american art

from the colonial period to world war two

landscape painting


people, terms, and concepts: Classical/historical landscape, Picturesque landscape, Sublime landscape, Hudson River School, pastoral, Pantheism, the Argument from Design

In examining the Hudson River School of landscape painters, we looked at three different ‘types’ of landscape and a number of different factors that made landscape painting perhaps the most important genre of art in mid-nineteenth century America, despite its relatively low place on the hierarchy of the genres.

Three types of landscape:  Classical, Picturesque, Sublime

Recall the key distinguishing factors of each of these three types:  the Classical or historical landscape includes some historical or biblical narrative or reference that raises its importance toward history painting, and rarely shows a real location; the picturesque landscape shows tranquil, pastoral scenes with ordinary, contemporary people involved in ordinary rural activities (if indeed any people are present), and is often of a real location; and finally the sublime landscape with shows scenes of nature’s overwhelming power, scale, and/or grandeur.  Be able to distinguish these types and discuss how they are visible in the works below and on the next page (on the American West), but know that they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive:  there are sublime historical landscapes, for example, and landscapes that strategically combine the sublime and the picturesque modes ...

Why buy a landscape painting?

We talked about a number of different things that a landscape could mean to a nineteenth-century American viewer, and a number of different issues that it can raise, even if it appears to be just an objective view of a particular location.  A landscape can be a sign of land ownership; it can be a status symbol or signify the culture and education of the owner (especially when it includes biblical/classical references); it can signify economic potential (“fruited plains” and “amber waves of grain”); it can give a moral lesson (obviously in the case of historical/biblical landscapes -- but other cases as well); it can demonstrate or evoke national pride (if it is a recognizably ‘American’ locale); it can provide escapism (in contrast to the rapid growth of industrialization and cities during the period); it can show a divine presence or divine providence (obviously in the case of the sublime; more subtly with the picturesque landscape -- recall the concepts of Pantheism and the Argument from Design); and it can even deal with grand themes about America’s potential future as a great empire (as we saw in Cole and as the Miller reading discusses).

Be able to discuss any of these issues in relation to the works below as appropriate ...


Readings: Craven chapter 15 plus Angela Miller, “Millennium/Apocalypse” (PDF -- 7.8 MB)

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.

     1)  While Cole was cautious about the progress of 'civilization' at the expense of nature, other landscape artists were more welcoming.  Discuss in relation to at least two works of your choosing in the readings, analyzing the works carefully and thoroughly to demonstrate how the artists celebrated the progress of civilization.  Let me know what works you choose by Monday at 11:00 pm.

     2)  Frederick Church was Cole’s student, but his paintings have the reputation of scientific accuracy of observation, as opposed to Cole's obviously imaginary historical and allegorical scenes.  How does Church nevertheless invest even ordinary scenes with grand messages that go beyond simply recording what he sees?  Discuss in relation to two or three works of your own choosing from the text or Miller reading.   Let me know what works you choose by Monday at 11:00 pm.

     3)  In the "Millennium/Apocalypse" reading, Angela Miller discusses how the genre of landscape painting was used as a allegorical vehicle for broad religious and historical themes relating to the present and future of the nation.  Summarize her argument in relation to two or three of the works she analyzes.   Let me know what works you choose by Monday at 11:00 pm. questions to be posted.

Asher B. Durand, Progress, 1853

Frederick Church, Niagara Falls, 1857

Washington Allston, Elijah in the Desert, 1818

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch, 1835

Frederick Church, Eruption of Cotopaxi, 1862

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, 1834-36 (5 part series)