Saturday, December 13, 2014

"The Age of Wonderment" (on The Hudson River School painters) by Douglas Messerli

the age of wonderment


Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School / organized by the New York Historical Society / at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 7, 2014-June 7, 2015


I attended the new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School,” with some anticipation. Having spent long hours before wonderful paintings such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara Falls, The River of Light, and Aurora Borealis and Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and other museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I had long ago been enchanted by the Hudson River painters. And, accordingly, in a year of my cultural memoirs devoted to “Conversations with Nature,” I looked forward to being wowed these American artists’ wonderment of the natural world they observed around them. If there was ever a time in which nature appeared not to be in danger, and, in fact, dominated the Romantic world-view, it was in the mid-nineteenth century, when nearly everyone seemed to be rediscovering and enjoying the transcendent beauty the world in which they lived.


The paintings in the LACMA show, however, are organized around the collection of the New York Historical Society, an institution which I had often visited, but whose permanent collection I have never seen. Although the great examples of the genre that I had been anticipating are missing, there are, nonetheless. stunning works of art which I am now able to study for the very first time. The greatest of these, Thomas Cole’s five paintings of his significant “The Course of the Empire” series, is worth an essay onto itself. But a great many of these paintings are beautifully representative of the “school,” which, unlike European paeans to natural settings, were painted in such detail that, at times, every element of the work—every leaf, rock, patch of light, and, in the most bucolic of these paintings, every cow—stood out with equal significance. To these worshipers of God’s bounty, it was if the very idea of democracy were able to be revealed in nature itself: for everything in the universe was of equal importance. The only blurs of the eye were due to the morning haze or, in the tropical landscapes they visited, an afternoon smokiness due to the heat. If ever God was in the details it was these amazing works. And, accordingly, in order to display their virtuosity, the artists often seemed to suggest the bigger their canvases were, the better. For, in those works, one could hardly ignore the attention the artist had given to each and every brushstroke.

Louisa Davis Minot, Niagara Falls, 1818

Most of the works in this show are smaller, suggesting a more petite adulation—and by metaphoric comparison, a more discreet shrine to nature’s and God’s presence. The show begins with Arcadian views from Italy, but soon settles back into the American landscape with Thomas Hill’s View of Yosemite Valley in California (1865), which serves as an early post-card like declaration of the reasons to visit the Golden State. Many of the other surrounding works, however, return to the central motif of life along the Hudson and nearby states such as New Jersey, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

  One of the blessings of this show, in fact, is the opportunity to get to see some of the lesser knowns of the “school,” like George Henry Boughton, whose Winter Twilight, Albany (1858) eerily captures the cold winter light of upstate New York, while suggesting that there are still pleasures in what appears to be a most desolate landscape, where in only a few trees still appear to be standing in small local clumps. When one thinks of the Hudson River School, in fact—with the important exception of Church’s numerous ice-floes and glaciers—it is in spring, summer, and autumn. But this show gives several lovely examples of winter landscapes that, even if it makes Californians shiver, are well-worth pondering. The better known Asher B. Durand’s Study from Nature: Stratton Nook, Vermont being a perfect example. But even during warmer climates these landscapes, instead of exploding out with a detail of plant life, can appear isolate and lonely, as in John Frederick Kensett’s Shrewsbury River, New Jersey.

 Niagara Falls was a natural subject for many of these artists, and Church’s vision of the power of the natural wonder is among the most important of the Hudson School paintings. Fascinating, however, was one of the few paintings by a woman artist, Louisa Davis Minot, of the same subject, an early painting from 1818, revealing a worthy artist I had previously not known. Evidently the two paintings of the Falls she did are her only known works of art. Not only is the one on display a powerful work of art, gives evidence of one of the earliest examples of the art that would soon coalesce into a group.

     Another true surprise of this show is the amazing Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (1843) painting of French-born Régis François Gignoux, who besides being an example painter, was the teacher at the famed Tenth Street Studio in New York of noted American students such as George Inness, John La Farge, and Charles Dorman Robinson. Like the Niagara Falls paintings, this vast depiction of the innards of the earth quite literally swallows up its human visitors. Although nature, in many of the works, is beautiful, it is also awesome, overpowering, and, in these respects slightly terrifying. Human beings and their creations are often represented as fragile things which simply cannot compare with the vastness and majesty of nature itself.

     Certainly that idea is behind the great five-part series of paintings by the nominal founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole. His memorable The Course of the Empire traces history—and by extension the history of the newly-founded democracy in which he worked—as it moved from the “Savage State,” a natural world without human intrusion, through the Arcadian or Pastoral state, with the earliest signs of human ritual worship, through the Consummation, Destruction and Desolation of the Empire, a cyclical historical pattern, suggests Cole, in which nature always wins out, mute witness to the meager attempts of humans to tame it. Based, in part, on Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage summarized by the poet as—

                                There is the moral of all human tales;
                                'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
                                First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
                                Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last.
                                And History, with all her volumes vast