The Cultured Canvas: New Perspectives on American Landscape Painting

by Gail Leggio

The Cultured Canvas: New Perspectives on American Landscape Painting, edited by Nancy Siegel. Essays by Tim Barringer, Kenneth John Meyers, Rebecca Bedell, Alan Wallach, Nancy Siegel, David Shuyler, Kathie Manthorne and Adrienne Baxter Bell. Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2011. 305 pp. Illustrated. Paperback $35. ISBN 1611681987.

In recent decades, art history has become a contentious discipline, as theory-driven writers and curators questioned traditional paradigms and the canon, sometimes stridently. Subverting basic assumptions about schools and individual artists, many academics communicated in jargon-heavy language impenetrable to those outside their immediate circles. But the idea of looking at history from fresh perspectives is not intrinsically unsound. Revisionism can be a creative force, as in Édouard Manet’s rediscovery/reinvention of Velázquez and T.S. Eliot’s recasting of John Donne as a proleptic modernist. Among contemporary scholars, Stephen Greenblatt’s studies of the Other in Shakespeare and Renaissance culture, and Elaine Pagels’s exploration of “heretical” ideas in early Christianity have enriched our understanding of the interplay between art and ideas. When looking at revisionist scholarship, there is one important criterion: does the criticism open up legitimate new possibilities for discussion or just force the subject onto a Procrustean bed of theory? The eight contributors to The Cultured Canvas are not as bold as Greenblatt or Pagels, but, like them, their approach is positive.

The nineteenth-century artists discussed could be considered conservative; most are associated with the Hudson River School. America’s international sophisicates—James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, William Merrit Chase—do not put in an appearance. The collection begins with Barringer’s impressive essay “The Englishness of Thomas Cole.” He critically examines “the notion of Cole as a distinctively, paradigmatically, American artist,” established by the artist’s “Essay on American Scenery” (1836) and the rhetorical framework of the Hudson River School. Barringer delves into Cole’s childhood in Bolton, Lancashire, focusing on the conflict between rural life and industrialization that preoccupied English Romantic artists and writers. This sort of biographical and social background gives us a fuller picture of Cole’s mission. Just as important, Barringer has a good eye. He backs up his argument that Cole drew on an “essentially British visual repertoire” of images with astute formal analysis. He notes Palladian and Claudian details in the country-house styling of View of Monte Video, the Seat of Daniel Wadsworth, Esq. (1828) and echoes of London neoclassical structures—Cumberland Terrace and St. Pancras Church—in The Course of Empire (1836). Barringer does not doubt Cole’s heartfelt allegiance to the New World, but putting him in the context of English contemporaries like John Martin, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable—whose work he knew well—pays off.

All the essayists explore the contemporary situation of these artists, but with different emphases. Barringer looks back, stressing continuity of tradition. Adrienne Baxter Bell, in the last essay in the collection, looks forward. “Body-Nature-Paint: Embodying Experience in Gilded Age American Landscape Painting” begins with references to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The three nineteenth-century artists she considers—Albert Pinkham Ryder, George Inness and Abbott Handerson Thayer—were not abstractionists, and their work is often classified as eccentric, rather then avant-garde. But Bell convincingly argues that, for all three, “the physical engagement of the art- ist...contributed to the meaning of the artwork.” She provides strong philosophical and cultural evidence for what she calls the “pictorial corporeality” of some late nineteenth-century art, in a section subtitled “William James and the Physiological Basis of Emotions” and in astute comparisons to Walt Whitman’s “the Body electric” and Emily Dickinson’s declaration “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Bell challenges the assumptions that Ryder was a rarefied spirit and that the peculiarities of his paint surface are due to technical deficiencies. She quotes from his “Paragraphs from the Studio of a Recluse”: “I threw my brushes aside... I squeezed out big chunks of pure, moist color... I laid on blue, green, white and brown in great sweeping strokes.” Ryder often fasted and prayed before one of his ecstatic painting sessions. (I was reminded of the physical deprivations used by medieval mystics as a way of focusing the senses, as described by Caroline Bynum in a series of books often discussed under the rubric of Body Studies.) Bell acknowledges that Ryder sometimes lost control of his process but insists that “the sheer bulk of physical materials—paint, varnish, wax and bitumen—on his canvases” led to “a new pictorial language of landscape painting.” Bell is the author of the excellent George Inness and the Visionary Landscape (2003), and she reprises some of that material here, with new insights. The Swedenborgian Inness combined a sort of American symbolist rapture, in his encounters with nature, with an extroverted physicality, in his paint-handling, using brush, brush handle and fingers. Bell notes that his “dots and smudges of paint...nearly disconnect from their mimetic agenda.” Brush-hairs become embedded in his “slurries” of different colors.

Bell is particularly good on Thayer, an artist best known for angels and madonnas in a down-to-earth American style. One of his angel pictures, the Stevenson Memorial (1903), provides an intriguing anecdote, as recalled by Rockwell Kent, a studio apprentice. To get the effect he wanted on a rocky ledge, Thayer picked up a broom and swept it across the canvas. Thayer liked to sleep outdoors, even in New England winters, and many of his best landscapes are snow scenes. He described Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire in a letter to the daughter: “Monadnock yesterday plum colored at noon with all its burnished silver stabbed vertically in between the purple verticals.” Thayer painted it the way he described it, with aggressive brushwork. Ryder, Thayer and Inness all added detritus to their paint. All worked with a kind of sanctified messiness, paradoxically transcending phenomenal reality while rejoicing in the physicality of paint.

Kenneth John Meyers contributes an intriguing, more tightly focused essay in “Above the Clouds at Sunrise: Frederic Church’s Memorial to Thomas Cole.” Cole’s colleagues and successors in the Hudson River School treated him with near-reverence, especially after his early death. Frederic Church painted two homages to his mentor, To the Memory of Cole (1848) and Above the Clouds at Sunrise (1849). Meyers argues that the latter represents “both a memorial to Cole and an artistic declaration of independence.” Citing Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), a classic analysis of the way young artists break away from the masters they most admire, Meyers tracks Church’s shift from the his- torico-moral mode to a naturalistic, sometimes almost abstract landscape style. Quoting liberally from Cole’s poetry, Meyers notes that, while the progenitor of the Hudson River School described in words the ocean of clouds visible from a mountaintop, he never attempted to paint it. Church does precisely that in Above the Clouds at Sunrise, finding a “style of sublime landscape which would make Cole’s work seem conventional, literary, old-fashioned, out of date.” Without denying Cole’s achievements, Meyers makes a good case for Church’s different approach, which, to my eye, often results in paintings similar to those of Caspar David Friedrich.

A couple of the essays may be of lesser interest to non-specialists. David Schuyler’s “Jervis McEntee: The Trials of the Landscape Painter” explores the life of a minor Hudson River School painter, effectively using his often-poignant diaries. McEntee’s low-key views have a muted charm: The Fire of Leaves (1862) is a good example. But the disappointments of his life overshadowed his successes. Schuyler’s essay is essentially biographical. Alan Wallach takes an epistemological approach in “Rethinking ‘Luminism’: Taste, Class and Aestheticizing Tendencies in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painting.” Wallach argues that the term “Luminism still flourishes as an art historical brand, is worthless when it comes to analyzing style.” His evidence for this sweeping rejection is rooted in the fact that Luminism as a category is a mid-twentieth-century critical invention, beginning in John Baur’s catalogue for the M. and M. Karolik collection and continuing in the work of Barbara Novak, Theodore Stebbins and John Wilmerding. While the history of art history is an interesting subject in its own right, Wallach does not offer an attractive alternative term: his “aestheticizing tendencies” does not convey the characteristic quality of light that “luminism” does. John Kensett, Fitz Henry Lane and Martin Johnson Heade did not call themselves Luminists and were not closely associated, but those mid-twentieth-century critics dis- covered a distinct way of seeing when they considered those artists.

Three essays deal with gender issues in a refreshingly nuanced fashion. Rebecca Bedell, in “Andrew Jackson Downing and the Sentimental Domestic Landscape,” notes that clichés about home sweet home and family feeling were not specifically feminine concerns in antebellum America. Downing’s popular pattern books for rural cottages and gardens, handsome architecture on an intimate scale, were part of a broader social agenda. Lamenting the “spirit of unrest” and the obsession “with making a great deal” in America, Downing proposed “home expression” as a remedy.

Two other contributors focus directly on nineteenth-century women artists. Nancy Siegel’s “‘We the Petticoated Ones’: Women of the Hudson River School” offers an overview of some now-little-known but accomplished painters. Siegel quotes from letters and diaries to give us a sense of their day-to-day experience. Among the handsome paintings reproduced are Louisa Davis Minot’s Niagara Falls (1818) and Sarah Cole’s Ancient Column Near Syracuse (1848). Sarah was Thomas Cole’s sister; artists, like musicians, run in families, the Peale clan being the best-known example in nineteenth-century America. Kathie Manthorne explores the career of one artist in “Eliza Pratt Greatorex: Becoming a Landscape Painter.” Manthorne marshals a good deal of information, noting that Greatorex was mentioned alongside Church and Bierstadt in the 1867 art press. Her choice of landscape, rather than still life or genre, was indicative of her ambition. She traveled to Europe to look at the old masters and the Barbizon painters, sketched en plein air and wrote poetry. When we review these facts, Greatorex’s professionalism becomes clear and is all the more remarkable, given that she was caring for children at the same time. The artist’s present obscurity is a fact Manthorne acknowledges, but it is neither a permanent condition—historians are establishing the groundwork for a revival—nor a cause for resentment. “The time has passed,” Manthorne briskly remarks, “to complain...of the neglect suffered by women artists.” That positive attitude bodes well for constructive revisionism as a critical approach. 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2012, Volume 29, Number 3