Art reflects the processes that take place in society. In the 19th century, American society lived in an optimistic mode concerning the role of America in world history and understanding of its higher fate. A cultural context researched by a number of scholars reveals a national idea and ardent religiousness behind the landscape paintings of the American artists.
Emerson has raised a question of optimism that built up the national consciousness and dominated the culture (Novak, American ix). Pohl writes that the landscape paintings have “interpreted the face of nature/God,” thus, making artists as prophets (144). In Nature and Culture, Barbara Novak sees the union of aesthetics and religion resulted in an ideology of the nation (6).
For a better understanding of American art, it is important to remember that the issues of nationalism and religion were closely connected. The vastness and grandeur of nature was the confirmation of God’s will in regards to America, and God was revealed in nature. The terms God and nature were interchangeable for an American painter of the 19th century (Novak, Nature 6). According to Leo Marx, seeing the land as the Eden Garden has led to two concepts of the Garden. The first one was about the untamed people of vast wilderness, God’s original creation; the second one was cultivated by a man’s pastoral idyllic scene (Novak, Nature 4). Each artist decided for oneself how to treat these concepts and what version of nature to depict.
Novak says that in the 19th century, America “took on the aspect of the New Jerusalem” (Nature 6). After a big wave of religious revivals, the Americans felt their uniqueness. They were given a chance to save the rest of the world. Painters were perceived as spiritual leaders. For example, Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness, with its red sunset and contrast tree silhouettes, was “read symbolically […] [as] a more troubled image of uncertain times ahead, particularly in the western regions where the sun is setting” (Pohl 160). Indeed, the following year the Civil War began, and it became “more difficult for artists to produce optimistic expressions, via depictions of the American landscape, of inviolable truths about the nation” (160).
The vast, untamed wilderness of America was considered one of its major characteristics (Pohl 144). The powerful natural phenomena brought the sense of terror, and the big stretches of land implied that God’s power is limitless. From it, the next quality of the God-created land came, i.e. the sublime. The sublimity of nature was recognized as the manifestation of God’s grandeur.
Pohl mentions the three major landscape painting traditions: the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque through which the aesthetic experience has been depicted (146). The scholars view the sublime and the beautiful as two opposing categories while the picturesque lies in between combining the two ones. For example, Niagara Falls was often selected as an object for the depiction and interpreted then in a different manner according to their time period. John Trumbull paints Niagara Falls from an Upper Bank on the British Side in 1808. The falls are placed as a backdrop to the human activity and rendered in the picturesque tradition. The viewer’s gaze is directed not from the top but straightly at the falls. In 1830, Cole in Distant View of Niagara Falls “is not interested in the falls per se, but in the process of socialization by which natural wealth is translated into human abundance, and both then come to be associated with an emerging national destiny” (148). The falls are painted straightly on rather than in a profile. The viewer is perched in the cliff above the falls. He has a good and close view of the falls and is, thus, overwhelmed with their greatness and power. Frederic Edwin Church in Niagara (1857) “takes the experience of the sublime to the extreme” (160). The church does not detach the viewers from the scenery by placing them distantly or above the scene. He puts a viewer literally in the waterfalls. Such a compositional solution was read “as a statement of nationhood and of the unlimited power of American empire” (Edwin 160).
According to Novak, God in nature is translated into two different ways. Through such large panoramic works of the painters as Cole, Bierstadt, and Church, the grandeur of God’s creation was seen. Meanwhile, the smaller paintings of the transcendental luminists Heade and Lane were conveying “a wordless dialogue with nature, which quickly becomes the monologue of transcendental unity” (Novak, Nature 54).
In the 1830s, the landscape scene was domineering by Cole who drew the large impressive paintings with a deep perspective and small human figures on the background of the grandiose nature. In later years, Cole turned to “historical landscapes,” as he called them, moralizing and depicting historical events (Pohl 152). His successor Church “brought together, in a way Cole was never able to, science and religion, the real and the ideal.” (157)
Another group of landscape artists was called Luminists. They chose a smaller format for their paintings, and their works had a definite manner to depict light as a uniform glow (Pohl 160). Rejecting a massive and imposing scale of paintings that celebrated the grandeur of the nation, Luminists were more interested in the more intimate performance, i.e. in “the reflectiveness of a nation whose past lies to the east and whose future is not yet resolved” (161). Luminist artists did not want to reveal their presence in paintings. They painted with light strokes making the surface smooth and without any visible traces of a brush. They showed God’s presence through the quietness, the spirit of repose, and the silent energy of nature. However, their landscapes delivered not only the serene quality but also rendered “a sense of alienation” (162). For example, Fitz Hugh Lane in The Western Shore with Norman’s Woe (1862) depicts the deserted seashore, with no people and being not overloaded with objects. A solitary boat is looming on the side not disturbing the vastness of the mirror-like surface.
Later, when the Americans became more perfect in their ways of exploring and conquering the nature, a conflict arose “between piety and ambition, between the desire to remain devout Christians and the desire to exploit God’s vast wilderness for material gain” (Pohl 145). Through the works of art, both the period of Christianized naturalism and the conflict can be seen (144).
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One of the examples of how the Protestant ethic collided with the natural human desires, in this case for art, is the story of Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister, who treated his painting abilities as craftsmanship, at first, later making it his constant occupation because he could not succeed in farming. The Quakers were notorious for prohibiting all forms of art as unnecessary and non-contributive to salvation and treated a drawing as a craft. Hicks discovered the theme of the Peaceful Kingdom and began illustrating Biblical verses. Usually, he depicted a baby Jesus in various settings and animals on the background of the American scenery decorated with titles and verses (Pohl 154-156).
In her book Nature and Culture, Novak devotes one part to discuss what exactly the subject of the American landscape painting was in the middle of the 19th century (41). The sky, waters, rocks, and vegetation were not simply the objects to be painted. They bore a specific meaning firmly tying the world of art and science together. Through the development of geology, biology, and other natural sciences, an idea of Creation received its confirmation. The new knowledge about the newly discovered types of rocks, plants, and even a classification of clouds contributed to the tight connection between art, science, and religion. That trinity was embraced by artists, clergy and scientists in an equal measure (41).
Artists painted in accordance with their understanding of the world and its law. For example, Novak mentions that Cole adhered to the Platonic ideas about nature and its imitation (Nature 47). Cole insisted that for the artist this was not supposed to imitate the imperfect nature such as a withered flower or a barren fig tree. He said, “By true in Art I mean . . . . the imitation of art should be the imitation of the perfect as far as can be in Nature, & the carrying out of principles suggested by Nature” (47). Basically, Novak argues with her researches that the work of landscape artists, geologists, and other scientists practically overlapped. For example, the diversity of plants on the Church’s paintings approaches the descriptive work of a botanist. Thanks to details, comprehensiveness, and large size of landscapes, another artist, Albert Bierstadt, has depicted his paintings as a paid entrance piece to great success with the public (Pohl 163).
The inner conflict between naming the land Eden Garden and the inevitable necessity to destroy at least a part of it for the further development of the country has become the paradox of the time. The turning of the wilderness into a garden verges on “an attack on America’s religion of God-in-nature” (Novak, Nature 136). Believing the wild nature to be the confirmation of God’s existence and His love for mankind, the wilderness quickly receded under an aggressive westward expansion of the white race. The symbols of the axe and the train expressed the ideas of progress. The irony was that “the appreciation of wilderness” came with its receding (138). Novak notes that by chopping away woods the “early ecological awareness” has come gradually. That was probably the reason to retain “isles” of nature as parks (Novak, Nature 168). “To some extent, landscape gardening attempted to deal with the problem of respecting nature” (Novak, Nature 168).
The time has changed the understanding of what subjects can be considered beautiful and, consequently, depicted in the paintings. By the mid-19th century, some artists included the images of trains, farms, towns, and buildings into their landscape paintings. It has marked a new stage in the American art that Barbara Novak calls technological sublime, “a sense of awe in the face of the vast power of machines” (Pohl 176). If the axe was presented through tree stumps in the foreground of pictures, then, another symbol of the technology of civilization, trains, was depicted directly. The railroad industry has brought the whole field of new subject matters: bridges, stations, locomotives as well as all other variants of the railroad culture. At first, it began tentatively. Cole’s River in the Catskills yields a miniature train. In Cropsey’s Starrucca Viaduct and Inness’s Delaware Water Gap, the train blends into the background. Most often, artists were dealing with the railroad presence by entwining smoke and clouds and, thus, by making the train as a part of nature. More prominence has been received by the train in prints. Through a reportage shooting, “the sense of modernity and power [was] conveyed as it lay there quietly smoking or shuddering” but effectively it was represented only in American pop art (Novak, Nature 148). Trains also served for artists for explorations of the American continent in search of inspiration and scenes to paint. Theodor Kauffman’s Railway Train Attacked by Indians (1867) depicts what dangers can occur to white people on the frontier (152).
Human figures were not completely excluded from landscape paintings. These ones could be farmers, Indians, or women. In general, unlike the European paintings, American painters often omitted the presence of people or drew them insignificantly. Novak mentions that in Europe the figure in the landscape “bulks larger than in America” ( Nature 158). She notes that the differences are difficult to see, “[y]et even minute differences register something about the cultural attitudes to man and nature in Europe and America” (158). In America, the human figure never displaces nature. It rarely even competes for attention. An individual is usually dissolved in the scenery and looks like a part of it (Novak, Nature 160). At that period, before the Darwinian watershed, the Civil war, and global industrialization triggering a crisis of faith, the small human figure meant the openness before God. The spectator was innocent, and the process of looking was “a spiritual act composed of wonder and purification” (Novak, Nature 162). Adding human figures into the picture was read as a sign of progress and destruction. Only Indians were perceived to represent nature, not the culture. They were inseparable from nature as they were existing there. “The Indian, as a function of nature, symbolizes its unexplored state” (Novak, Nature 162).
Novak writes that apart from meditation and gazing nature, sometimes artists made their figures work, i.e. haying, trading, relaxing, setting out to sea, and fixing boats. The figures look solitary and “become as much a part of nature as the trees and rocks which join with it in a harmonious unity devoted to maintaining geometric and Newtonian absolutes” (Novak, Nature 164).
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With some time, a landscape painting with tiny human silhouettes has transformed to form a basis of the American genre paintings (Pohl 176). The scenes of everyday life mainly celebrated the yeoman farmer and the Westerner in the antebellum period. According to Elizabeth Jones, the genre paintings appealed, first of all, to New Yorkers because that city was a center of the cultural, social and political life of the United States. The image of a farmer was the quintessence of the white male citizenry (176). Later, the image of a lower-class, ignorant and materialistic yeoman farmer was transformed into a “Yankee” farmer on which New Yorkers could project their anxieties about citizenship and materialism. Jones notes, “thus while the country’s rural origins were celebrated, actual farmers were often mocked and ridiculed” (176). Meanwhile, the image of the Westerner played the role in the projection of New York’s dreams of classlessness and individualism. With the new waves of immigrants, it was easier to “get lost” in the West to level the social and class differences. “If the agrarian life of the past provided a nostalgic vision of social balance, the West functioned as a present and future promise.” (178).
Depictions of women were rare in the genre of landscape painting. Usually, at that time, women were denied an intense intellectual activity and were considered as nature (Pohl 181). Elizabeth Jones notes that women represented a body, the world of senses and the earth, while men represented the mind, the world of art, science, and industry (181). Being a Puritan country, the United States did not encourage much of nude painting. The existing female nudes were very insignificant in their quantity, in contrast to Europe. They were usually depicted on the backdrop of the luscious scenery. Lily Martin Spencer combined both women and nature choosing family scenes or portraits in the midst of a Claude-like landscape in her paintings.
The Americans remembered that they were a new nation, which meant they did not have much of their own history and culture as well. To gain some cultural experience and mastery, they visited Europe and learned from European artists. Early American landscape paintings followed the European tradition, mainly, English, and, to some extent, Italian. Pohl remarks about the influences of the picturesque tradition popular in England in the second half of the 18th century. This, in its turn, was inspired by the French landscape painters Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin (Pohl 146). Church and Cole showed a significant reliance on the Italian tradition. Despite not leaving many oil studies of the Italian ruins, the artists had many sketches and exhibited the Italian influence as a major or minor theme (Jaffe vii). Nicolai Cikovsky indicates how George Inness
Found in the contemporary American scene a visual and expressive analogy between the railroad roundhouse “secular and utilitarian, a shrine of … American progress and enterprise” and St. Pete’s in Rome, another shrine, the symbol … of what evoked and exemplified for American … the past. (Jaffe vii)
Landscape painting had been popular in the United States for a long time. As early as the 1820s, wealthy classes, that had the taste for paintings, “valued [landscapes] as a form of aesthetic experience” (Pohl 146). The 19th century was the time when “an American artistic identity was vigorously formed” (Novak, American xiv). With Christianity, nationalism, and science as the main concepts, the early American landscape painting can be viewed as a reflection of the American nature of that period.