Art: Landscape Painting
Art: Landscape Painting
The Hudson River School. Landscape painting became the first major art movement to emerge in America after the Revolutionary War. Around 1820 a group of artists living and working in the Catskill Mountain region of New York began producing large-scale, dramatic scenes of the American wilderness. Profoundly influenced by contemporary writers such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant, the Hudson River artists expressed pride and awe for the unspoiled American landscape. Far from being “pure landscape” artists, the Hudson River School excelled at romantic depictions of nature and often infused their paintings with moral and literary themes. Thomas Cole (1801-1848), a self-taught artist and the leading member of the group, combined allegory with his magnificent outdoor settings. The paintings of Cole and his colleagues Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), J. F. Cropsey (1823-1900), and Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) revealed their spiritual reverence for nature.
Intrepid Luminists. Working between 1850 and 1870, the generation of artists that followed the Hudson River School downplayed the romanticism of their predecessors in favor of more-precise realism. Working in a style known as “luminism” because of their emphasis on the effects of atmosphere and light, these second-generation painters produced meticulously detailed works. Cole’s only student, Frederic E. Church (1826-1900), along with Thomas Moran (1837-1926) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), took the Hudson River legacy westward to the expanding American frontier.
Bierstadt and Moran. Bierstadt joined a survey team mapping the American West in 1859. On this trip he first saw the dramatic, unspoiled mountain vistas that he later immortalized in paintings such as The Rocky Mountains (1863), The Sierra Nevada in California (1868), and Rainbow over Jenny Lake (circa 1870). To capture effectively the immense grandeur of the western landscapes he had seen, Bierstadt painted vast canvases—some up to nine feet high and twelve feet long—that overwhelm the viewer with their sheer size. During his lifetime, Bier-stadt experienced wide public acclaim and financial success, often selling a single painting for $20,000 or more. Like Bierstadt, Thomas Moran was instrumental in bringing the images of the western frontier to people on the East Coast. In 1870 he was commissioned by Scribner’s Monthly to illustrate their reports on the first scientific expedition to Yellowstone, and his lithographic illustrations from subsequent trips were also widely published. Moran’s devotion to the American West led him to campaign for Congress to establish of Yellowstone National Park. In appreciation Congress purchased two of his paintings, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) and Chasm of the Colorado (1873). Mount Moran in the Grand Teton Mountains was named after him.
Marine Painting. The mountainous panoramas of the West were not the only popular subjects for American
artists at midcentury. Ship portraiture and seascapes were also common specializations. To many writers and artists of the nineteenth century, the sea was a mysterious force, a metaphor for God’s omnipresent power, as evidenced in Thunderstorm Over Narragansett Bay (1868) by Martin J. Heade (1819-1904). Yet the sea was also a source of livelihood, a thriving avenue of commerce on which man depended. The steamboat and the clipper ship cemented man’s ties to the sea and were lauded in works such as Brother Jonathan (1871) by painter James Bard (1815-1897) and in Fitz Hugh Lane’s luminist paintings of New England harbors. Musing about the combination of technology and nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “When its errands are noble and adequate, a steamboat bridging the Atlantic between Old and New England and arriving at its ports with the punctuality of a planet, is a step of man into harmony with nature.” The Atlantic coast was the focus of much early marine painting, but by the second half of the century, American lakes and rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and finally the Pacific Ocean took their places as subjects of marine paintings.
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art, volume 1 (Secaucus, N.J.: Wellfleet Press, 1987).