american art

from the colonial period to world war two

landscape painting


people, terms, and concepts: Classical/historical landscape, picturesque landscape, sublime landscape, allegorical mode vs. naturalistic mode, 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 (such as architectural ruins) 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, as we'll see in question 1 below.

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 a naturalistic 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 (most 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.  The students named below will be asked to present a brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) response to their assigned question. Sometimes the works named in the question will not be in the readings, in which case you should use the concepts of the readings and lectures to analyze them independently.

Click on the names of the works to see large-scale reproductions.

1) (*Darla Santos*) Although Thomas Cole's Oxbow Viewed from Mount Holyoke (1836) is a fairly accurate representation of a real place in America, it nonetheless meditates on the relationship of civilization to a pure 'state of nature,' and implicitly embodies the past and the future of America. How so? How does Cole enlist the categories of the 'sublime' and the 'picturesque' to do so? Analyze specific details of the work in your response.

2) (*Laurel Frisbee*) Closely analyze Asher B. Durand's landscape Progress (1853). Look carefully so you see all the relevant details. What do you think his message is, and how does he convey it? How is that message relevant to American patrons and the public? How does it compare to Thomas Cole's message in The Course of Empire (1834-36)?

3) (*Amber Herrick*) In the "Millennium/Apocalypse" reading, Angela Miller analyzes a number of landscapes in which seemingly ordinary views of nature refer to current events such as the Civil War and relate to grand Biblical themes. Explain. How does she argue that Church's Twilight in the Wilderness, Our Banner in the Sky, and Cotopaxi implicitly evoke fears of the Apocalypse and the hope that the New World could fulfill Biblical prophecy of a new Millennium?

4) (*Abby Thornhill*) Compare/contrast Frederick Church's painting of Niagara Falls (1857) with Edward Hicks' Niagara Falls (1825, discussed in ch. 19 in your text). What is the message of each? How does each evoke Christian messages? Which do you think is more successful at conveying the 'sublimity' of the Falls and why? Think about point of view, format, composition, etc.

Asher B. Durand, Progress, 1853

Frederick Church, Niagara Falls, 1857

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

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke after a Thunderstorm), 1836

Frederick Church, Eruption of Cotopaxi, 1862