‘Proper Paintings’ of the American Landscape
On a clear day, Mt. Rainier, Washington’s majestic and still active volcano is plainly visible. Located southwest of Seattle, the singular mountain rises up and overwhelms you with its impressive size. As a three-year transplant from the Midwest, Mt. Rainer still makes me gasp whenever I catch a glimpse of it. There’s no doubt that Mt. Rainier and other impressive Western American landscapes were awe inspiring to Easterners and European explorers more than a hundred and fifty years ago. For this reason, surveyors on their way West brought with them photographers and artists to capture the beauty they found so difficult to express in words. In the SAM’s summer exhibit, “Beauty & Bounty: American Art in the Age of Exploration,” American Art curator Patricia Junker explores a grand collection of American Landscape paintings, some of which haven’t been seen by the public in over 100 years. Also included in the exhibition are more than 60 large and “mammoth” photographs by the “pioneers of western photography,” Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and Darius Kinsey.
The five galleries contain works by great masters of the 19th Century American Landscape such as Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran. Alfred Bierstadt, however, is the star of the show. Bierstadt’s work Mountain View, Sunset (ca. 1865) greets us at the entrance of the exhibit. As we enter the galleries, the matte blue walls, high ceilings and small paintings give one the same sense of expanse and openness so prevalent in American landscapes.
A quote by Thomas Cole drives home the major theme of the exhibit, that American Landscape painters not only painted the West to attract tourists and to sell paintings, but to capture the pristine beauty of the land before it was too late:
“Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden. The wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”
-from Thomas Cole’s Essay on American Scenery, 1836
What we see in Bierstadt’s painting is no less than an idyllic Eden set in the Yosemite Valley. In the foreground, three deer stand by the mirror-like lake while the sun sets over the horizon. Bierstadt’s mastery of light and foliage would have impressed viewers back home in New England, and while photographers such as Carlton Watkins had already captured the West, few had translated those impressive mountain views into color. It was this that drove Bierstadt West – the promise of dramatic, marketable subject matter from the ever-expanding American Frontier.
In the same gallery, Sanford Robinson Gifford, a leading member of New York’s Hudson River School, showcases a seemingly clear summer day in the Pacific Northwest. In his large landscape, a pink, snow-capped Mount Rainier commands the center of the painting. This work clearly illustrates why art critics claimed Gifford as the father of Luminism – the hazy pinks and purples, soft brushstrokes and the reflective quality of the water create an overall sense of serenity. In the foreground, two canoes break up the painting and draw our attention to the calm, peaceful bay. Upon closer inspection, one can see Gifford’s pencil marks outlining several non-existent boaters.
In the next gallery, the SAM gives the American Landscape Movement its historical context: The Civil War. SAM ushers us into a lush green gallery – this calming color pairs with the theme of American Landscapes providing peace, escape and tranquility to a country torn apart by a civil war. During this tumultuous time, artists such as Sanford Robinson Gifford and Winslow Homer, both participants in the war, turned to nature to escape the harsh realities of battle. Others, including John Frederick Kensett and Frederic Church, paint a peaceful version of an already populated location. Instead of showing Niagara Falls as it was in 1856 – full of vacationers, bridges and tourists boats, Frederic Church gives us a nostalgic view of the Horseshoe Falls, complete with a Native American couple in the foreground. On the freestanding wall, Kensett’s painting of Lake George in northern New York captures a sense of calm and solitude. The lake, already a popular vacation destination for New Yorkers in the 1860s, appears both wild and remote. However, this was one of Kensett’s favorite places to visit, and he returned to the lake year after year. In the foreground of this lake scene, a small dog stares intently at his master boating in the lake. While the painting depicts the peaceful and calming effects of nature, we see that humans are already making their mark on the land.
The highlight of the gallery would have to be the three paintings by lesser-known artist Martin Johnson Heade. In comparison with the majestic landscapes of mountains, waterfalls and canyons, the rather unremarkable marshlands and haystacks seem out of place. Yet, thanks to a rather humorous and talented Heade, the swirling haystacks and strange storm clouds leave the viewer with an eerie sense of calm, much like the sensation one feels before a summer storm. Born in 1814 in Philadelphia, Heade became well known as a portraitist and landscape painter in the 1850s and 60s after working with and befriending fellow artist Frederic Church. Unlike Church and Bierstadt, Heade preferred less dramatic and more intimate subjects for his landscape paintings. While his work captures rather mundane marsh landscapes, his method of capturing light and shadows is truly remarkable.
In a large painting by William Keith, we see Mt. Rainier captured from an entirely different perspective. In The Nisqually Glacier, Keith paints Mt. Rainier from atop the glacier with the peak of Mt. Adams in the background. In 1888, Keith went north from California with preservationist John Muir, climbing Mt. Shasta and only part of Mt. Rainier in the process. At Paradise (roughly 5,700 ft.), Keith decided that he could climb Mt. Rainier no further. Through Keith’s thick layers of white paint and visible brushstrokes depicting the wild landscape of the glacier, one is almost able to sense his fatigue. John Muir reached the peak of Rainier and eventually co-founded the Sierra Club and in 1890 pushed Congress to designate Yosemite as a national park.
Finally, past the velvet curtain, there it is: Alfred Bierstadt’s 1870 Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. From the provided wall text, we learn that Bierstadt never traveled inland to the Puget Sound, but instead had taken a day trip to Vancouver Island on a steamboat in 1863. However, as illustrated through Bierstadt’s personal artifacts, Carelton Watkin’s photographs and prints from 1857, Bierstadt never really needed to travel to the Sound. What art collectors and railroad magnates needed from artists was a dramatic sensation of the West – a wild, untamed place brimming with adventure and promise. In this large, 52 1/2 x 82 in. canvas, Bierstadt delivers a dramatic view of “the nation’s Mediterranean” – the Puget Sound. Large storm clouds billow in the top right corner, opening just enough for us to catch a glimpse of a mountain peak similar to others Bierstadt has depicted over the years. His characteristic trees are clinging tightly to large rock formations and green, translucent waves are breaking against the shore. A break in the clouds shines sunlight onto a group of recently moored boaters. The canoes from Bierstadt’s personal collection displayed in the glass case resemble those featured in the painting, and the plate featured from James Gilchrist Swan’s 1857 study of the region’s topography and people, The Northwest Coast, gives us some of the same visual tools Bierstadt used to create this work. A review of the painting from 1870 is dramatically read every 15 minutes, so be sure to stay to hear D.O.C. Townley describe it as “dramatic in the highest degree.”
Flanking the galleries, impressive photographs by Darius Kinsey document the dangerous and destructive practice of logging in the Pacific Northwest. We viewed the beauty of the exhibit’s namesake, but in these photos, we see what the SAM meant by “bounty” – on one photograph dated from 1923, Kinsey writes “Once a forest of tall trees, now a tract of land entirely covered with logs.” In another photograph, Kinsey captures a group of men sitting atop a large spruce tree. Titled Ten horses hauling spruce log on skid road, Washington, 1905, a spruce log, perhaps 7 feet wide and 30 feet long recedes sharply into the background. Littered around the log and the men are hundreds of scraps of lumber and tools. Other images feature loggers perched precariously on “high riggers” and trucks filled to the brim with freshly cut lumber.
Be sure to check out the gallery entirely full of stereograph cards at the end of the exhibition. These cards, when viewed through special glasses provided by the SAM, create a three-dimensional image. Included in the gallery is a view of Yosemite from Glacier Point, a close-up of the moon and Eadweard Muybridge’s portrait of Alfred Bierstadt painting en plein air.
SAM’s billboards scattered around Seattle urge you to see “proper paintings.” In the past year, SAM’s lineup has been heavy on contemporary and modern blockbusters. While large paintings of landscapes may not seem like a must-see for the average museum-goer, I would say that this is a show not to be missed. We are able to see Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier vistas, the Bay of Tacoma, the San Juan islands and the Columbia River as they were seen – and imagined – over a century ago. The mammoth photographs of loggers and clear-cut forests also remind us that we have the power to conserve as well as destroy. The United States is filled with amazing, beautiful landscapes, and after viewing this exhibit, you may want to take a trip out and see it for yourself. For as D.O.C. Townley explained in his description of Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast in 1870, “few can look upon it without the desire to see this wondrous western land.”
Beauty & Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration is on view at the Seattle Art Museum from June 30 – September 11, 2011