New Worlds from Old: 19th Century Australian & American Landscapes
"Landscape" is made in the mind. Whether paintings or poetry, formal gardens or prose, European landscape over the centuries has expressed humanity's longings for deep moorings in nature and all its associations--the changing seasons, cultivation, storms and droughts, divinity, home, and towns nestled near rivers and harbors.
In the late eighteenth century, landscape gripped artists, poets, and travelers with an urgency that was to preoccupy generations for more than a hundred years. In an irreversible historical process, towns--indeed, cities--became so integral to European and Euro-colonial development that the work of landscape painting moved into new territory. The city developed from being the headquarters for life lived on and from the land to being the productive center itself. Urban citizens turned to the landscape to compensate for a loss of connection with the physical world.
Landscape painting reached its zenith in Australia and the United States in the nineteenth century. This exhibition examines the tradition in both countries as it developed over the course of one hundred years, finding similarities and differences in the art of two nations with ancient indigenous populations, later settled by British colonists. These landscapes reveal how Old World European conventions were transformed to create landscapes of "New Worlds" and at the same time reveal how nineteenth-century Australians and Americans saw themselves in relation to nature.
Meeting the Land
During the first half of the nineteenth century, travelers and artists explored the landscape in search of an understanding of the physical and spiritual aspects of nature. At the beginning of the century, feeling a sense of their own insignificance in the face of a vast wilderness, these explorers relied on a set of established ways of looking at nature in order to make the unfamiliar landscape of the "new world" comprehensible to European eyes.
As a new nation attempting to define itself, America celebrated in its art the novelties of its landscape--its scale, its freshness, and variety--approaching the scenery as a tourist would. The wilderness, which had been feared in the eighteenth century, was now viewed as the country's most distinctive feature--a symbol of the nation's potential as well as the country's history. Australian attitudes toward their own wilderness landscape were different. Settled first as a penal colony in 1788, Australia did not let go of the image of its lands as harsh and unforgiving, even ugly. And yet the exoticism of the place, its flora and fauna, and its native peoples, had its own singular appeal.
In the late eighteenth century, English landscape painters adopted certain structural principles from the idealized landscapes of the seventeenth-century French artists Claude Lorrain and Gaspar Poussin. The landscape was broken down into three zones: a background; a strongly lit middle distance; and a darkened foreground. In addition, the scene was to be framed by foreground trees, a tree and ruin, or mountains at the sides. This dark foreground frame was a way of heightening the impact of the central view, just as one might cup one's hands around one's eyes to cut the glare of the sun. This method of framing a landscape on canvas became a way of looking at the natural landscape-similar terminology was used to discuss nature, and landscapes that resembled those on canvas were sought out. This new landscape aesthetic was a dramatic shift from the earlier topographical tradition that had dominated American and Australian landscape painting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Picturesque travelers--such as artists William Guy Wall in the United States and Joseph Lycett in Australia--read the work of the English writer William Gilpin (1724-1804) and others who defined the picturesque in their various books on the subject. The picturesque traveler visited sites in the new world on an itinerary of natural scenery that was published in guidebooks and passed on by word of mouth. Artists both documented and contributed to the popularity of these sites by painting them. Through paintings and through print portfolios such as Wall's Hudson River Portfolio and Lycett' s Views in Australia, they also influenced the way in which the public viewed landscape. Sites along the American picturesque tour included the Hudson River, Kaaterskill Falls, and Niagara Falls. In Australia, Bathurst Cataract in New South Wales and Wentworth Falls were on the list of places to visit.
Above: Frederic Church, Niagra Falls, 1857, collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Claiming the Land
Much of the landscape imagery of the first half of the nineteenth century celebrated the settlers' progress in transforming the landscape, of claiming and settling the wilderness. In the early decades, Americans laid claim to the land through ownership. England served as a cultural model--the tradition of country house painting was applied to the more modest American counterpart.
Likewise in Australia, artists celebrated the impact white settlement had on the land. City and town views were important in both Australia and America as evidence of progress, of the taming of the wilderness toward what Europeans considered productive ends. At the same time, this meant the loss of land for Native Americans and Australian Aborigines; both groups were pushed off their land in order to make way for the Europeans.
Above: Tom Roberts, A Break Away!, 1891, Elder Bequest Fund, 1899, Ar Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
New worlds or old?
The phrase "new world" traditionally refers to the United States or Australia, while the phrase "old world" usually refers to Europe. However, America and Australia were new worlds only to the newly arrived Europeans who settled slere. They were old--indeed, ancient--worlds to the people who already lived there--Native Americans in the United States and Aborigines in Australia.
One of the themes of this exhibition is the depiction of native peoples by European-Americans and European-Australians. Artists depicted natives in each country in ways that ranged from seemingly specific and accurate accounts of their ways of life to generalized, romantic symbols of an irrecoverable past. Artists such as George Catlin in the United States and John Glover in Australia recorded the natives they met and read about much as some artists recorded the distinctive and exotic flora and fauna of the "new" world. The Anglo-American Thomas Cole, on the other hand, never claimed that his images of Native Americans were ethnographic. For Cole, the figure of the Native American served a symbolic purpose in landscape painting. In the Catskill Mountains in New York State, for example, neither Native Americans nor wilderness existed at the time Cole was there. By 1825, Natives had been pushed out of the Catskill region by white frontiers-people and industry, and wilderness had been settled or was overrun by tourists.
Above: Thomas Cole, Scene from "Last of the Mohicans," Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamemund, 1827, bequest of Alfred Smith, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.
Landscape of Association
Many Americans admired European landscapes for their rich associations with historical events. European settlement in the United States was comparatively recent and so the American landscape did not hold a large store of historical allusions for the new Americans. Thomas Cole argued otherwise in his "Essay on American Scenery" (1835): "American scenes are not destitute of historical and legendary associations---the great struggle for freedom has sanctified many a spot, and many a mountain, stream, and rock has its legend, worthy of poet's pen or the painter's pencil.... American associations are not so much of the past as of the present and the future...Where the wolf roams, the plow shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower--mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil."
For new Australians, the landscape held even fewer associations. John Glover painted sites associated with the removal of Aborigines, but there were few references to European-Australian history.
Above: John Glover, My Harvest Home, 1835, gift of Mrs. C. Allport, 1935, Tansmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart
In Awe of the Land
By mid-century, artists sought to come to terms with their nation's landscape, by this time transcending pictorial tradition to capture the essence of nature, including new scientific understandings regarding nature's process and new ideas of the sublime.
In the United States, artists employed bigger canvases to capture their expanding notions of landscape; the entrepreneurial spirit among leading painters resulted in "the great picture." American artists honed their marketing skills, seeking patronage amongst railroad magnates and robber barons, as well as looking to London and Europe in search of an international audience.
By the middle of the century, the European culture of Australia was developing strongly and the discovery of gold in the early 1850s added considerably to the booming economy. There was an element of opportunism in the landscapes artists chose to focus on, and views of landscapes that prospectors hoped might be a source of wealth were in demand.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
Alexander von Humboldt was a German naturalist and traveler. In his day, he was one of the world's most prominent intellectuals. His five-volume Cosmos, published between 1845 and 1862 (the last volume was published posthumously), influenced an entire generation of scholars and artists, including Frederic Church in the United States and Eugene von Guerard in Australia. Humboldt's belief in the mutual reinforcement of art and science was a compelling one for these artists. In his writings Humboldt emphasized that landscape painting was an important means of expressing one's love for nature. He also stressed the importance of accurately recording details, but did not advocate topographical landscape painting, believing that the artist's emotional and intellectual response to nature was necessary for a successful work of art.
Humboldt's idea that nature was constantly changing was a revolutionary one. Scientists theorized that the continents had been built up primarily by volcanic action, only to suffer erosion from rain and wind. The same forces that shaped nature throughout history were still at work. Consequently, artists turned to mountains and waterfalls as particularly appropriate and moving subjects for landscape art.
Above: Frederic Church, Natural Bridge, 1852, Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville
A Landscape of Contemplation
In the 1860s and 1870s, artists sought training and inspiration in Europe as their patrons became more cosmopolitan in their taste. Several new trends rooted in European art began to have an impact in America and Australia including French Barbizon landscape painting, the Munich school, and the British-inspired Aesthetic movement. Advancements in photography threatened landscape painters' dominance over the newer, more "truthful" medium.
These changes signaled a transitional phase in landscape art. It was in the late 1870s that the term "Hudson River School" was coined to emphasize what was now perceived as the American school's provincialism. The precise detailed work of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church was rejected in favor of an art that focused more on mood and atmosphere. In Australia too, the specificity of Eugene von Guerard's work was succeeded by the more generalized, poetic, and, indeed, nostalgic art of Louis Buvelot and W.C. Piguenit.
Above: Eugene von Guerard, North-East View from the Northern Top of Mont Kosciusko, 1863, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
The Figure Defines the Landscape
By the end of the century, humans' changed relation to nature---from subject to master---was revealed in landscape art. American artists returning home from European sojourns in the 1870s and 1880s found that the earlier agrarian society had rapidly shifted to an industrialized and increasingly urban culture. Artists turned their attention to depictions of modern life, capturing fleeting moments, as well as to subjects that reflected the need to retreat from the fast pace of life in thz city. Images of people enjoying nature in a controlled environment--the city park, the resort, or the garden--replaced earlier views of figures overwhelmed by the natural world.
By the 1890s, nationalism was on the rise in Australia as the country approached federation (1901). Landscape painting was deeply linked to cultural nationalism in Australia, and the work of those artists who engaged with these broader cultural ideas increasingly came to be seen as the "national school." Romantic images of stockmen and gold prospectors symbolized a simpler, agricultural Australia that was now subordinate to the city.
Above: Winslow Homer, Long Branch, New Jersey, 1869, The Hayden Collection, courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
An illustrated catalogue published by the National Gallery of Australia with the Wadsworth Atheneum is available for $39.95 at the Museum Shop.
Sponsored in the United States by United Technologies Corporation. Supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional support provided by Nancy B. Krieble and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London. Transportation provided by Qantas Airways. There will be an admission surcharge for New Worlds From Old in addition to the cost of general museum admission: New Worlds From Old will be on exhibit at The Wadsworth Atheneum through January 3 1999.
Read more about the Wadsworth Atheneum in Resource Library Magazine
For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.