Landscape in America 1850 - 1890
September 26, 1997 - January 4, 1998
Landscape in America 1850 - 1890, featuring beautiful paintings of the "new" continent by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Hill, George Inness, and others, opens at the Tacoma Art Museum September 26th, 1997 through January 4, 1998 in the main gallery on the first floor. The exhibition is organized by the Tacoma Art Museum and its Chief Curator Barbara Johns from important collections in the United States. This represents a rare occasion in the Northwest to see this genre of painting.
oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches
Collection of New York Historical Society
Landscape painting was the first American art to be called a national style. A half-century after the founding of the new nation, depicting truly American topography and vegetation with descriptive realism and idealized scenes fulfilled the desire that America develop an art of its own, distinct from European models. Infused with radiant light, and elements that carried symbolic meanings, these paintings expressed the ideals of Emerson and his contemporaries that human life and nature were a harmonious whole.
By mid-century, spectacular panoramas became popular entertainments; crowds gathered to marvel at the visual excitement and technical finesse of "Great Pictures," measuring six by ten feet. Later in the century, as the losses accompanying industrial progress became more evident, preferred landscape views were quiet, even moody, scenes for introspection, They reflected a sense of longing for unspoiled or quietly domesticated landscape.
Landscape in America is not only an exhibition of unabashedly beautiful paintings. In the last thirty years, new scholarship in American art has focused on the social context in which these paintings were produced, beyond historical appreciation. The exhibition draws upon these studies, to explore the sense of longing as the notions of "wilderness" changed with industrialization and new transportation systems. For many viewers today, the response is similar; we too are coping with an increasing pace of change. In this respect, nostalgia operates as more than simply sentimentality. It reinvents a past still remembered to enable us to make the transition to the new and unknown.
Though not an historical survey, the exhibition features four aspects: the national style, later called the Hudson River School; Western subjects by artists in search of natural splendors; the more abstract, painterly alternative that arose alongside descriptive realism in the 1870s; and in the West, a continuation of the naturalistic style in later years.
The most famous of the earlier generation of painters in the Hudson River School was Frederic Church. His sumptuous painting, Cayambe (1856), made from the artist's second trip to South America, encapsulates a universe of lush valleys and mountain peaks, with just a hint of civilization. The silent coastal views of John F. Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford's atmospheric subjects represent the luminist variation of the school. Light also plays a strong role in Winslow Homer's An Adirondack Lake (1870), his first woodland subject. George Inness chose the domesticated countryside rather than wilderness in three paintings in the exhibition that span nearly forty years of his career.
The Artist Painting in Yosemite , c. 1863
oil on composition board, 13 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches
Private collection, Seattle
Of all the artists who journeyed to the West, probably the most renowned was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). East coast audiences were eager to know about the natural splendors of the West, and Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, William Keith, and others fulfilled that mission with majestic and sometimes spectacularly large panoramas. Landscape in America includes two six-by-ten- foot "Great Pictures": Bierstadt's Donner Lake from the Summit (1875) commissioned by a railroad baron to celebrate the completion of track across a mountain pass infamous in American West migration history, is borrowed from The New York Historical Society, and Hill's majestic Yosemite Valley of 1876 from the Oakland Museum of California. These paintings were public sensations, shown one at a time in special galleries, where tickets were sold for admission. Three smaller exquisite Bierstadt paintings are also included in the show, as well as a splendid White Mountains scene by Hill.
While in the East landscapes with realistic detail began to fall from favor by the 1870s, the new wealth and patronage in California during railroad construction and the silver boom sustained the desire for naturalistic work. Among the painters who worked only in the West, the exhibition includes a pair of Puget Sound pictures of the African American painter Grafton Tyler Brown, who lived variously in San Francisco, Portland, Tacoma, and Victoria, B.C.
Other painters in the exhibition include Ralph Blakelock, Norton Bush, Asher B. Durand, William Morris Hunt, William Marple, William Trost Richards, and Cleveland Rockwell.
The exhibition is accompanied by a color gallery guide with an introduction by Barbara Johns and an essay by art critic Elizabeth Bryant on the aspect of nostalgia in these paintings.
Landscape in America 1850 -1890 has received generous funding from Wells Fargo Bank and the Kilworth Foundations. Special thanks to the Pierce County Arts Commission and the Baker Foundation for their support of associated education programs.
Text and images courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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