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PRINT January 2002

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Barbara Novak on “American Sublime”

In 1829 Thomas Cole complained that his paintings were skied in the hanging at the Royal Academy and British Gallery in London. “On the varnishing day,” he wrote, “I found them in the most exalted situations.” Soon his most extraordinary work, the five-canvas series known as “The Course of Empire,” 1833–36, will arrive in London as the crown jewel of an ambitious show at Tate Britain, “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880.” Sending “Course of Empire” to London, like sending the Mona Lisa to New York, is an iconic transaction. The series has rarely been allowed out of the building that houses it (the New-York Historical Society). If the paintings survive the transatlantic journey intact, Cole’s spirit will rejoice in the fact that his work is now exalted but not skied. Born an Englishman, arriving in America at eighteen to become the so-called father of the Hudson River School, he will now represent the best of American art to his country of origin.

This is no small achievement. Even in this country, American art of the pre-modern period has been consistently left out of surveys of Western art. It is rarely taught as a separate subject in college curricula. Though the nineteenth century is generally recognized as the great era of Western landscape painting, American paintings of this period are rarely if ever included in major landscape exhibitions. Cole, Frederic Church, and Fitz Hugh Lane are not invited to share the stage with Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner.

In Europe there is only one major collection of American nineteenth-century painting: that assembled by Hans Heinrich and Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Few European collections contain any nineteenth-century American art at all. In 2000, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid launched the first-ever large-scale American landscape show in Europe, “Exploring Eden,” to which the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, loaned Cole’s 1842 “Voyage of Life” series. (An earlier version exists at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, so its overseas journey was not as curatorially heart-stopping as that of “The Course of Empire.”)

European scholars at large have been remarkably reluctant to admit American artists of this period into the pantheon of great landscape painters. For many of them, and for many US critics, American art began in 1945. Until the Madrid exhibition, it was primarily the Germans, with philosophical affinities that go back to Goethe, Schelling, and Friedrich, who responded with appreciation and interest. German scholars of American art, such as Martin Christadler, are often more sensitively attuned to the American nineteenth century than many American-art historians here. The Germans, in fact, held an exhibition, “Pictures from the New World,” and a symposium on this period, in Berlin in 1988–89.

In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as Western nations join with the United States to confront global terrorism, “American Sublime” offers an excellent opportunity for the European nations to assimilate American art into the Western tradition. America has suffered a profound and shattering loss of an innocence well described by Emerson: “Separated from the contamination which infects all other civilized lands, this country has always boasted a great comparative purity.” The exhibition offers a reading of that earlier American culture through its landscape painting under a title that enfolds multiple meanings open to endless debate.

The ninety-work show progresses almost like a good college course, with subtitles: Wilderness, The Course of Empire, The Still Small Voice, “Awful Grandeur,” Painting from Nature, Transcendental Visions, Explorations, and The Great West. All bases are covered in this taxonomy. The exhibition clearly seeks to educate and edify a British audience that presumptively holds the prior belief that Turner and Constable represent the terminal climax of landscape art. As long ago as 1859, a generous British critic was willing to bestow Turner’s mantle on Church “without impugning [the latter’s] originality.” But the contention in the Tate’s press release that American landscapes were essentially the “logical extension—and conclusion—of the great tradition of landscape that culminated in the work of Friedrich, Turner, Constable and the painters of the high romantic period” does not appear to allow for the distinctive significance of the American chapter in the nineteenth-century-landscape narrative. As used here, “Romantic” is for me a generalization that imprecisely describes American landscape art, though the term was used by early American scholars and indeed is still used by some. The exhibition includes a large number of pragmatic oil-on-paper works by Church, and some by Albert Bierstadt, which are among the freshest examples of American pleinairisme. Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, and John Frederick Kensett offer classic examples of quietistic luminist light and structure that differ considerably from British Romantic practice.

What most interests me, however, is the word sublime. The Burkean sublime, which did indeed find its most potent definition in Edmund Burke’s celebrated 1756 essay, was awe-inspiring and filled with “gothick” dread and terror. It was nonetheless more an aesthetic sublime than the version that developed in America three-quarters of a century later. By the 1820s, the word had been overused to the point of devaluation. It took on more meaning, however, as the nineteenth century progressed and by midcentury, after Emerson’s essays Nature (1836) and “The Over-Soul” (1841) had appeared, was so infused with spiritual significance that it signaled a divine emanation whenever uttered. The sublimity that suffused American landscape paintings at that time was less darkly gothic than the earlier sublime, though in the “great pictures” of Church and Bierstadt, the awesome scale of the landscapes depicted still recalled aspects of Burke’s definition.

But the more transcendentally modest luminist works of Heade, Lane, and Kensett are sufficiently different in scale, choice of simple, even minimal landscape subject (land and water), and expressive content to define—indeed demand—a very different concept of sublimity. This quietistic sublime is even more thought provoking when contrasted with the idea of the older, “terrible” sublime, which has been reflexly connected to the vast wilderness of the American continent, especially in European minds.

The exhibition stresses the religious. But despite being highly Christianized, the American sublime was curiously less religious than spiritual. It is distinguished by an almost Asian transcendence, which sets the tone of most of the paintings and is not found in their European counterparts. In contrast to the paintings of Turner and Constable, the American paintings (except for the smaller ad hoc oils on paper) are less atmospheric and painterly (though Turner was an important influence on Church, Thomas Moran, and to a lesser extent Cole, and Constable was admired by Asher B. Durand). Influence here, however, is not as important as transformation. As Henry James rightly said—the apple of America is a totally different apple. In the American paintings the spiritual is more often conveyed by a smooth, crystalline light. Even in Church, arguably the most atmospheric of the Americans, atmosphere tends to assume a smooth stillness, while in Turner it more often shimmers with motion. Both Turner and Church are concerned with the sublimity of light and effulgent atmosphere. But what can the distinctions between them tell us? Are we dealing also with different notions of God? If for Turner the sun was God, how different was the light of Church’s universe, which in Emerson’s terms “becomes transparent, . . . the light of higher laws than its own” shining through it? The attitudes toward God, man, and land are embedded in distinct national and cultural matrices, despite the links between them. Even the material of paint, the substance of each artist’s expression of light, had different connotations—held, one might say, a different content—on each side of the ocean. The American vision is also often directed, especially in the small luminist works, by a conceptual concern with the essence of the objects in nature —rocks, trees, etc. (Emerson’s famous fact as “the end or last issue of spirit”). The comparison can legitimately be made with Pre-Raphaelite practice, but here, too, there are obvious distinctions in philosophical worldview and cultural context.

The European figure who most resembles the Americans is Friedrich, who was not known to them but whose philosophical roots are to some extent shared by the American Transcendentalists. Goethe was a cult hero in America, frequently quoted in The Crayon, the mid-nineteenth-century equivalent of Artforum. The Tate exhibition, however, is fully justified in stressing the American interest in Ruskin, who even wrote a Dear Abby–style column for young artists in Crayon.

It is didactically useful to emphasize the commonality between American landscapes and works by such British predecessors as John Martin (for Cole) and Turner (for Cole, Church, and Moran). But when “A New World,” a superb show of American treasures, was shown at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1984, French viewers walked past John Singleton Copley’s magnificent portrait of Paul Revere (ca. 1768–70) and Eakins’s Gross Clinic, 1875, were mesmerized by Bierstadt (American Western myths always hold in Europe), and much preferred derivative American Impressionist works to anything else.

Do viewers only appreciate what they already know? How do we achieve the next step—willing acceptance of American parity with the great European landscapes, along with a recognition of what that nineteenth-century British critic called “originality”? Judging from the exhibition checklist, filled with classic masterpieces of American landscape art, this will be the most comprehensive and potentially enlightening landscape exhibition yet offered to European viewers. It is probable that the American landscapes will be welcomed most readily into the Western canon if they “fit” into an already prepared matrix of assumptions. It is the differences, however, that most properly define the nature of American landscape painting. In addition to a detailed introduction, we are promised a catalogue essay on landscape and national identity in America and Britain. Hopefully, this will aid British viewers to look beyond the comforts of familiar influence to those properties American artists brought freshly to the landscape art, properties integral to American cultural attitudes that remain to be understood and appreciated by a European audience to which they have too long been Other.

Barbara Novak is Helen Goodhart Altschul Professor of Art History at Barnard College and Columbia University. She is the author of several titles, including Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 and the novel Alice's Neck.

“American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880” will be on view at Tate Britain, Feb. 21–May 19; travels to Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, Philadelphia, June 17–Aug. 25; and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Sept. 22–Nov. 17.