Masterpieces of American Landscape Painting
Historically, the relationship between Americans and nature has been complex. For Native Americans, reverence for the spirit of the land is deeply embedded in the culture. For the first European settlers, survival meant claiming, taming, and cultivating the land around them. For subsequent generations, the American continent became a place for discovery, for new beginnings, for economic expansion and harvesting vast natural resources. More recently, we’ve come to regard natural settings as places for play, respite, renewal, and conservation. However, a tension persists, even today, between enjoyment and exploitation of the American landscape.
Painters, too, have responded to America’s scenery in different ways, influenced by current events, technological advancements, and artistic traditions. This exhibition of 48 paintings from the outstanding collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston provides an overview of the history of landscape painting in the United States and intriguing views of the country’s natural beauty. While the exhibition focuses on historical views of the American landscape, it also offers an opportunity to consider how we can protect and preserve it for future generations.
See how great artists have
celebrated the beauty of nature
and captured its essential role in
the American experience.
Featured are the works of many of America’s greatest painters—Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Johnson Heade, George Inness, Winslow Homer, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and others.
In the early 19th century, the unique beauty of the American land became associated by artists with the hope and promise of the new nation in political, economic, and cultural terms. The unspoiled wilderness was seen as a paradise—untouched by civilization, a fresh start for humankind. Painters of the Hudson River School, led by Thomas Cole, believed that nature could provide a spiritual experience or convey allegorical themes. These beautiful images celebrate distinct natural features, weather, and light, but they also allude to the artists’ ambivalence about encroaching settlements, rising tourism, and the impact of these on native cultures.
In the late 19th century, American painters became less focused on specificity of place in favor of experimenting with new approaches. George Inness emphasized mood while exploring color and light. In his mature work, Winslow Homer investigated the struggles of man with nature and the power of nature itself. Other painters absorbed the lessons of the French Impressionists. Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf combined the brilliant color and light, loose brushstrokes, and informal subject matter with traditional training in figure drawing to create a distinctly American Impressionism. As the 20th century began, Impressionism dominated American painting, but many artists continued to explore innovative styles. Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe, for instance, pushed Modernism towards new levels of abstraction. In addition to its unique physical attributes, the rich and complicated range of issues involving American landscape continued to challenge and inspire artists. Each painter adapted the subject to suit individual ends—be it stylistic, iconographic, scientific, or a combination. From the celebration of its natural wonders to a vehicle with which to explore abstraction, the American landscape has provided rewarding material for artists for more than two centuries.
[su_spoiler title="Winslow Homer"]
In the painting Driftwood, a hunched seaman in the foreground labors to maneuver a large, fallen tree trunk, back to shore using a rope.
The artist, Winslow Homer, has given viewers several clues that would suggest that the sea will prevail and that the figure will ultimately loose out in his struggle against nature. The grim odds that the man faces are made evident by the dominance of the sea, which fills most of the composition. Homer emphasizes the expansiveness of the powerful ocean by alternating diagonal lines with light and dark pigments that lead your eye to the horizon. Here, he has placed a tiny ship in the far left background, indicating just how far into the distance the water extends. A seagull tucked in the upper right side of the scene gives another point for scale. Notice, too, how the mammoth log dominates the painting’s foreground. In facing the challenge of lifting this massive, fallen tree, the man’s physical strength and virility are called into question.
A 73-year-old Homer painted Driftwood at the conclusion of a successful and prolific career. It was the last canvas that he completed and there is much evidence to suggest that he conceived it as his final work of art, certain that he would never paint again. Like the driftwood, Homer and his lone seaman have been tossed about by life’s heavy waves and seem at the mercy of a great power. Neither the tree nor the man stand tall any longer – suggesting the artist’s contemplation of his own mortality.
Upon listening to Ludwig von Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1801), one of the composer’s students proclaimed:
“It is a nocturnal scene, in which a mournful ghostly voice sounds from the distance….”The parallels between Beethoven’s haunting composition and this evocative landscape scene that emerged from Blakelock’s imagination can be traced to the painter’s exploration of music leading up to this work. During the 1880s, the artist established a residence in East Orange, New Jersey. He befriended a local church organist named Albert Schoch, who Blakelock described “a musician of unusual ability.” During one of their many evenings together in Schoch’s living room, Blakelock listened to him play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The artist then arose from a rigid pose of fascination and rushed across the street to his own home, to put to canvas his first moonlight picture. Blakelock proudly shared Moonlight Sonata with his friend – not even waiting for the paint to dry before doing so.
Inspired by his encounters with Shoch, Blakelock traded several of his paintings for a piano of his own and began taking lessons. He believed in the synthesis of music, emotion, and color, telling a critic he wanted the colors in his paintings “to flow upon the senses like a melody.”
Americans in the early nineteenth century held some of the same environmental concerns that we have today. In the 1830s, the encroachment of the railroad into previously untouched landscapes pitted the desires of the businessmen against those who cherished America’s natural lands. Among the many people who voiced their concerns about industry’s impact on the environment was painter Thomas Cole.River in the Catskills, painted by Cole in 1843, is a seemingly tranquil view of a pastoral vista in the Hudson River Valley of New York. While very subtle to viewers today, two aspects of Cole’s painting would have stood out to his contemporaries.
A number of trees in the foreground have been cut down, a woodsman standing with his axe to one side. Secondly, the railroad, which benefited from such tree clearing, is represented by the locomotive that moves through the landscape in the distance, trailing smoke in its wake. This is reportedly the first time in American art that a train was depicted in a painting, and its presence would have stood out.
The presence of a train in this particular location is telling. Initiated in 1831, the building of the Canajoharie and Catskill Railroad was problematic for both the environment and the local finances of the town of Catskill, where Cole lived. From the beginning, opponents of the Railroad clashed with its supporters, objecting to its physical disruption of the landscape. Cole made public his own feelings about the railroad and industry in general’s devastating impact on the landscape in an 1836 essay: “The ravages of the axe are daily increasing—the most noble scenes are made destitute, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.”
After going forward despite the outcry, and after operating its rail cars for only three years, the Canajoharie and Catskill went bankrupt, pulling up their tracks. Many who invested lost their money – including members of Cole’s own family.
The Buffalo Trail (detail), c. 1867
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865
Admission for Masterpieces of American Landscape Painting
GRAM Members: FREE
Senior (ages 62+): $13.00
Students (w/ID): $13.00
Youth (ages 6-17): $5.00
Children (ages 5 and under): Free
Exhibition Lead Sponsor:
Gregory and Rajene Betz
Judy and James DeLapa
Donald Battjes, Jr.