Fascinated by the mountain ranges of North America, captivated by the volcanoes and rainforests of the tropics, and comforted by the pastoral farmlands of home, 19th-century Americans were obsessed with the natural world, creating a vogue during these decades for scenes of spectacular landscapes that was readily met by artists in pursuit of a national style.
American artists had long been aware that they lacked the lengthy history and complex artistic heritage of their counterparts in Europe, and they therefore turned to scenery as a visual language for advancing the aesthetic, moral, and philosophical principles deemed in the culture to be uniquely American. As the nation’s borders shifted with the systematic enfranchisement of its Western territories, and as its economy transitioned from one based in agriculture to one driven by industry, landscape painting—whether revelatory or nostalgic—became a sustaining mode for enacting and articulating national and cultural identity. In this way, European history painting found its American counterpart in panoramic canvases, whose direct, de-individualized, and ambitious presentation of landscape located the new country’s historical roots in its geography, expressed its spirituality in the luminous suggestion of the divine in nature, and announced its deliberate expansion into extraordinary and far-flung realms.
This exhibition traces these overarching themes in a selection of paintings from the museum’s permanent collection. Works by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and William Guy Wall present the wholeness of America’s extraordinary spaces through their simultaneous focus on the microcosm of botanical detail and on the macrocosm of sublime grandeur, while works by Frederic Edwin Church, Jules Tavernier, and Lionel Walden demonstrate the adaptation of these conventions to tropical locales. A post-Civil War transformation of American landscape is present in the works of George Inness and Edward Mitchell Bannister, who, influenced by the intimacy and atmospheric effects of the French Barbizon School, practiced a quieter form of landscape painting as the evocative expression of individualized human emotion.