Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran

Winslow Homer, Two Girls with Sunbonnets in a Field, c. 1877–78  Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York CityThe Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City is best known for its innovative, elegantly installed decorative arts exhibitions. But the three Hewitt sisters who, in 1897, founded the forerunner of the institution—the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration—were also interested in American painting. There are more than 3,000 works by Frederic Church (1826–1900), 300 by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and 80 by Thomas Moran (1837–1926) in the collection, many acquired from the artists’ families and most classifiable as studies, in keeping with the pedagogical mission of the founders. “Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape,” the insightful and beautiful show currently on view, features 100 landscape images and 150 examples of ephemera, documenting how the scenic beauty of the United States became a crucial component of American identity. The Carnegie Mansion, home of the Cooper-Hewitt, makes an appropriate setting for the exhibition. The striking teak-paneled room, designed by Homer and Moran contemporary Lockwood de Forest, has been set up as a nineteenth-century parlor with scenic wallpaper, art pottery and American scenery books. A room-sized stereoscope showing 3-D photographs recreates the experience of armchair travelers, and there are early films by Thomas Edison. The artists’ works entered the American consciousness in a variety of ways: through carefully staged, blockbuster exhibitions of major paintings, reproductions, illustrated publications and guide books. The European Grand Tour inspired tourist acquisitions that ranged from an original veduta by Canaletto to small-scale watercolors of favorite sites, to photographs and postcards. Similarly, the Hudson River Valley, Niagara Falls and Yosemite generated an iconographic industry that fed both national ideals and commercial tourism.

The Catskills was America’s first great mountain resort, made accessible initially by Erie Canal steamboat and later by the railroad. The success of the region can be explained by a number of factors, including proximity to New York City and the post-Civil War leisure boom for the middle class. But the genius of artists such as Thomas Cole and his protégé Church plays an enormous role. Church was a savvy entrepreneur. Niagara Falls was already a popular tourist destination when he painted his dramatic views. The artist also collected daguerreotypes and albumen prints of Niagara, as well as many of the other sites he painted. The exhibition includes his 1858 Niagara from the American Side, an albumen silver print overpainted by the artist in oil. But what the catalogue authors term Church’s “romantic reportage” is rooted in a deeply spiritual connection to the landscape. A pair of oil sketches of views not far from his Catskill home, Olana, are distillations of painterly passion. In Sunset across the Hudson Valley (1870) banks of thunder-grey clouds, bottom-lit a vibrant peach by the setting sun, are stacked over distant hills, the river and the forested near bank, all dissolving into creamy brushwork. Sunset, Hudson, New York (1873) depicts similar topography, obscured by an eerie green twilight and punctuated by roseate clouds and reflections. One of the benefits of the Cooper-Hewitt collection’s emphasis on these more casual works is a realization of just how modern, in the best possible sense, Church could be. And yet these images belong to a nineteenth-century ethos, steeped in reverence for divinely blessed nature.

Like Church, Moran depicted the landscape—in his case, most often the American West—as unspoiled by commerce or industry. Neither man was naïve about the fast-moving changes sweeping the United States, but both combined careful observation with an imaginative will to see the terrain at its best. Moran, who traveled with the photographer William Henry Jackson to document Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, helped promote the formation of the national park system. Like Church, Moran tends to eliminate human presence. His Half Dome, Yosemite (1873, watercolor, white gouache, graphite) has the kind of sublime mountain purity previous generations of artists had sought in the Alps. Moran’s 1887 etching of the subject, along with wood engravings and photographs, disseminated the view across the country.

Homer takes a very different stance. His views of American scenery are usually depictions of contemporary life, with the human activity seen in its most attractive light. Homer was a highly successful commercial illustrator, among his other talents, and he is likely to focus on attractive, fashionable young women enjoying a day out, rather than the scenery around them, as in his 1869 illustration The Fishing Party, for Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science and Art. He is more social observer than pantheist. Some of Homer’s most visceral images of nature come out of his life at Prout’s Neck, on the coast of Maine, and they are often based on the hard working life of the inhabitants. The drawing here for his 1885 oil The Herring Net is a good example. The Cooper-Hewitt owns a number of Homer drawings that evade the tourist-appeal category and honestly confront the rough surf and gnarled tree roots of New England beaches. He is a terrific painter of wind and water. Another side of Homer is explored in a catalogue essay entitled “The Pastoral Ideal: Winslow Homer’s Bucolic America.” Images such as Two Girls with Sunbonnets in a Field (oil, c. 1877–78) rethink the pastoral genre in American terms, more democratic but no more realistic than the European arcadia and daubed in sunny, modern patches of light.

The excellent catalogue, published by Bulfinch in association with the museum, includes essays by Gail S. Davidson, Floramae McCarron-Cates, Barbara Bloemink, Sarah Burns and Karal Ann Marling, and richly examines the social and historical context of the art. “Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape” remains on view through October 22, 2006, at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, New York, New York 10128. On the Web at www.cooperhewitt.org

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2006, Volume 23, Number 3