Lost in Our Own Backyard

How American Landscape Painting Lost Its Way

by James Lancel McElhinney

Chuck Forsman, Snake Meridian, 1997 Courtesy of the ArtistAmerican landscape painting provided one of the first signs that our republic had begun to move out of the shadow of European culture, science and philosophy. Some artists accompanied scientific expeditions, while others embarked on their own. Towns and cities grew along winding waterways, as plowmen broke the plains and miners cut wealth out of living rock along the continental divide. Like green forests falling before the woodsman’s axe, American terrain surrendered its mysteries to the rational gaze of painters, draftsmen and cartographers. By 1820 the United States of America stretched across a continent full of wonders. The young nation’s artist-citizens were as eager to achieve their cultural independence from Europe as the patriots of 1776 had been to achieve political independence from the British Crown.

European artists aroused by the muse of science found themselves for the first time at a disadvantage to their American cousins, for whom wild realms to be explored were found in their own backyard. The spectacle of wild America provided the subjects, but European tastes prevailed. Claude Lorrain’s pictorial conventions intersected with the new republic’s need for lofty perspectives, yearning toward an azure horizon. Claude illuminated a golden vision of civilized antiquity with which the new republic strongly identified—the rebirth of democracy, of Rome and Athens—guided to a degree by Masonic secularism and Protestant spirituality. Claude and his followers supplied the motifs through which visions of new lands would be measured and portrayed, not just as fresh conquests but as a sacred, ancient legacy.

Industrialism and its lament—Romanticism—ignited the curiosity to discover what lay beyond frontier settlements. Military expeditions penetrated the unknown West—terra incognita—in search of knowledge and wealth to sustain the growing new republic. No one was sure if mastodons dwelt in the distant corners of the land. Legends told of Welsh Indians, El Dorado and the fate of the French Dauphin, luring travelers to test themselves against the mortal perils of an “undiscovered country” where survival promised riches, fame and power. Military expeditions, beginning with Lewis and Clark, only intensified the push into the West in search of knowledge and marketable resources such as beaver, minerals and farmland. The continent was measured not just by compass and chain, but also by desire and a hungry curiosity to gaze over top of the next ridge, or around the next bend in the river. As painters traveled far away, far from the pastoral hills, streams and valleys of the settled eastern seaboard, Claude no longer mattered. His paradigm only got in the way of greater wonders.

In the years before photography, painters such as Charles Willson Peale and his brood, Geogre Catlin and John James Audubon developed documentary styles related to topographical drawing. Indian painter and West Point drawing instructor Seth Eastman wrote the military academy’s manual on mapmaking. Americans balancing artistic ambition against fidelity to the information jettisoned European paradigms when the Missouri Breaks looked nothing like the Bay of Naples. Topographical painting and drawing had developed centuries before in northern Europe, practiced chiefly by military engineers and cartographers. For the artist-explorer-scientists of the mid-nineteenth century and their antecedents, topographical drawing bound them to the highest level of fidelity to source material. Frederic Church, a member of the Traveler’s Club, would never have questioned the value of factual knowledge in favor of personal vision.

In 1859, the same year Darwin published his Origin of the Species, John Durand ran an article by an unidentified author entitled “The Relation between Geology and Landscape Painting” in his magazine The Crayon(v. 6: 255–56) which stated, “It is for his [the landscape painter’s] own interest and reputation as an artist, to understand what will conduce to the adornment of his work and what will detract from its perfection, and consequently, though perhaps unintentionally, he is a geologist.” In other words, scientific and artistic discoveries were inseparable, of equal necessity to understanding terrain—and the human form. Knowledge connecting the creative work of artists to that of scientists, engineers and inventors brought artists into a larger discussion about developing the public realm and creating a national image. After the Civil War the artist-explorers who dominated the scene were joined by a new breed of painter-poets. While the former had drawn inspiration from dangerous travels with boots on the ground, the latter visited resorts, beaches and popular destinations—usually by public transportation. Rugged prospects of nature celebrated by Cole, Church and Bierstadt flowed in more intimate directions, inspired by Emerson and Thoreau, which ultimately led to a schism among American landscape painters. Thomas Moran, for example, went on geological expeditions to the west with Ferdinand Hayden and later John Wesley Powell, while Kensett and his elegant gentlemen companions braved railway journeys to fashionable Newport. Hardy souls invented a muscular new pictorial language, which inevitably succumbed to refinement.

In Europe a cluster of young artists painting in suburban backyards put bright new pigments to work on large-scale finished sketches, giving birth to Impressionism. Emphasizing light and atmosphere, its rough style and fresh brushwork found many acolytes among younger American painters. The Armory Show of 1913 proposed modernism as an international style which Americans quickly embraced—in many ways to the detriment of their own unique cultural gifts. Divisions between the muses of science and poetry were forgotten. Style alone survived. Sadly, seventy-five years of abstract painting could do no better.

Visiting major urban galleries and museums today, one might deduce that landscape—at one time the most vital genre in American art—no longer mattered to serious painters. Conceptual art, Arte Povera and other theoretically driven modes of artistic practice focus on terrain as a medium because of how it expresses the fluctuation of natural forces as constant change, and thus impermanence—embraced by conceptual art as a more truthful condition of reality than the permanence sought by painters, sculptors and traditional object makers. Christo and Jean-Claude embrace terrain as a medium partly because it constitutes so much of the public realm and there are just too many buildings in the world for anyone to be able to wrap them all. Later modernists, including the late Robert Smithson, were heavily invested in the picturesque, despite a contrary tide of art-speak lapping up against his mostly sunken Salt Lake Jetty. Andy Goldworthy’s manipulations of nature, Richard Long’s treks and Walter de Maria’s meteorological tinkering all strongly summon up the same genuine sense of wonder, terror and delight in the presence of nature.

With a few notable exceptions, most American landscape painters are lost in their own backyards. Bridging the gap between abstraction and representation, painters such as Wolf Kahn and Milton Avery revealed solid connections among Turner, Inness and Rothko, but also left the door open to a legion of shallow imitators, rolling out acre upon acre of brain-numbing eye candy. Atmospheric colorists such as Stuart Shils, John Beerman and Mary Sipp-Greene all enjoy substantial commercial success, but they seldom venture beyond decorative formulae. Chromatic fog enveloping bits of architecture and foliage read more convincingly as fever dreams or neural feedback than as light, atmosphere or terrain. One wonders how much farther this direction can be pushed. Armed with facile effects and intellectual lassitude, many contemporary landscape painters—together with their hoodwinked collectors—prefer vacant, affected visions of landscape from which the land has all but disappeared and with it the road back into any useful discussion of terrain in our society today.

They are not to blame. Most of them have never heard of Wordsworth, Humboldt or Emerson. They are just doing the best they can. Culpability, if any can be assigned, is owed to deficiencies in their training. “If art and architecture schools had been doing their job for the past fifty years,” a colleague recently asked me, “then why is our public realm so badly designed and getting worse every day?”

At a time when land and landscape issues are at the forefront of public debate—natural resource management, global warming, the depletion of energy resources, sprawl, preservation, property rights and conservation—American landscape painters have lost their place in the conversation. Artist-scientists participated in voyages of discovery and geological surveys, and gave the new republic an inspiring image of itself. Many of these artists were themselves scientists and inventors, such as Peale and Morse, who founded cultural institutions and centers of learning which survive to this day. What would they think of how we have used their legacy?

While American figure painters are making a robust comeback, most landscape painters are bumbling around in the dark. There is no lack of hacks, comfortably producing highly commercial vistas of hills, beaches, barns and trees floating in toxic, glowing miasmas. The added atrocity of burnished paint surfaces is a dead giveaway. The disappearance of the terrain from a lot of contemporary landscape painting is puzzling until one realizes that, with few exceptions, few landscape painters possess even the vaguest idea of what landscape is.

Any discussion of any topic requires a working definition. The late theorist and erstwhile biker John Brinckerhoff Jackson argued that “landscapes” did not occur in nature but were created when people adapt terrain to human use. The landschaft or “land-sheaf” denoted a measure or division of terrain as a particular realm of value. I was stunned to discover how few landscape painters know anything at all about landscape theory. Painters with whom I studied never mentioned it. I only learned about it from friends working in art history, historic preservation and landscape architecture. The interest in landscape today grows out of a large and lively company of geographers, cartographers, geologists, engineers, urban planners, historians, natural resource managers and very, very few artists. Colorado painter Don Stinson is a rare exception. A devotee of J. B. Jackson’s writings, Stinson tracked him down in Santa Fe, establishing a friendship with him during the last years of Jackson’s life.

Landscape is less accessible than the figure because, while we might live in the former, we are continually encumbered by the latter. The human body, encountered in the form of another person, beau ideal or aesthetic construct is instantly recognizable as one of us. Unless we are familiar with a place, we might not recognize or identify with it. The earth’s surface is too large to experience with the same intimacy as we do the surface of our own bodies or those of other people. Thus, our vision of the earth is fragmented, personal, directed and projected. Landscape painting is also deeply tied to abstraction. As Mondrian dismantled the imagery in his pictures, they filled up with little isolated crosses, mapping former positions of linear intersections. He never stopped mapping. His final works read like maps of Manhattan’s transportation grid. When I visited Diebenkorn in 1983, I realized his Ocean Park pictures are highly chorographic: the angled eaves of the bungalows along Fraser Avenue, the concrete margins of the parking lot behind his building, the dull violet tarmac, the faded grassy medians and the very particular blue of the Pacific sky, framed by a great sliding barn-door. Like Mondrian, he measured it all, and then did it again. Despite their divergent results, they shared a certain desire to be grounded in concrete fact and visual practice which drove them to seek expression beyond the tar pits of style. A surplus of contemporary artistic discourse is mired in fuzzyheaded issues of style. If we were not already at a time when visual literacy is seriously degraded, understanding landscape would be challenging enough. Looking to the past might give us a clue.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, painters and sculptors bored with minimalism, color field painting and formalism in general decided to embrace the figure, perhaps as a way of anchoring their creative enterprise in tradition. In many cases, going against the grain was more exciting than toeing the line. Formalism was never abandoned by many practitioners of the New Realism. A few, such as Jack Beal and Paul Georges, who took up the challenge of narrative and allegorical content faced ridicule—not only from academic modernists, but also from their representational colleagues.

Anatomy has returned to artistic training, a development more important than regaining lost skills. More significant than the restoration of traditional styles in art, it opens the door to a dialogue between artists and scientists. Once that door is open, artists today might discover that they have lost far more than they were ever led to believe. Some might even do something about it. The benefits of anatomy to artistic training may not be felt much outside of the narrowly defined realm of Classical Realism, but the implications are quite significant, heralding the revival of a broader discourse between science and art. For landscape, the promise is far greater—and much less understood.

If figure painters today demand the rigor of anatomy because they recognize its value to their work, how can landscape painters ignore terrain, topography and the ways in which landscapes are created? Mid-career figurative artists were forced to rediscover human anatomy on their own. It had not been offered as a subject in the art schools, many of which had done away with the anatomy by the 1970s. Landscape painters face a less difficult recovery. They just have to wake up and realize that architects, urban planners, conservationists and preservationists have all been heavily invested in landscape theory for years. Those painters who never heard of it were asleep to the world around them. They were just not paying attention. Some of the few who have been wide awake include Rackstraw Downes, Randall Exxon, Chuck Forsman, Peter Homitzky, Walter Hatke, Keith Jacobshagen, Karen Kitchel, John Moore and Don Stinson. American landscape painting in the nineteenth century achieved chorographic specificity via topographical drawing and painting, at first rendered poetic through the familiar filter of Claude’s golden light and azure horizons. Exploration and scientific discovery pushed American landscape painting in original directions for the first time. Transcendentalism eclipsed Wordsworth and Claude by redefining the sublime as a more individual and less universal experience of nature, embracing the presence of an imminent natural divinity. Technological advancement in the form of photography intensified distinctions between art and science, by exceeding the objective and documentary functions of painting. Impressionism and European modernity lured American artists into bohemian habits from which they, and the rest of society, began to regard one another across a growing distance made wider by the excesses of modernism. Closing this gap is the great problem facing artists in our time—reclaiming our legacy as citizens and leaders, while working to improve the public realm to help provide our society with a humane environment in which to live. Taking the next step will require American landscape painters to adjust their compass, rediscover topography, science and poetry and take a more active role in organizing the surface of our home planet into places of beauty and order.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2005, Volume 22, Number 4