Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Painting the American Vision, a review

The Course of Empire, Desolation 1836, Thomas Cole


Last Sunday I had the very good fortune to be in Salem, MA, just as the show Painting the American Vision was opening at the Peabody Essex Museum. Drawn from the celebrated collection of the New York Historical Society, this exhibition features 45 magnificent landscapes, including Thomas Cole's iconic series of monumental paintings, "The Course of Empire," as well as works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Asher B. Durand and others.

Painting the American Vision was originally organized by the New York Historical Society as The Hudson River School: Painting the American Vision, and all works are from that institution's collection. The New York Historical Society is renovating it's facilities so it's stunning collection of Hudson River School paintings which are rarely loaned out are traveling to other museums this year.  None of the paintings in the show were ones that I had seen in person before, so this was an absolute treat for me.

The show is housed in the third floor galleries. The wall colors, stenciled tree motif and quotes on the walls all enhanced the experience of viewing the paintings.  The galleries are intimate but roomy enough to take in the large works even when a half dozen or more people are in the room. The number of paintings per room and how they are grouped provides a nice visual flow and understanding of the premise of the show, which is  that the young United States was trying to shake off its colonial past and to create paintings based on America's natural monuments like Niagara Falls and Yosemite that would rival European paintings featuring monuments like the Colosseum and the Roman aqueducts. It is interesting to note that this search for a national artistic style that was truly American in its nature and essence was a discourse that touched a broad spectrum of the American population, it was not a discussion limited to the elite of the day. It would appear in newspaper and magazines with many people weighing in with opinions. It is at this time that the National Academy of Design is founded (1825) and later as a reaction to the conservative stance of the National Academy (which some construed as too European, and too heavily modeled after the Royal Academy in England an opinion held by George Inness), the American Society of Artists was founded in 1877. The cycle of conservative to progressive repeated in 1897 when the Ten American Painters group broke away from the Society of American Artists. The Society of American Artists ultimately merged with the National Academy in 1906.

A national discussion regarding what American art is today might be a fascinating one, particularly if, as in the past, a broad spectrum of the American population would raise its voice to be heard on par with urban art critics and art academics.

Sam Scott, associate curator of maritime art and history, said at a preview of the show "The artists in this show really believed that there was something good, and worthy, and in fact divine in the act of contemplating the natural scene."  He says that as if it is unbelievable that someone would actually think that, which is funny because I do actually think that there is something good, and worthy, and in fact divine in the act of contemplating the natural scene! I suspect that the collectors who buy my work think that too! See why we need a national discussion on art?


The five painting cycle, The Course of Empire, is an allegorical narrative. I had not seen it in person before, as I mentioned, and I was quite impressed by it. It was not just the paintings themselves that impressed me, though they are quite finely done in terms of color, composition and mood, but it was also the deep philosophical thought that went into their conception.

Cole writes about his initial concept...
A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.
         The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations  
         have risen from the Savage state to that of Power & Glory & then fallen & become extinct..

Cole's idea was also fueled by Byron's 1818 poem Childe Harold in which appear these lines...

There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First Freedom and then Glory—when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page.

Intrigued by Cole's Course of Empire yet? No! Well here is a link to Beyond the Notes' companion for The Course of Empire, a string quartet composed by Nell Shaw Cohen (b. 1988) and inspired by the paintings of Thomas Cole (1801-1848). Explore this website to learn more about the paintings, the music, and the connections between them. LINK

Spend of few minutes at Beyond the Notes and watch some of the video clips with the composer Nell Shaw Cohen who does a lovely job explaining how Cole's The Course Of Empire inspired her musical composition and you can view each painting and listen to the corresponding movement of the concerto.  I absolutely love it when there is a cross over between artistic disciplines! I know you will enjoy this!

Here are the paintings that caught my eye at the show.
Jervis McEntee, Autumn, Mill Stream, 1860



I loved this one because most of the final painting is simply the earthy colored, thinly applied, brushy under painting. Only certain areas are picked out in local color of  thicker, more opaque paint, the trees, some of the rocks and greenery and the sky. The inclusion of the under painting in the final form of the painting gives this an expressive quality, and a sense of the fleeting nature of the autumn season and the fragility of the landscape at this time of year.

Wood for Winter, 1860, George Henry Durrie

It is completely lost in the reproduction however, this winter scene glitters with sparkling snow on the branches of the trees. Tiny shimmering globules of clean white paint liberally sprinkled throughout this piece reproduce for the viewer the distinct sensation of freshly fallen snow clinging to the tree branches so that one can almost feel the cold air! This is an excellent reason to see artwork in person and not to rely solely on reproductions in books or on the internet, so much is lost! It's also a good reason to buy original art to live with rather than cheap wall art prints! Same reason, so much is lost! 

Tomorrow 2 more from the exhibit!

1 comment:

Joan said...

Jan, seeing the progression of Cole's paintings in The Course of Empire, reading his words, listening to the incredible music that this bright, young woman has written to accompany them on this--the day after the Kabuki Theater in Congress and their folly at compromise legislation which does nothing to meaningfully address the deeper issues facing our nation--all leave me to feel even more deeply what Thomas Cole's works describe....another era of American tragedy. ~Joan