Big Aesthetic River
Rivers have a singular place in our nation’s psyche, as they have such prominence in our stories of exploration, war, commerce, recreation and art. Some, like the Mississippi, are firmly fixed in our arts and letters, and one—the Hudson—gave name to the first American art movement. Thomas Cole, the patriarch of the Hudson River School, set his popular allegorical series The Voyage of Life (1839–42) on a river.
Not all great rivers get their due in the nation’s popular mind. At 444 miles, the Susquehanna is the longest river east of the Mississippi, and winds from New York into Pennsylvania and back into New York before passing some of Pennsylvania’s old industrial cities on its way to the Chesapeake Bay, which it joins in Harve de Grace, Maryland. The river’s incredible volume of water accounts for half of all the fresh water entering the bay. Near Williamsport, it is already a broad body, jacketed between high concrete flood control banks. From Selinsgrove to Harrisburg, the river is rarely out of sight and characterized by breadth, occasional rapids and numerous islands. There are pastoral vistas of farms, fields, and wooded hills that suggest what a traveler would have seen in the late nineteenth century, if you ignore things like the dark blue Harvestore silos.
It is likely two things have kept the Susquehanna from being perceived as a great river, and thus having some presence in our national consciousness. For most of its length, it is a shallow river; even recreational boats are small and often flat-bottomed. Early local legend along the river claimed that Susquehanna meant “a mile wide and a foot deep” in Susquehannock, the native tongue, so there is no commerce up and down most of the river, as there is on many of our great rivers. And unlike the Hudson, it lacks the kind of grandeur and sense of wilderness that feeds a Romantic imagination. The Susquehanna is more picturesque and, even when traces of human presence are minimal, seems somehow domestic.
The idea that the river is a local treasure, unknown to a wider audience, extends to its artists, too. Who are the artists that have made its vistas and moods their subject? An exhibit of paintings about the Susquehanna and its environs, which began this past year and will travel regionally through 2008, may help introduce the subject to a broader audience. “Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Painting by American Masters” was the brainchild of painter Rob Evans, who twenty-five years ago set up a studio on his grandparents’ farm, which overlooks the river near Wrightsville in York County. Initially, Evans’s interest in the river was as a subject for painting, with its seductive views and sentimental ties to his childhood. But he was gradually drawn into the river’s history and decided to research artists who had painted along it. Evans conducted research for over a year and a half, using a grant from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation as well as support from the Lancaster County Historical Society and the Lancaster Museum of Art. What he discovered is a who’s who of American painters that had painted the river and its tributaries, including Benjamin West, Frederic Church, Thomas Doughty, George Inness, Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Worthington Whittredge, Thomas Moran and Sanford Robinson Gifford. The river also figured in the works of the Swiss-born artist Karl Bodmer and the French painter Louis Remy Mignot. Mignot, along with West, painted the river from memory, an act that catalogue essayist Leo G. Mazow calls an “imaginary reconstruction,” creating the “Susquehanna of the mind.”1
The paintings in the exhibition vary somewhat at different venues, due to the availability of work or the requirements of lenders about levels of security. And a few artists, including Church and Mignot, are represented only in the catalogue accompanying the exhibit.2 Both the catalogue and the exhibition divide the paintings into two major groups: historic work and that which is contemporary, in some instances paintings that were made specifically for the exhibit. The differences in the two bodies of work, as well as among works within each time frame, raise familiar but knotty questions about perception, personality, style and zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. What has been seen, and what has been imagined? Does artistry occlude our sense of the river or enhance it? Are these personal poetic evocations which best serve aesthetic delight, or do the works tell us something we can subsequently look for and think about? In his essay Mazow makes a distinction between the literal and topographic images of the Susquehanna that had been used as expedition reporting, or as a means to lure settlers to its shores, and the work of the artists in the show, which are so clearly art.3 While he does not argue for any simplistic binary opposition, Mazow certainly provokes the question: to what degree do reporting and recording figure in the experience and purposes of art?
The idea that the artist’s subject provides the foundation upon which one builds a personal vision within the received cultural conventions of a style (or more recently, theory) has been a popular idea in academic criticism for some time now. It is guided by the conviction that social discourses best account for the constructions we call art. And who can gainsay the idea, given the march of stylistic progressions across the Susquehanna’s visage within the 250 years covered by the show? Starting with a brushy, evening vista by Benjamin West from 1767, which, as Mazow points out, has “a keen awareness of Claude Lorrain and other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European landscape painters,” we can almost follow the significant movements of American art.4 Church’s Rapids of the Susquehanna (c. 1846) has the stormy drama of the Hudson River School. The light and scale of Moran’s View of the Susquehanna (c. 1863) reflects Luminist concerns, as do Gifford’s An Afternoon on the Juanita River (1879) and Lloyd Mifflin’s Rocks of the Susquehanna: Low Water (1891). Impressionism inflects Fred Smith’s Binghamton on the Chenango (1920), and a slightly Cubist, early American modernism is found in Charles Demuth’s Landscape, Peach Bottom (1931). Demuth was a Lancaster County native and one of the few artists from the immediate region to achieve national stature.
There is a stylistic hiatus between the historic painters and the contemporary artists who comprise the second half of the show. The artistic eruptions of the twentieth century avant-garde are missing, and a hasty scan might lead one to conclude that the contemporary work simply reflects the resurgence of representation that has developed in American art since the 1980s. But a closer look suggests otherwise. There are minimalist roots in Debra Birmingham’s Sunlight on the Susquehanna (2006) and echoes of painterly abstraction in John David Wissler’s Bright Downpour (2001) and Robert Andriulli’s Susquehanna Expulsion (2002). Peter Paone’s quirky Agnes Susquehanna—Born 1972 (2006), which shows a floating Ophelia-like figure with the all the detritus of the famous 1972 hurricane Agnes flood seen behind her, has the hallucinatory signature of Surrealism. And Raoul Middleman’s The Old Railroad Bridge at Deer Creek (1997) fuses the vigorous gesture and structural tectonics of Abstract Expressionism into a wonderful evocation of a spring freshet. The diversity of styles is one of the exhibit’s strengths. It demonstrates how malleable what we call the realistic image is, and how easily we can succumb to the art of skillfully painted representations. But the exhibition also shows that personal vision and stylistic conventions are not the final—or most important—words about art, at least this kind of art. The character of the river, its unfolding development, and the presence and impact of the people who have lived alongside it are unmistakably present.
The ability to see this is due to the historical scope of the exhibition. It would stretch a point to say the exhibition is a report, but it is a record of both the continuity and change of the Susquehanna landscape over time. Contemporary vistas and views of the river continue to delight us, but the natural Susquehanna must be more carefully sought and constructed by artists now, as so much of the river has been clothed by industry and development. In Matthew Daub’s Foundry (2006), the river is a small patch of blue, framed and divided by lovingly rendered industrial sheds and machinery. The indication of crossings in early paintings rapidly gives way to bridges, which constitute a recurring motif through both sections of the show. Of the many paintings with bridges, Jasper Cropsey’s Starrucca Viaduct (1865), from the Toledo Museum of Art, is particularly stunning. The viaduct was one of the engineering marvels of the mid-nineteenth century. Cropsey’s panorama shows an Erie locomotive steaming across the viaduct, with a hamlet below. These elements are embraced by distant hills and the mid-ground river. Two small figures, perched on a rocky outcrop in the foreground, survey this image of harmony and symbiosis between nature and industry.
If the nineteenth-century pictures of the Susquehanna seem too easily ordered by a sunny optimism about the ability of the landscape to nurture and co-exist with human enterprise, several of the recent paintings raise doubts about the river’s ability to withstand its encounter with civilization. Essayist David Dearinger points out how the exhibition has a kind of environmental impact statement within it—at least for those with eyes to see. It’s hard to miss in a vertiginous painting of the nuclear reactor stacks of Three Mile Island seen from above—which is exactly the view one has while circling for a landing at Harrisburg’s airport. This painting, Energy Sources 4: Three Mile Island—2000 (1993) by Paul Caranicas, has no visible river at all. But it recalls the historic nuclear meltdown of 1979 and the continuing role of the river as a coolant for the one reactor that remains active today. Even with less industrially oriented, more picturesque paintings, there is a kind of elegiac mood hovering around several works. Randall Exon’s beautiful Lift (2006) is suffused with an atmosphere of Arcadian nostalgia and loss. The empty canoe suspended above a river landing by a lift, with a lone paddle leaning against the concrete landing abutment in the foreground, suggests the end—as opposed to the interruption—of an activity. And Evans’s own Migration (1997) has a deep one-point perspective view of the Wrightsville bridge leading to a fading, troubled sunset. The bridge’s thrust is counteracted by flocks of dark migratory birds, moving from left to right against a dimming sky. It is an autumnal painting, and the emptiness of the bridge and the flight of the birds speak of a passing that seems more final than seasonal.
There is no doubt about the environmental degradation of the Susquehanna. It was listed as the most threatened river in the United States by the group American Rivers in 2005. The Susquehanna pollution is due to inadequate sewage treatment, nutrient run-off from farms and suburbs, and several dams along its length. But what strikes the eye in close encounters with the river and its tributaries is trash. Just prior to seeing the exhibit at the Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg, I had been working with students on a project about one of the Susquehanna’s tributaries, the Yellow Breeches. The Breeches is a beautiful spring-fed limestone stream, with a reputation as being among the best trout waters in the northeast. As part of the project, we followed the course of the Breeches to the point where it enters the big river. By that time, we were inured to the volumes of trash we had found, which included tires, both raw coal and its slag from the railroad, office furniture, road signs, shopping carts and mountains of the more prosaic varieties of disposable stuff. The whole experience was summarized when we came to the Susquehanna. A large commercial dumpster was lodged half-submerged on a sandbar about twenty-five feet out into the Susquehanna, off the mouth of the Breeches. It was a fitting symbol of our experiences and not a pretty sight.
There is nothing in the “Visions of the Susquehanna” exhibition that approaches the bluntness and squalor of that up-ended dumpster. Even the most industrial paintings here stand in the lineage of Western landscape painting, with all of its preoccupations with beauty, sublimity, craft, moral sentiment and intimations of cosmic order. If my contention that there is a historical narrative and a record of human interaction with the river and its landscape in this show is true, where are the trash and the dumpster? The work in “Susquehanna Visions” has no resemblance to the kind of art that seeks to provoke moral outrage at environmental degradation through dramatic, sensory confrontation. This exhibit is simply too beautiful, too quiet and too much about the long view of the river.
So we end with that question of the experience and purposes of art. Have the contemporary painters in “Susquehanna Visions” avoided the real river? Have they edited the truth out of their pictures for the sake of aesthetics, tradition or poetic imagination? The impingement of development and pollution on the river is a visible fact. But that has not succeeded in obliterating the delight that the sight of the river in all of its manifold moods can offer us. Rather, their threat renders our wonder at the landscape more poignant. Living beauty always has a touch of sadness because of its fleeting, ephemeral nature. Now that sadness becomes more deeply felt as we contemplate our potential loss. So perhaps the beauty of these works, a good in its own right, may also stimulate the desire to preserve what remains in nature. They certainly are a record—and example—of beauty that endures.
“Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Painting by American Masters” opened at the Lancaster Museum of Art, 135 North Lime Street, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Telephone (717) 394-3497. On the web at www.lmapa.org After traveling to the Susquehanna Art Museum and the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the exhibition continues at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland through December 1, 2007. Other venues are the York College Art Gallery in York, Pennsylvania (December 16, 2007–February 20, 2008) and the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton, New York (May 15–August 30, 2008).
Theodore Prescott, a Distinguished Professor of Art at Messiah College, is editor of A Broken Beauty (2005), published by Wm. B. Eerdmans. A recent exhibition of his sculpture appeared at the Dadian Gallery of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
1. Leo G. Mazow. “Majesty and Modesty: The Susquehanna River in Nineteenth-Century American Art,” Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Painting by American Masters, edited by Mary Christian (Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Lancaster Museum of Art, 2006), p. 16. The catalogue, with essays by Rob Evans, Mazow and David B. Dearinger, is 80 pp. with color plates.