Saturday, March 5, 2016

Nature in the New World: the 'American Vision' at Milwaukee Art Museum

An edited version of this review first appeared at Milwaukee Magazine on March 3, 2016.

Imagine wilderness that stretches out before you in every direction, apparently endlessly. Imagine a new nation, boldly wrenched from the tired conventions of its European origins—a nation of pioneers, adventurers and visionaries. What kind of art works would these circumstances inspire? The answer is currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the newly opened exhibit, Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School.

View from the Highlands of West Point, John Ferguson Weir, 1862
Yes! Go first to Nature and learn to paint landscape, and when you have learnt to imitate her, you may then study the pictures of great artists with benefit. Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?” ~ Asher B. Durand

This quote, by one of the founders of the Hudson River School, is among many that greet viewers on the walls of the museum gallery. Make no mistake: Nature is not merely the subject of the artists of this period but also muse and often-deified raison d'être.

For the American Romantic artist of the early nineteenth century, Nature was abundant, exuberant and unfathomable. They not only painted it, they reveled in it. The artists of this time and place went to unprecedented lengths to document the landscape, becoming adventurers themselves as well as visionaries.

In some respects the ideals of the Romantics, which included writers and philosophers as well as artists, can seem quaint in contemporary circumstances. In 2016, a time of climate change, dwindling habitats and the extinction of species, when science and popular culture alike are as prone to question the nature of nature as to extoll its virtues, when it seems that no landscape remains unsullied, what shall we make of the artists of the Hudson River School? Are these paintings of a vanishing American landscape mere historical curiosity or do they still have something to say to us today?

Milwaukee Art Museum curator Brandon Ruud
with Donner Lake from the Summit by Albert Bierstadt, 1873

The paintings of this period, from the 1820s through much of the century, are indisputably of historical importance. In the words of curator Brandon Ruud, who led a tour of the exhibit, this was the first homegrown artist movement in the still-young republic—no small achievement from artists who up to that time invariably and literally went to Europe for inspiration as well as training. But more than that, the artists helped create a national identity based on their vision. It was the subject itself—a wild landscape of seemingly boundless abundance that distinguished the New World from its European roots—that leant the movement its originality, along with a true-believer’s faith in its importance.

Study from Nature, Stratton Notch, Vermont, Asher B. Durand, 1853

The idea of “imitating” nature, encouraged by Durand, one of the founders of the movement, is anathema to many contemporary artists. And yet nature, in all its ambiguity and challenge, and even the notion of landscape, which bears its own cultural baggage, has acquired new potency today. We are all faced with exigencies of nature—now more often referred to as “the environment”—that civilization has long sought to control if not ignore.

It also should be noted that, despite Durand’s advice, painters didn’t so much imitate nature as use it as a platform from which to leap. Great liberties often were taken with the physical places in the landscape that inspired them. This is seldom evident when viewing the actual paintings, which, for all the imbued drama, are executed in a convincingly naturalistic style and with an eye to intimately rendered detail.

I recently picked up a volume of essays by Paul Shepard on this very topic. Shepard, a twentieth century philosopher and ecologist, did more than write extensively about the Hudson River School. He went to great lengths to demonstrate how different are the paintings from the very specific places they purportedly depict, making a series of photographs from the precise vantage points of particular paintings. The artists freely interposed imagined foreground elements on recognizable scenes and the topography itself is often exaggerated in terms of contour and scale.

Niagara Falls, Louisa Davis Minot, 1818

In an example from the exhibit, Louisa Davis Minot dramatized the pristine power of Niagara Falls in part by omitting the burgeoning commercial establishments that even then threatened to diminish the purity of the experience.

The artists did this because the landscape was more than a subject. It was a symbol that represented ideals embodied in the new republic—a land of irrepressible freedom and limitless opportunity. It was also a land of unimaginable natural wonders, which dazzled audiences who flocked to see the canvases.

Even today the relevance of the Hudson River School goes beyond historical importance. In a very real sense our lasting perception of nature and especially of wilderness was a creation of the Romantic idealists. Before that time the landscape was set decoration and wilderness a place to be feared and conquered. Emerson, Thoreau and Muir were among the first to recognize the interdependence of humans and the natural world (not counting indigenous cultures that never lost sight of it.) But it was the artists like Durand, Cole and Bierstadt who made of their ideas a palpable, visible reality. And while Modernism has come and gone, their vision of nature lingers in the popular imagination.

Durand inquired, with grand rhetoric characteristic of the period, “Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?” He was echoing the temper of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s own exhortation in his transcendentalist masterpiece, Nature, to “enjoy an original relation to the universe.”

Both are saying that people—artists in Durand’s case—ought to get outdoors and experience nature for themselves, in all its visceral power and glory. This idea stood in revolutionary opposition to common practice wherein a “grand tour” of Europe and the work of Classical and neo-Classical predecessors dictated the tenor and style of painting.

Castle of Ostia Seen from the Pine Forest of Castel Fusano William Stanley Hazeltine, 1881

The exhibit wisely includes a section of paintings clearly derivative of European antecedents in order to drive home this point. The neo-Classical elements—Greek or Roman ruins in the landscape, for example—and contemplative moods contrast with the wilder character of more typical Hudson River School compositions.

By the end of the Romantic period, Impressionism and subsequent Modernist movements began to assert dominance within the artistic establishment. The world—and the increasingly exploited and despoiled landscape—had changed sufficiently that continued efforts by painters of the Romantic style might be criticized as wishful thinking. However, along with contemporaries like Thoreau and Muir, they expressed a real need to protect dwindling wild places that prefigured an embryonic conservation movement.

View of the Yosemite Valley, in California, Thomas Hill, 1865

It is in this impulse, to protect and save nature as well as to marvel at it, that the Hudson River School retains its cogency today. We are in a similar age, when the 50-year-old environmental movement has expanded and matured, when there is growing global realization that for too long the Modernist ideals of progress and technology have obscured our interdependency with the natural world.

The Consummation of Empire, from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1836

The exhibit reaches a crescendo in the final gallery, which is devoted entirely to the suite of five paintings by Thomas Cole entitled “The Course of Empire.” Although I’d seen them before, they lose none of their emotional or intellectual power with repeated viewing. The sequence depicts the rise and fall of a civilization supposed to be mythical, but clearly recognizable in its Classical architectural and stylistic detail. The scenes proceed from an untamed wilderness through imperialistic excess and on to destruction and desolation.

According to Ruud, the paintings (from the 1830s) were Cole’s deliberate attempt to warn and admonish the leaders of the new nation not to succumb to historical precedent, to protect the extraordinary landscape that made America exceptional. There was no lack of hubris in Andrew Jackson’s land of manifest destiny. The substance may have shifted but a similar tone can be heard today on the presidential campaign trail.

Destruction, from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1836

A visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School may be just the antidote. I recommend it. It runs through May 8, 2016.

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