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We begin with mountains

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, Crawford Notch, 1839: 40 inch x 61.5 inch

Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rocky Mountains—Mt Rosalie, 1866: 83 inch x 142.25 inch



is that bierstadt in one of the D.C. museums?

i have the sense that i’ve seen it…but i can’t remember if it was D.C., Chicago, NYC or London.

how’s that for a narrowing of possibilities?

To see the paintings in undistorted, not-even-close-to-full-size: 1) Thomas Cole: A View of… Crawford Notch, 1839, and 2) Albert Bierstadt: Storm in the Rocky Mountains, 1866 .

see, i should’ve googled it and then i would’ve known it was NYC

The Cole is at the National Gallery of Art in DC; the Bierstadt’s at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

but, the corcoran, if i remember, has some significant landscapes…ah the corcoran…it takes me back 9 years to when t and i were just married

so, any clue as to how the interview went…and now i’m off to daddy day care :) [Off topic! See interview report! One good redaction deserves another?]

A recent court decision, in Perfect 10 v. Google notes that, “First, contrary to P10’s contention, photographs of nude women can, like photographs of the American West, vary greatly.” (More context here).

In what ways is this true of 19th century landscape paintings? Have we, in seeing one representation of the Rockies, in fact seen them all, or are they, like the portrayals of Venus, all different? What does this variance indicate?

Ah, L, images of the Rockies are very different. Bierstadt has a pretty striking style, but then, there’s also Thomas Moran.

Thomas Moran, The Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1875

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! The first two are not both of the Rockies. The Thomas Cole is an image of the White Mtns in New Hampshire—and specifically, the Willey House (K & I were there a few years ago; we have photos!). How these paintings differ, besides their relative separations in represented space and in time—that’s worth investigation…

But, perhaps the contrasts between the first two is not immediately evident? Allow me to offer, then, another Cole, more famous: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), 1836.

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, The Oxbow, 1836

And with it, Asher B. Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation), 1853 .

Durand, Progress, 1853

Both to compare with the Bierstadt in particular.

for one, it seems that cole likes placing human structures in his landscapes.

crowford notch, especially seems to be about “clearing” the landscape. you look through an area of cut woods. two houses and then the pass. (though I am unsure if the view from Mt Holyoke has human structures.)

yet, MH seems much more tame of a landscape than Bierstadt’s.

Partly that’s a function of their subjects. Bierstadt paints an immediate antebellum and postbellum West; Cole paints a settled northeast. Cole is also closer in time to idealising the Jeffersonian agrarian than Bierstadt is. Yet the painting of Crawford notch is not without its drama. The Willey disaster was a sensational tragedy, widely known. The painting of Crawford notch ominously signals (via the approaching storm) a looming destructiveness of nature. What appears to be agrarian solitude is, in fact, tense anticipation of disaster.

Yet even Bierstadt’s middle ground (is there much of a foreground?) has human figures, which you can see, barely, in the undistorted page: Indians, riding, hunting deer. There is also, lying on the ground most like a foreground, a killed deer.

Anything else?

well, you answered one…mainly, are storms approaching or moving on.

but, as the humboldt quote and this one by darwin in his voyage of the beagle show is the indian not just another part of a savage landscape?

from chapter 10 on his excursions through Tierra del Fuego

While entering we were saluted in a manner becoming the inhabitants of this savage land. A group of Fuegians partly concealed by the entangled forest, were perched on a wild point overhanging the sea; and as we passed by, they sprang up and waving their tattered cloaks sent forth a loud and sonorous shout. The savages followed the ship, and just before dark we saw their fire, and again heard their wild cry. The harbour consists of a fine piece of water half surrounded by low rounded mountains of clay- slate, which are covered to the water’s edge by one dense gloomy forest. A single glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me how widely different it was from anything I had ever beheld. At night it blew a gale of wind, and heavy squalls from the mountains swept past us. It would have been a bad time out at sea, and we, as well as others, may call this Good Success Bay…We obtained a wide view over the surrounding country: to the north a swampy moorland extended, but to the south we had a scene of savage magnificence, well becoming Tierra del Fuego. There was a degree of mysterious grandeur in mountain behind mountain, with the deep intervening valleys, all covered by one thick, dusky mass of forest. The atmosphere, likewise, in this climate, where gale succeeds gale, with rain, hail, and sleet, seems blacker than anywhere else. In the Strait of Magellan looking due southward from Port Famine, the distant channels between the mountains appeared from their gloominess to lead beyond the confines of this world.

and the rest of the chapter continually refers to the inhabitants as savages and the landscape as wild and magnificent.

they all, with the exception of durand, have a mountain peak at the center of the canvass, oftentimes partially hidden by clouds. moran’s is especially nice with the snow cross on it.

durand’s though, is like bierstadt’s pioneers painting, except bierstadt’s is into the golden setting sun and through the dessert to el dorado, while durand’s is almost as if it were a crossing into the promised land.

which, church’s (view from MH) and durand’s…both from an elevated position give the feeling of moses looking over and into the promised land

Which isn’t all that surprising for 18th or 19th century Western discourse about natives. So far as landscape paintings are concerned, I’d focus here: “A group of Fuegians partly concealed by the entangled forest.” It’s an image that Durand employs in Progress (see detail, left), Detail from Asher B. Durand, Progress a painting which (by title) indicates it is the march of civ, defined, from foreground to back, as a march from wilderness to agrarian life to town. The Indians are clearly marked as part of the receding wilderness. I think the same can be said for Bierstadt’s natives, although their West is clearly more rugged and, perhaps, difficult to settle than Durand’s or Cole’s.

Yet it would be a mistake to say storms are always approaching. Cole’s Oxbow, for example, is of a storm receding, frame left.

right, the storms will come from a different direction depending on the painting…

yet, this is a narrative (because it introduces time into the painting) and possibly an allegorical device that either promises silver linings, or reminds that hard times will come, or even that rain waters the fields to make them fruitful

do you html your titles, i don’t see how this can be done with textile?...which i can and will do from now on, unless there's an easier way than keying in the code (comment already redacted because it’s off topic) [Bollocks! enough nitpickery over topics. I call a redaction truce! If you mean the hover titles of the images, to do it in textile, do it like so: !(class)URL of image(TITLE for Image)! -g]

and, i will be off-line for a while, cuz i gotta get ready for a conference in puerto rico that’s just 3 or so weeks away

which, church’s [Cole’s] (view from MH) and durand’s…both from an elevated position give the feeling of moses looking over and into the promised land

Good. But not over into a promised land to come, but into a land had already, or anyway becoming had. Promised lands to come have their own motifs, as in Emmanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1861,

Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1861

or Frances Palmer’s 1866 Currier & Ives lithograph by the same title:

Frances Palmer, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1866

Both images which signficantly frame the Civil War. But, for now, let’s stick to mountains. The elevated perspective is important. The first Cole (of Crawford Notch) and more obviously Moran’s Mountain of the Holy Cross (a real mountain, by the way), invert that perspective. Well, Cole’s doesn’t so much invert as not take advantage of the raised perspective. Bierstadt, in contrast, and Cole in The Oxbow and Durand in Progress, not to mention Jasper Cropsey’s Autumn—on the Hudson River, 1860

Jasper Cropsey, Autumn on the Hudson River, 1860

or Cropsey’s Starucca Viaduct, 1865

Jasper Cropsey, Starrucca Viaduct, 1865

Or Frederic Church, Mount Ktaadn, 1853

Church, Mount Ktaadn, 1853

etc., etc., etc. Albert Boime called this view from prospect the magisterial gaze: it looks out upon a land expansively—the eyes of empire seeing.

Yet, we’re not done with the mountains.

(Note: Classic Art Reproductions has a lot of these images in a good size, easily displayable here. At the very least, I owe them a link. Most of the bigger images are linked on museums and art history profs.)

sorry, meant cole the one from north hampton with the oxbow

Following on the magisterial gaze: Consider the Bierstadt. I recommend studying it in grand size. If there were a larger image available online, I’d link to it. The canvas itself is seven foot high by nearly twelve foot long. The scale of the canvas, the scale of the scene represented, is huge. Think about how far you can see in that painting. Miles upon miles, down into a valey obscured by clouds. The place at which the viewer stands, while less craggy than the mountains in the distance, is surely very high to see so far; yet it’s not nearly as high as the mountains that rise to the sides, nor yet as high as Mt. Rosalie, peeking out from the top of the storm clouds. Land is huge; so, too, however, is all which the viewer can see. Yet the painting was finished in 1866 largely from a sketch made in 1863 at the Chicago Lakes near Denver. It was presented in its time as a typical scene of the Rockies; it was described in 1869 in the London Art-Journal:

‘The Storm’ is also a passage of Rocky Mountain scenery, showing a basin much like an exhausted crater; but striking as are the material parts of the subject, the immediate interest is cenred in the sky, where we see an approaching thunder-storm, which has already burst on the peaks of the mountains. This picture may be presumed to set forth the solemn grandeur of the region, with the accompaniment of an episode [the hunting party, presumably], which, in imagination, carries us back to conditions of which we have as yet but imperfect ideas.

At the same time, Mount Rosalie does not exist.

So we return, at least in part if not wholly, to L’s question of the extent that images differ, by turning to Asher B. Durand, who wrote in The Crayon, in an essay titled “On Landscape Painting” (1855), addressed ostensibly to a young painter, “I would see you impressed, imbued to the full with [Nature’s] principles and practice, and after that develop the principles and practices of Art; in other words, the application of those phenomena most expressive of the requisite sentiment or feeling.”

By Durand’s count, to paint a landscape, much less to see a landscape painting, is to see the sentiments or emotions which Nature inspires, moreso than it is to see representation of nature. Nobody ever intended landscapes to be scientific representations of the land, but they have long been used as such: e.g. Thomas Moran’s paintings from the Yellowstone River were instrumental in leading to the founding of Yellowstone as a National Park. (I’ll get to those…)

One question that follows, then: given the motif of the high prospect, what sentiment(s) does that prospect inspire?

We can assume, for example, basic aesthetic sentiments of sublimity and picturesqueness—less so beauty—in these paintings, which are wholly intertwined in, perpetuated by, and extended by landscapes. What that means for American painters painting America—that’s the question I’m really asking.

so, then, would you consider this bierstadt as of a different order than those earlier ones?

Hetch Hetchy Canyon Oil on canvas, 1875

is the implication that the elevated vista, which humboldt definitely provides in his passage on venezuela

of a different nature than vistas that are not from an elevated position?

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1827-8

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1827-8

It’s not only the storms that prove the narrative. To look from on high is to look into time, a metaphor drawn explicitly in Expulsion, where Adam and Eve’s future, the foreground, is all fear and darkness; their past, behind them and in the back, picturesque garden. That metaphor is also drawn tautly in Progress, in The Oxbow, in which an Detail from Thomas Cole's Oxbow artist’s umbrella (detail, right), extending across the river connects wilderness to cultivated land, showing this connection to be the artist’s task (and implying that one is slowly becoming the other). By Bierstadt’s time, the metaphor was enough of a cliché that he (and Church, and Moran) could implicate it in the very choice of a landscape. Yet, even in Hetch Hetchy Canyon, time is represented by the elk, like so:

The scene is laid in the Hetch Hetchy Cañon, California which lies some twenty miles north of the Yosemite and is rarely visited by the tourist because of its inaccessibility. It is smaller than the more famous Valley but it presents many of the same features in its scenery and is quite as beautiful. The season I have chosen is late Autumn when distant objects are mellowed by a golden haze and when the grass is dry and yellow. A few Elk, now unfortunately becoming more rare every year — are coming up the valley in quest of one of the few mountain streams that the long dry season has not quenched. In early times the deer were very numerous — as many as a thousand head often being seen together. —Bierstadt

Of course, the metaphor of time and perspective was not new to American landscape painters. But to American landscape painters, to manifest destinied America, time and land were inevitably entwined. One who looked out over vast expanses saw possibility, saw the future. Durand’s Progress, as it looks behind, asserts that the viewer’s past (the viewer, who has passed through to this point, even past the Indians, to look behind from wilderness to civilization) is the land’s future. After all, those are settlers coming! And settlers keep coming, and coming, and coming. There is something nationalizing in the view, in other words. Which brings us to The Heart of the Andes, not the painting itself, but its exhibition (the photo of this is restricted access, although you can see it in a google images search for exhibition heart of andes). When Frederic Church put it on display, he placed over it portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and _____ (whom I can’t make out).

right. i was about to ask you what’s difference between time as in this wonderful noli me tangere and these.

what i mean is that one doesn’t need an elevated perspective for time and narrative to exist…foreground, middleground and background do this.

(as do umbrellas pointing…i was wondering if i was imagining seeing something there or not…not that i thought it an umbrella)

now i think i’m rambling and saying nothing.

ciao for now

One doesn’t need an elevated perspective for time, but an elevated perspective, in 19th-century landscape, connects time to empire. One sees it in this Sanford Gifford landscape, Hunter Mountain, Twilight, 1866:

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Hunter Mountain, Twilight, 1866

The cut trees: liekly as not hemlocks, like the tall trees in the middle distance, all cut to feed a tannin factory which made shoes for soldiers in the CW.

To better come at the question of inverted perspective—that is, if one looks up, does the meaning change?—that’s the theory, anyway. To look up is to endeavor toward transcendance. Note Mount of the Holy Cross, for example, in which the mountain is the absolute height, through a long, windy, superbly long and difficult path: it is God in nature in nature, and as such, the gaze one supplies to it is reverential. Invariably, the one looking down is possessive.

If one were so inclined, one could read all of Thoreau as an extended creation of landscape in word. Yet, Thoreau recognized the tendency to associate empire and height. But he , at least, would resist it, as here, in “Walking”:

We hug the earth,—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more. We might climb a tree, at least. I found my account in climbing a tree once. It was a tall white pine, on the top of a hill; and though I got well pitched, I was well paid for it, for I discovered new mountains in the horizon which I had never seen before,—so much more of the earth and the heavens. I might have walked about the foot of the tree for threescore years and ten, and yet, and yet I cerntainly should never have seen them. But, above all, I discovered around me,—it was near the end of June,—on the ends of the topmost branches only, a few minute andelicate red cone-like blossoms, the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward… Nature has from the first expanded the minute blossoms of the forest only toward the heavens, above men’s heads and unobserved by them. We see only the flowers that are under our feet in the meadows.

Where others would dwell on the purview from on high,—making it the subject of a scape—Thoreau acknowledges it, then turns even upward, noticing the tops of the trees, gazing, not broadly, but narrowly at the flower he sees.

Thing is, lanscape painting, even 19th-century American sorts, is fairly simple to understand as a genre, in its aggregate. It’s an aesthetic project that works to perpetuate, and sometimes critique, an overall imperial project. Part of that project is what Durand says, the encoding of a feeling about a scene—if not the actual depiction of any particular place. It’s the reason I wanted to start with mountains. With them, placement is highlighted; with them, reality is aetheticized.

About mountains, I think I’m exhausted. Sometime during the weekend, I’ll extend it: either through Chruch’s South American + Canadian paintings, or through paintings with trains in them.

Okay. Let’s put some paintings together. Between 1859 and 1866, Frederic Church had several major exhibitions of the next five paintings. Note that the first two and the last two are the exact same size canvases.

The Heart of the Andes, 1859 (64.75” x 112.5”)

Church, Heart of the Andes, 1859

The Icebergs, 1861 (64.75” x 112.5”)

Frederic Church, Icebergs, 1861

Cotopaxi, 1862 (48” x 85”)

Church, Cotopaxi, 1862

Aurora Borealis, 1865 (56.25” x 84.25”)

Frederic Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865

Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866 (56.25” x 84.25”)

Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866

so, one question…

do you know when landscape became something like still-life?

that is, take Holbein’s noli me tangere or most any other renaissance narrative painting that sets classical or biblical scenes in a contemporary landscape. there, landscape serves mostly as backdrop for the allegory but also “modernizes” the scene by making it relevant to the moment…which, in fact, aids in the allegory since it contemporizes the painting.

i know the dutch in the 17th century did a lot of landscapes…if i remember svetlana alpers correctly, dutch interest in landscape is more about observation and the science of perception and light than allegory. or, so she argues.

Aelbert Cuyp 1620-1691--River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants probably 1650-60 Oil on canvas 123 x 241 cm

Aelbert Cuyp 1620-1691--Thunderstorm over Dordrecht, C.1640-45 Oil on oakwood. 77.5 x 107 cm

so is an infusing of allegory into landscape an american (U.S.) phenom? (disregarding, of course, the patently allegorical series of cole and focusing more strictly on “pure” landscape)

and would a difference between the U.S. and landscape artists from other national traditions be an absence of nostalgia since the present and future becoming of the land is what is at stake? this seems possible since romantic art explores the national character and there is no medieval past to turn to in the U.S.
(forgive the fact that i am so literary but it’s a sort of a sir walter scott vs. a james fenimore cooper)

a quote by the 19th century argentine president and intellectual Sarmiento who spearheaded the extermination of the argentine indians in the 1870s

from the beginning of chapter two of Facundo: Or, Civilization and Barbarism

If from the conditions of pastoral life, such as colonization and neglect have constituted it, rise serious obstacles in the way of creating any political organization, and much more for the introduction of European civilization, and institutions, as well as their natural results, wealth, and liberty, it cannot be denied, on the other hand, that this state of things has its poetic side and possesses aspects worthy of the pen of the romancer. If any form of national literature shall appear in these new American societies, it must result from the description of the might scenes of nature, and still more from the illustration of the struggle between Europe an civilization and native barbarism, between mind and matter—a struggle of imposing magnitude in South America, and which suggests scenes so peculiar, so characteristic, and so far outside the circle of ideas in which the European mind has been educated, that their dramatic relations would be unrecognized machinery, except in the country in which they are found.

The only North American novelist who has gained a European reputation is Fennimore Cooper, and he succeeded in doing so by removing the scene of the events he described from the settled portion of the country to the border land between civilized life and that of the savage, the theatre of the war of the possession of the soil waged against each other, by the native tribes and the Saxon race….and he goes on

In brief—I’ll return to this after I’ve gone back over my notes—American (U.S.) landscape painting is largely descended from late eighteenth century aesthetic taste; from the landscapes of Claude Lorrain and fans of Turner (Cole chief among them); and from the long-held thesis that the American land had no history, and thus could not support anything so hardy as history painting. The early American painters (West, Cole, Durand) studied in Italy, did their requisite turns sketching and painting ruins, then returned to North America where they had no more ruins to paint. What they did have was Niagara Falls (paintings of which are legion), Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and other natural phenomena identified by the likes of Jefferson, as well as the Hudson valley, which was thought the place most nearly approximating the picturesque as to be a prime thing to paint. Cole is the major figure who articulated a theory of American landscape painting in his “Essay on American Scenery,” published in 1836. In the U.S., however, much of the motifs of lanscape were worked out in paintings and in engraved gift books simultaneously. The important early one I am blanking on now but which featured engravings by Durand and others. So it was that in all that process, American painters brought the ‘scape to the fore, diminishing the human characters within them (a process that goes askew, however, when landscapes are depicting tourist attractions.)

so if turner is in the mix, then there is a “dutch influence,” at least to the extent that they influenced him…he thought cuyp’s thunderstorm to be magnificent and sublime…but my proposition that landscape and nostalgia might be a brit thing doesn’t hold…since he, at least, wasn’t all that nostalgic


(I misspoke when I said Benjamin West returned to N. America. I think he stayed in England for most of his life. The tory. He still painted a bunch of George Washingtons…)

In addition to Cole, Turner’s being in the mix, I’d wager (though this my speculating) also rises with Ruskin’s championing of him, and with subsequent, 2nd-generation Hudson River School painters’ appreciations of Ruskin. Cotopaxi is thought to be Church’s most directly stylistic homage to Turner.

But the U.S. didn’t even have an art journal/magazine until mid century, and painters were pretty loosely knit then. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “Hudson River School.” There are painters who painted a lot of paintings that were similar. Church was Cole’s only pupil. Durand cut his teeth engraving. So too did Thomas Moran, later in the century.

Which is to say, I’m rambling. Unfortunately, I don’t know other traditions of painting, so I can’t really verify the comparisons you want to make. American works I’d label as nostalgic, to my mind, don’t really appear until late in the 19th century, and they’re usually associated with tourism and/or industrial waste (of Niagara, for example, or of steel towns in Pennsylvania).