Editor's note: The following essay, from the exhibition catalogue In This Academy: The Pennsylvanian Academy of the Fine Arts 1805 - 1976, is reprinted August 1, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, directly through either this phone number or web address:
American Landscape Painting, 1795-1875
By Frank H. Goodyear Jr
Traditionally, academies have shown little involvement with landscape painting. The Pennsylvania Academy was no exception. The curriculum of the Academy school centered on the study of the human figure; it was not until the 1880s, after the tremendous popularity of American landscape painting had subsided, that the study of landscape was instituted at the Academy school. Moreover, until the 1880s, landscape painting as a genre was not granted the status of history painting and portraiture at the Academy.
As early as the 1830s, prizes for drawing and modeling life figures and casts were awarded by the Pennsylvania Academy. In the 1850s premiums awarded to historical, scriptural, or dramatic paintings in the annuals were more than double those awarded to landscapes. In 1881 a special prize of $200 was established for the best landscape painting exhibited in an annual, but it is unclear from existing documentation whether this award was regularly offered. It was not until 1902, with the establishment of the Jennie Sesnan Gold Medal, given to the best landscape in an annual, that landscape painting was regularly awarded a premium.
Most serious collectors in Philadelphia were more inclined to acquire portraiture or historical canvases than landscape painting. Philadelphians generously patronized their own school of portrait painters, especially Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully, that dominated the artistic milieu in Philadelphia through the first half of the nineteenth century. Every important Philadelphia collection in the nineteenth century owned at least one canvas by the popular American history painter, Peter F. Rothermel. Serious collections of French Barbizon landscape painting were formed in Philadelphia from the mid-1860s through the nineteenth century, but no comparable collections of American landscape painting existed. Edward Carey did own landscapes by Thomas Doughty and Joshua Shaw, but even Carey preferred contemporary English landscapes. Joseph Harrison, Jr., owned important canvases by Sanford Gifford, Thomas Cole, William Trost Richards, and Jasper Cropsey, but Harrison's collection favored historical portraiture and history painting. On the other hand, a few collectors did seem to prefer landscape painting. George Whitney and Harrison Earl were two of the most important patrons of the Philadelphia landscape and marine painter William Trost Richards. Whitney also owned works by Asher B. Durand, John Kensett, and Jervis McEntee.
Local landscape painters were the most popular with Philadelphia's collectors. Thomas Birch and Thomas Doughty were regarded by Philadelphia connoisseurs as the most important landscapists of the early nineteenth century. Later in the century, such artists as Russell and Xanthus Smith, Paul Weber, Edmund Darch Lewis, James Hamilton, and William Trost Richards were held in the highest esteem. They were popular, it seems, simply because they represented the best local work. Generally, landscape painters from New York and elsewhere received minimal patronage from Philadelphians. Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Martin Johnson Heade were ignored by Philadelphia collectors.
Considering the status of landscape painting at the Pennsylvania Academy and the limited taste for it among Philadelphia collectors, it is perhaps surprising to find that it constituted an important portion of the annuals. Although not nearly so important in the Pennsylvania Academy's annuals as in comparable exhibitions at the National Academy of Design or the Apollo Association and American Art-Union in New York, nonetheless, the most avant-garde work by the most highly regarded American landscapists was exhibited regularly at the Academy. Through the nineteenth century, every major American landscapist exhibited in the Pennsylvania Academy's annuals.
The Academy also sponsored special loan exhibitions of landscape painting. Both of Thomas Cole's allegorical landscape series -- The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire -- were shown at the Pennsylvania Academy, in 1814 and 1852 respectively. Cole was recognized as America's greatest landscapist. In 1860 Frederic Church's cosmic landscape, Heart of the Andes, which had previously been hailed by the English artist-critic John Ruskin as a work equal in quality to that of Joseph Turner, was on special exhibition at the Academy.
The Academy had a unique opportunity in the nineteenth century to purchase many of the masterpieces of American landscape painting; in 1844, for instance, the second series of Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life was available for sale at three hundred dollars per canvas. Unfortunately, the board decided not to purchase this important series of paintings, even with the knowledge that Cole considered it his most successful work. The number of similar, but unrecorded, lost opportunities must be prodigious. They constitute a failure on the part of the Pennsylvania Academy to recognize and support important American schools of painting. The Academy's permanent collection has no works by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Martin Johnson Heade.
Landscape painting in America grew out of the revolutionary generation's desire to identify American images. It had been a minor art in the eighteenth century, primarily linked with portraiture and history painting. Some pure landscape painting, derived from both topographical and classical sources, did exist, but mostly in the form of overmantel paintings, often painted by semi-professional itinerants.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, landscape painting in America was still in a fledgling condition, with few practitioners and even fewer patrons. Over the next fifty years it became the most popular, most quintessentially American genre of painting -- an expression of the American psyche and a symbol of Manifest Destiny. Its proponents were considered heroes whose canvases, eagerly competed for, commanded huge prices.
However, no single landscape style predominated throughout its years of popularity. In the early nineteenth century, the landscape tradition in America was strongly influenced by English and Dutch traditions. Gradually, an indigenous style of romantic-realism supplanted the earlier European influences, but by the mid-1870s it had begun to lose currency. The stylistic influences of the Barbizon School and French Impressionism became dominant in the last quarter of the century.
Philadelphia and Baltimore were the earliest centers of landscape painting in America. The immediate impetus for such activity came from English landscapists who immigrated to America in the mid-1790s, bringing with them a diversity of styles rooted in English landscape traditions. They found in Americans an emerging patronage, proud and conscious of the look of America. It was not the unexplored, dark-forested wilderness which lay beyond the mountains that these Americans sought to have painted on canvas, but rather the gentility of their own country seats and bustling cities. Americans wanted to show off America's "improvements" with a directness that would serve as a record of the nation's growth. It was the reality of specific places, depicted by artists in their works, that struck a respondent note among American patronage. Akin to the reality of appearance characteristic of eighteenth-century colonial portraiture, this consciousness of the look of America remained a vital ingredient in the emerging American landscape tradition.
English-style landscapes of American scenes predominated in the period from about 1795 to 1825. In style, they varied from a meticulous, topographical realism in which architecture was prominent, to a more "picturesque" treatment in which the qualities of William Gilpin's aesthetic prevailed, to classical compositions in the manner of Claude and Poussin. Within these diverse styles, the desire to identify a specific place remained a constant. In landscapes like View on the Schuylkill River (cat. no. 170) by William Groombridge, a native of Kent, England, the rural quality of the scene along the Schuylkill River outside Philadelphia is developed in a loose, Gainsboroughesque style. The style of this painting, which was exhibited at the 1812 Academy annual, is in marked contrast to the meticulous, draftsmanlike detail found in landscapes of the period by Francis Guy, John James Barralet, and William and Thomas Birch. Such a precise style is observable in Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works (cat. no. 158) of 1821. Birch's painting is reminiscent of the engraved Views of Philadelphia which he and his father, Williarn Birch, published in 1800. Not only is Birch's eye that of an engraver in Fairmount Water Works, but his ideas about landscape painting are based on aesthetic criteria and not on nature.
The desire to identify a specific place continued to be a strong determinant throughout nineteenth-century American landscape painting. In later works, like Russell Smith's Chew House, Germantown (cat. no. 180) of 1843 or William Trost Richards's Paschall Homestead at Gibson's Point, Philadelphia (cat. no. 175) of 1857, the identification of a site was the painter's chief concern. The public demand for such paintings increasingly was met by itinerant, semi-professional artists who worked outside the mainstream of an American Landscape aesthetic. These artists, who saw things not in terms of style but rather of physicality, met the requirements for reportorial art. Jacob Eichholtz's work falls between this naive tradition and the high style work of his teacher, Thomas Sully. Conestoga Creek and Lancaster (cat. no. 167), a unique landscape in Eichholtz's oeuvre, reveals his dependence on Thomas Doughty's Landscape with Curving River (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), but unlike Doughty's painting, it is a specific reference to a specific place.
In the 1820s the early emphasis on depicting merely man's "improvements" to nature was opposed by a group of writers who urged that the American experience be somehow embodied in a distinctly new national idiom. What better way was there to express the American uniqueness than through a glorification of the natural beauties of America? How distinct American scenery was from its European counterpart! Joshua Shaw, the English landscapist who came to America in 1817, remarked in his Picturesque Views of American Scenery on the "majesty and loveliness of nature [nowhere] more strikingly conspicuous than in America." James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Thomas Cole, all extolled the manifest natural wonders of America, always preferring the freshness and radiance of the American wilderness to the "stiffness and formality" of European scenery. In Europe there was the taint of civilization in nature; in America there was primeval wilderness. Wilderness, once feared in America, became symbolic of purity and godliness.
The popular conception at nature was linked to the deistic belief that nature was a manifestation of a divine spirit. If one wanted to be near God and to benefit from His presence, one must commune with nature. Nature was believed to have therapeutic value; Bryant's poem Inscription For the Entrance to a Wood urged the woeful man who had seen enough of the world's sorrows
Thus, around 1825 the emphasis in American landscape painting shifted from painting "improvements" to painting nature when New York City replaced Philadelphia as the center of landscape painting in America.
Thomas Doughty, one of the first American landscape painters to be elected a Pennsylvania Academician, was a pioneer in the development of this native landscape tradition. Although he painted topographical views of popular sites throughout the 1820s, the direction of his work steadily moved toward realistic landscape. View Near Hartford, Connecticut (cat. no. 164), painted in 1828, expresses Doughty's own perception of nature. Doughty preferred the intimate, pastoral look of rural America to its more grandiose, sublime scenery. An avid sketcher, he viewed nature as a storehouse where the details for his canvases could be found, to be selected and combined into a personal formula at a later time in his studio. This method of drawing plein-air sketches, often inscribed with color notations, became essential to the American perception of landscape painting. Asher B. Durand systematized the method in his widely read "Letters on Landscape Painting," published in The Crayon in 1855.
Just as public taste had favored topographical views earlier, so did it prefer realistic landscapes after 1825, Robert Gilmor, the important Baltimore patron, summarized the prevailing feeling:
What public taste demanded, American landscape painters were inclined to provide. Thus, the force at economic necessities was a determinant on the style of American landscape painting.
Realistic landscapes like those painted by Asher B. Durand (cat. no. 166) were the most popular in mid-nineteenth century America. Durand's attention to natural details, combined with a strong eye for compositional effects, produced works that appealed to the pragmatic American mind. The Durand landscape tradition continued well into the nineteenth century; Charles Lewis Fussell's Landscape (cat. no. 168), while painted in 1897, is typical at the style of Durand's work of the 1850s and 1860s.
Thomas Cole lamented the narrowness of public taste in America, which he felt impeded the progress of his work. Cole strove to unite artistic excellence with moral and religious subjects. He recognized that a great landscape painter's duty went well beyond "servile" imitation of nature. As early as 1825 he wrote his patron Robert Gilmor:
While he was a prodigious sketcher, Cole felt that before painting an observed scene, an artist should allow time to draw a veil over the details and unessential parts of nature. He often remarked bitterly that he had higher conceptions of art than a "mere leaf painter," and he evolved a broad, bold style of brushwork that defined only the essential masses and color of natural forms.
As an artist in America, Cole was well ahead of his time. By failing to elect him a Pennsylvania Academician, the Pennsylvania Academy implicitly voiced its disapproval of his "higher taste" in landscape painting. Frustrated by public taste and by his own lack of development, Cole went abroad in 1829. After sojourns in London and Paris, he settled in Florence in 1831. Cole thrived in Italy, calling it a "land of poetry and beauty," but he missed the rugged scenery of America. He wrote:
In Italy, Cole concentrated on developing panoramic views of Italian cities and ruins of Roman architecture. On the Arno (cat. no. 162), although not painted until 1837 in America, was inspired by his first visit to Florence. It is one of at least four versions Cole did of the subject and was painted in the same year that he completed his most ambitious panorama of Florence, View of Florence from San Miniato (The Cleveland Museum of Art).
Italy was a painter's paradise, and American landscapists sought out its salutory influences whenever possible. They did not go to Italy to learn a painting technique, as they did later to Dusseldorf, but rather to be steeped in Italian traditions and the atmospheric light of the Italian countryside. From 1847 to 1849 Jasper Cropsey lived in Italy with his wife and his friends, Thomas Hicks and Christopher Cranch. One of his first major canvases was Landscape with Figures, Near Rome (cat. no. 163), signed "Roma/1847." In later years Cropsey became known for his loosely painted autumnal landscapes, but his early Italian landscapes show the strong influence of Thomas Cole. Like Cole, Cropsey was interested in both the vestiges of past civilizations and the observable peasant life on the Italian campagna.
Some American landscapists found the lure of Italian life so strong that they settled there for long periods. One such artist was George Loring Brown, a native of Boston who lived in Italy from 1840 to 1857, after which he returned to America. Brown's style, though consistently lacking the force of Cole's, reveals the eclecticism characteristic of Cole's. Moreover, like Cole, Brown was never content to limit his production to pure landscape painting, also finding inspiration in literary and Biblical subjects and painting allegories of high moral content. His St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (cat. no. 160), painted in Florence in 1845-46 and first exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1848, reads as a landscape but transcends the idea of landscape in its Biblical reference. The imaginary setting, dominated by gnarled trees and a rocky river bed, with steep cliffs and soaring mountains in the background, suggests the influence of Italian Mannerist landscapes of the seventeenth century. However, even though the landscape reinforces the painting's subject, it lacks the sublime wildness present in Cole's John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Wadsworth Atheneum) of 1827.
During the 1850s and 1860s landscape painters were the titans of the American art world. Artists like Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and John F. Kensett attracted constant public attention, and they achieved financial security and social prestige. They led adventurous lives: their worldwide expeditions in search of cosmic revelations took them into remote, uncharted territory -- throughout the American West, into the jungles of South America and the icefields of the Arctic, along the Nile River, and through Greece, Turkey, and the Holy Land. The spectacular, often exotic subject matter which resulted from these trips gripped the imagination of the American public; at the same time, paintings of the American West evoked a feeling of patriotism.
The style of artists like Church and Bierstadt was inherently American; it was also strongly influenced by the widely circulated writings of the English critic John Ruskin. It combined a closeness of observation, at times based on near scientific scrutiny, often aided by the camera, and a romantic conception of nature and the role of the landscape painter. Church's Mountains of Ecuador (cat. no. 161) reflects the kaleidoscopic vision of the romantic-realist painter. Painted in 1855, after his first trip to Ecuador, where he had gone to sketch the sacred mountains of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, the painting develops the theme of the relationship between man and nature. In this preoccupation Church continued the earlier tradition of his teacher, Thomas Cole, although he had even greater respect than Cole for both the destructive and regenerative powers of nature. In Church's mind, mankind was but a pawn in the presence of nature's timeless forces.
Church's great South American landscapes were rivaled in popularity only by Albert Bierstadt's equally monumental paintings of the American West. Although Bierstadt had been trained in the meticulous style of the Academy at Dusseldorf, he shared Church's obsession with nature's theatricality. Bierstadt's Storm in the Mountains (cat. no. 157) is a powerful statement of nature's impending fury. While more precise in style, it is reminiscent of Joseph Turner's Snow Storm, Avalanche and Inundation in the Val d'Aosta (Art Institute of Chicago) of 1837. Indeed, to Church and Bierstadt, Turner was the exemplary artist of the nineteenth century.
Church and Bierstadt painted nature as a cosmic force. Other American landscape painters focused on less philosophical considerations. From the mid-1850s to the mid-1870s two distinct styles of landscape painting developed in America: an American version of Pre-Raphaelitism, and Luminism. Pre-Raphaelitism, a style transplanted from England, but inherently American, had as one objective of its microscopic vision the conceptualization of the essential quality or qualities of natural phenomena. Luminism, an indigenous American style, dealt with phenomena seen through a saturating light that united compositional elements into a spatial whole.
The earlier of the two styles was an American expression of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic of John Ruskin. America's Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, associated in the early 1860s with the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art and with the publication of The Crayon (1855 - 1861) and The New Path (1863-1865), never attracted a large following among landscape painters. Except for such artists as Thomas Charles Farrer and Charles Herbert Moore, American followers of Ruskin's "Truth to Nature" aesthetic painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style only for short periods in their careers. In Ruskin's opinion, his American disciples never developed beyond the "apprenticeship" state of rendering precise studies of nature.
The most accomplished of the American Pre-Raphaelite landscapists was the Philadelphia painter William Trost Richards. A student at the Dusseldorf Academy and later at the Pennsylvania Academy, Richards's training at Dusseldorf in the steely, mechanical style of drawing aided his microscopic vision, enabling him in the l860s to make close, accurate studies of bits of nature. Plant Study (cat. no. 176) of 1860 is characteristic of the small, scientific observations of nature of the American Pre-Raphaelite landscapists.
It was only natural that a style that emphasized careful draftsmanship would appeal to an academy. The Pennsylvania Academy sponsored two important English Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the American Luminists, other than periodically exhibiting their works in the annuals, had no specific involvement with the Academy. The principal Luminist artists, Martin Johnson Heade and Sanford Gifford, lived in New York City. Heade and Gifford preferred to work in a horizontal format and experimented with the effects of sunlight and weather on space and the objects in it. Heade's Salt Marshes, Newport, Rhode Island (cat. no. 171), painted about 1865-70, is typical of the Luminist style. While a greater sense of direct sunlight is apparent in this painting than in other haystack compositions by Heade, the scene is nonetheless cast in a vaporous, almost spongy, atmosphere that unites the multiplicity of observed forms. By reducing the size of his brushstrokes and limiting his palette to subtle tonal variations, Heade reinforces the unity of the composition.
Sanford Gifford's Luminist landscapes stand in contrast to Heade's, although both reveal that saturated quality of light that characterizes American Luminism. However, Gifford's landscapes are more ebulliently brushed and higher keyed than Heade's. In his small The Falls of Tivoli (cat. no. 169) of 1869 both these differences are apparent. Gifford labored to achieve a landscape composition united by atmospheric light. He recorded in his "Journal" the problems in realizing this effect:
It is instructive to notice that Thomas Cole's 1832 Cascatelli of Tivoli (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Knight Sturges) reveals the very awkwardnesses that Gifford tried to overcome, but which Cole sought to emphasize. Cole's articulated forms stand in opposition to Gifford's broader conception, achieved through the use of atmospheric light.
By the mid-1870s the Luminist painters had taken their experiments as far as they could. The immediate influence for the succeeding generation of landscape painting in America came from the French Barbizon school. The most important of the Barbizon style painters in America was George Inness. Inness's early work came out of the realist landscape tradition; he was almost an exact contemporary of Frederic Church and Jasper Cropsey. He had studied briefly in 1845 with Regis Gignoux in New York, but by the 1860s his work showed the Barbizon influence. Woodland (cat. no. 172) of 1891 reveals how far the mainstream of American landscape painting in the l890s was from the realist tradition of preceding generations. Inness's interest lay in suggesting natural forms through the use of resonant colors and summary brushwork. The solidity of forms was replaced by a misty, poetic quality that one associates with the work of French artists like Corot or Daubigny. It was precisely this Barbizon influence that came to be so important to American landscapists; in the case of most American painters in the Barbizon style the influence came from direct contact in France with French Barbizon painters. Dwight William Tryon's Evening (cat. no. 181) of 1886 certainly shows the influence of his teacher Charles Daubigny. Even the realist painter William Trost Richards in his February (cat. no. 177) of 1887 approached the more somber, reflective moods of the Barbizon tradition.
By the mid-1870s the depiction of American and foreign scenery was no longer the sine qua non of American landscape painters. The influences of French Barbizon and Impressionist painting became dominant in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. These avant-garde styles were based on entirely different principles, which eventually fused American landscape painting with "art for art's sake" attitudes. These attitudes had their origins abroad and surprisingly easily supplanted older American attitudes about landscape. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century a passion for things European prevailed among Americans. This passion found expression in styles of painting; never again would American landscape painting be so American.
About the author
Frank Goodyear, Jr. became the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts' first professional curator in 1972. Goodyear was director and then president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, posts he held for two years and 10 years, respectively. In 1999 he was appointed as Director to the Heard Museum of Phoenix, AZ.
Resource Library editor's note
The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 1, 2008, with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The permission was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2008. Mr. Goodyear's essay pertains to In This Academy: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805 - 1976, which was on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1976 as a special Bicentennial exhibition.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Barbara Katus, Rights and Reproduction Manager of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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