same Providence to realize a single North American nation with a single language, shared customs and culture, and a political system under one Union. In 1819, Adams, who was then Secretary of State, through force of arms and hard negotiation, had expanded the American territory to encompass Florida and land to the Pacific. His vision was hardly unique. As early as 1805, Thomas Jefferson had spoken of the eventual likelihood of Canada's annexation. Of course, much of the American attitude toward Canada, apart from any lucrative financial prospects, was based on an intense distrust of (and two wars with) Great Britain.

American expansion westward -- the occupation and cultivation of slave and free territories and new states, and, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the movement of large numbers of settlers, both citizens and waves of immigrants, to recently surveyed lands to establish new beginnings on defined properties and exploit discovered mineral riches from Virginia City, Nevada, to the Klondike -- was encouraged not only by the press, but also by government and railroad company advertisements and by private promotional brochures featuring inspiring images of fertile wheat fields and opportunities for settlement. Likewise, photographs of nature's wonders in newly surveyed western territories led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the first of its kind in the United States, and a conservancy movement that culminated at the outset of the new century under Theodore Roosevelt. Canada followed suit with the creation of Banff National Park in 1885. By the latter part of the century, railroad companies on both sides of the border encouraged travel and tourist ventures through advertising campaigns, exhibited paintings and readily affordable photographs featuring grand panoramas of landscapes and mountain ranges.

 

(Canada)

 

Canada knew no such phenomenon as Manifest Destiny. Yet the history of Confederation, its expansion westward and the crucial unifying of the provinces through the Canadian Pacific Railway cannot be understood without reference to the country to its south. Canada's symbiotic relationship with the United States informed its development and evolving national identity, despite festering and, at times, explosive internal divisions among the English, French and Metis communities. Apart from speeches in the US Congress and articles in the press urging, at different times throughout the century, the integration of the Canadian North into the Union, specific events south of the border motivated Canadian unification. A tense Civil War neutrality, seen by the United States as biased toward the secessionist South (as was Britain's), frequently threatened trade relations, and cross-border incidents (and later Fenian raids) agitated unification negotiations, first at Quebec City in 1864 and subsequently at meetings leading to the 1867 Confederation accord. The American obsession with closing off British territorial access to North American ports (shared by Russia to facilitate the 1867 purchase of Alaska), sweetened with Ottawa's offer to build a transcontinental railroad (albeit ultimately partly underwritten and directed by Americans), played a role in encouraging an increasingly isolated British Columbia to enter Confederation in 1871. The United States' aggressive bid to the Hudson's Bay Company, on the heels of the Alaska purchase, to acquire Rupert's Land, a territory encompassing a quarter of the North American continent, was reluctantly refused by the Company only under pressure from Britain and Canada. The latter acquired the immense territory in 1869 for a bargain price of a million and a half dollars. Made without consulting the Metis and Aboriginal populations, the purchase ultimately led to the Red River Rebellion. A Canadian immigration promotional program was mounted in the 1880s for the Prairie and Western Provinces, competitive with that of the United States. Focusing its brochures and posters primarily on Britain, the program extended its campaign to Continental Europe at the end of the century under Wilfrid Laurier, who saw in the mingling of nationalities a means of defusing cultural tensions between Quebec and the other provinces.

 

(The evolving paths of nationhood in Canada and the United States as reflected through painted and photographed landscapes)

 

This exhibition seeks to explore and compare the evolving paths of nationhood in Canada and the United States as reflected through painted and photographed landscapes. By exploring and comparing close to two hundred works -- the underlying intentions that led to their creation, their themes and their complementary yet distinctive compositional structures and styles -- much can be revealed about both countries. Beginning in the 1840s, the Hudson River School's vision of the North American landscape as an expression of a Divine covenant resonated with the call for westward and outward expansion. Over the succeeding decades, this vision of the landscape found different stylistic expressions, some filled with missionary zeal. The American landscape was proclaimed as offering both self-revelation and the fulfilment of a national destiny, in which mythologized Indigenous populations played no role, a subsidiary role or were seen as obstacles.

During these years, many Canadian artists were very aware of and profoundly influenced by stylistic movements and major cultural events in the United States. The impact of works by the Hudson River School, the influential visits of American artists, such as Robert S. Duncanson, the Armory Show in New York and the Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art in Buffalo, both in 1913, as well as the art commerce in Boston and New York affected the history of Canadian painting. In photography, the changing aesthetics and the subjects selected by American artists, beginning with the documentary images from surveys of the West conducted after the Civil War, were later paralleled by Canadian photographers working on commission for the Canadian Pacific Railway, while the technical advances realized by George Eastman offered new opportunities to photographers in both countries. At the same time, a vibrant, independent photographic enterprise existed in Canada, most notably in the studio of William Notman and his successors. Canadian painters distinguished themselves in their more domestic and less monumental approach to landscape, both aesthetically and literally -- their canvases were generally considerably smaller and they did not tend to share the American taste for cycloramas and enormous scale. They also carried within them different attitudes toward their relationship with nature. Furthermore, Montreal being the centre of Canadian artistic activity during the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a marked openness to Continental European trends.

I chose the period of 1860 through 1918 precisely because it encompasses the anguishing and transforming experience of the Civil War (the carnage of which exceeded six hundred thousand casualties) and its politically and socially altering aftermath in the United States; the Act of Confederation and the emergence of a broader, sophisticated community of painters and photographers in Canada; and both countries' re-energized focus westward to the Pacific Coast and realization of transcontinental ambitions. The codification of national myths of identity and the nations' diverse and unfortunate portrayals of Indigenous populations and heritages as being outside of these practical ambitions and idealized myths are also considered. The presentation concludes with a consideration of later stylistic developments in communicating these ambitions and myths through landscapes, culminating in the dramatic innovations of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

[...] I selected the title Expanding Horizons to convey the territorial, social, political and psychological dimensions of landscape imagery in these countries. Remarkably, this is the first focused exploration and analysis of this crucial and visually splendid subject as concurrently articulated in the United States and Canada during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. [...]

 

Editor's note:

The above passages concerning historical context are excerpted from the Introduction to the catalogue,

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