Gallery Highlights - Landscape
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Landscape has been a dominant subject throughout the history of art. From prehistoric cave paintings in Alta Mira and Lascaux to Ancient Roman frescoes, images of the real and imagined landscape have been prominent in visual arts depicted through the cultural, aesthetic and historic filters of anonymous artisans and noted artists alike. Artists represented in the collection including Thomas Doughty, Samuel Colman, John Twachtman, Ernest Lawson, Charles Burchfield, George Atkinson, Helen Frankenthaler, Barry Vance, Wayne Thiebaud, and Jerry Uelsmann have presented a variety of interpretations of landscape reflecting their personal world views while revealing the world as it existed during their time.
By the mid-nineteenth century European Romanticism permeated American art. The vast American landscape provided writers and painters with a rich array of material upon which to base their artistic vision. While painters and writers contemplated the natural beauty of the country, population growth coupled with the burgeoning industrial revolution, was quickly altering the artist’s world view. The intrusion of civilization upon the wilderness prompted artists to seek out and capture the majesty of the land. In 1822 the first cotton mills were introduced in New England cities, and by 1830 Lowell, Massachusetts had 5,000 factory workers. In search of a more unspoiled vision, the Hudson River School painters traveled through America’s wilderness documenting the untouched landscape. Their interest in the power of nature and its spiritual impact fueled their interpretation of their subject reflecting their desire to transcend pure representation of the land and embrace a more symbolic form of expression.
Thomas Doughty, Samuel Colman, and Russell Smith were artists associated with the Hudson River School. Doughty, the forerunner of this group of landscape painters, was referred to as the American version of the famed French landscape painter Claude Lorrain. Doughty was born in Philadelphia in 1793. After abandoning his work as a leather currier in 1820, he traveled to London and France before returning to the United States to settle in New York City. Traveling extensively through the Northeastern United States in search of the untouched, pristine landscape, Doughty sketched and painted primarily on site. Referred to as “Plein-air” or “open air” painting, this became the hallmark of the Hudson River School artists. The on site sketch is represented within the collection through works on paper including Russell Smith’s Mt. Pleasant from the Ammonoosuc, White Mts. (1850) and Samuel Colman’s Snowfields of Mt. Tacoma, After the Winter Rains (n.d.) and A Watercourse in the Adirondacks (n.d.). Doughty’s Mountain Landscape with River (1835-40) represents the integration of several on-site sketches into a single large-scale painting produced in the artist’s studio.
Plein-air sketches in oil or watercolor gained increasing acceptance as works of art by critics and collectors as a result of coverage by the press. By the mid-nineteenth century, periodicals and newspapers began reporting artist’s adventures. The oil sketch provided a preview of the painting to be completed in the studio.1 In order to create “plein air” sketches, an artist had to transport many cumbersome materials, including the sketch box and the fold up easel. Around 1842, transporting oil paints became easier with the invention of the collapsible tin tube of paint by Windsor and Newton.2
While painters captured the still untouched wilderness on canvas, writers like Henry David Thoreau, were calling for the preservation of the land. In 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted called for the creation of a national parks system, citing nature as morally uplifting and in need of preservation. In that same year construction began on Olmsted’s design for Central Park in New York City.
In Europe Impressionist artists including Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, and Edouard Manet were experimenting with the effects of color and light through paintings of their daily environment. Trends in music followed the path of Impressionism with an emphasis on color. In music, color represented a particular tone of a sound-producing source, whether from an instrument or a voice. The French born composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) exemplified the Impressionistic movement in music although he was not particularly comfortable with the application of the term “Impressionism” to his music. His compositions like Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which was based on a poem by Mallarmé, attempted to capture images of nature through music. His music was described as large sections of color, comparable to the Impressionist brushstroke. Debussy eventually shifted from traditional tonality in his compositions to the Asian six-tone scale and unusual chord formations including sevenths and ninths.
The works of John Twachtman and Ernest Lawson represented the influence of Impressionism in America art during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both artists practiced the Hudson River School process of “plein-air” painting, while abstracting their imagery in terms of color and light. Twachtman and the American Impressionists shared “the instinct to retreat from the world of crass materialism and vulgar commercialism.”3 The Impressionist style provided an opportunity to secede from the prevalent trends in American art of the time. Born in Cincinnati in 1853, Twachtman was a co-founder of “The Ten,” a group of American artists who left the Society of American Artists in 1897 exhibiting together for the next twenty years. These artists came together with a shared interest in the basics tenants of Impressionism – a rejection of strict realism in favor of abstraction through the loose brushstrokes and an emphasis on light and color. Twachtman’s Landscape Study, an undated oil on panel, was produced between his time in France (1883-1885) and his return to the States where he continued his “plein air” studies from 1890 until 1901. While Twachtman was a leader of “The Ten,” his fellow Impressionist Ernest Lawson, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was a member of the group of artists organized by Robert Henri, known as “The Eight.” Lawson participated in the important exhibition of 1908 that included William Glackens, John Sloan, and George Luks. However, instead of leaning toward the realm of urban realism and social commentary, Lawson adhered to the Impressionist tradition of landscape painting. His Winter on the River (1907) reflects the influence of his training with Twacthman. Twachtman was partial to snow scenes, noting that the landscape in the snow was quiet and beautiful.
Charles Burchfield, sometimes mistakenly grouped with the Regionalists, had a distinctly individual approach to the formal and contextual concerns in his painting. His work might best be compared with that of contemporary painters Barry Vance and Wayne Thiebaud who depict a unique the local environment with a unique perspective. In fact, Burchfield and Thiebaud both share a move toward greater abstraction in order to convey the particular characteristics of a place. Charles Burchfield was born in Salem, Ohio, and much of his work revolved around this area of the country. He often referred to his area as being “on the middle border,” and for Burchfield this meant a place suspended between many artistic and cultural orientations.4 Burchfield’s work displayed an interesting duality between rural subject matter and an abstract, imaginative vision. Like Thiebaud and Vance, Burchfield’s work is about time and place:
Burchfield created pictures that generate remarkable resonances and sensory memories, even when they depict places viewers have never been or seen. In other words Burchfield played the same magical tricks with time that he played with place.5
Burchfield is known for aging his architectural subjects regardless of their actual state, while imbuing them with anthropomorphic qualities. His work Moonrise Over Houses (1917) depicts a specific time of day and place, the expressionistic quality typifying Burchfield’s style. The house symbolizes the spirits that reside or once resided within the space. Burchfield also found inspiration of Burchfield’s symbolism was the Victorian rural cemetery:
. . . the Victorian rural cemetery [is] particularly useful as a window into the seeing, thinking, and feeling of Charles Burchfield, and with good reason. While he was an art student in Cleveland, he spent, according to his own admission, considerable time in that city’s rural cemetery. As he later noted, “I sometimes think of Lakeview Cemetery as part of the school, where I learned some of my best lessons.” 6
The aesthetic found in Burchfield’s landscapes was mirrored in the literature of his day. Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio (1919) has been linked Burchfield’s small town landscapes. The characters in Anderson’s book are based on people he remembered from his youth in Clyde, Ohio. He was awarded The Dial’s annual literary prize of $2,000, in 1921 (an award given to T. S. Eliot the following year). Like Burchfield, Anderson created snapshots of rural America that conveyed a strong message about fortitude versus destruction. Burchfield’s houses communicate the age and expression of souls that once inhabited them, while Anderson’s prose conveys the character people living in a particular place. Writers including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner often noted the influence of Anderson’s small town stories upon their own writing. Anderson was also known through his association with the circle surrounding Alfred Stieglitz.
The pastel drawings of George Atkinson capture the feeling of the expansive rural Illinois sky. Works like West of Owaneco (1991) appear to have been influenced by the low horizon line of the 17th century Dutch landscape painters. The road leading into the middle of nowhere is reminiscent of works by Dutch painters like Jacob Van Ruisdael. Similar to the Hudson River School painters, these artists imbued their landscapes with religious connotations. Atkinson’s work, however, seems to reflect a more photographic quality. His process is about acute observation, and, not unlike the Impressionists, capturing the effects of light and color during specific time of the day, week or year. His work is as much about time as it is about the landscape.
West Virginia artists Barry Vance also figures into this group of artists interested in capturing a particular vision of their local environment. Reflecting a Regionalist influence, his small-scale images of the rural landscape are filled with minute details chronicling daily life. Vance first began painting the West Virginia landscape in 1971, when he traveled from his New York home to West Virginia during the summers. He eventually relocated to Valley Head, West Virginia. and began depicting the immediate areas surrounding this small northeastern West Virginia town. His influences range from the landscape painting of Frederick Church and John Constable to the color theory and abstraction of artists including Hans Hofmann. He begins his process by selecting a site, and then completes preparatory drawings and on-site oil studies. In the studio, Vance combines these studies into his finished oil paintings. Triptych West Virginia (1989) includes views of Clover Lick, Valley Head, and Sugar Grove. Vance invites you into the life of rural Appalachia through the inclusion of tiny details from daily life, an unusual perspective that is reminiscent of Grant Wood’s Regionalist images of Iowa. Vance’s crisp lines and smooth surface create an almost surreal vision of the land. While the images within the triptych focus in on the mountainous terrain, only leaving bits of sky visible, Sweet Springs (1978) and Heavener’s Cemetery (1979) present a more expansive look at both land and sky.
Wayne Thiebaud’s prints and paintings of San Francisco focus on the city’s extreme topography. Thiebaud began painting the local landscape of the Bay Area somewhat late in his artistic career. Beginning his work under the auspices of the Pop Art movement, his work progressed through a menu of various foods, within their display cases, painted with an impasto technique. It was this technique that separated him from the prevailing tendencies of Pop Art. Although Thiebaud was also interested in monumentalizing the trivial, his paintings did not exhibit the cool, detached approach of Pop Art, associated with artists including Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. Thiebaud cites the French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp as a major influence in this early stage of his painting, particularly Duchamp’s ready-mades which utilized of the found object in art. Thiebaud’s background in music and film influenced the lyrical quality of his landscapes and extreme viewpoints. His influences within the history of landscape painting range from the French Impressionists to Chinese landscape techniques, particularly that of isometric perspective. Thiebaud’s print Steep Street (1989) is representative of his style in depicting the landscape.
Helen Frankenthaler, Ellen Lanyon, and Jerry Uelsmann are known for the non-objective or surreal approach that they take in their representation of landscape. Their work reflects the important aesthetic changes that occurred after World War II as seen in the work of the Abstract Expressionists, Color Field painters and Surrealists. These artists were important in changing the form and content of painting in a reaction to World War II, turning inward working from a more subjective perspective. Two important critics of this time, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, began a dialogue which debated the concepts of “formalism” and “gesturalism”in art. Greenberg’s formalism focused on the qualities intrinsic to a work of art, in other words the formal elements and physical properties. The painters he promoted were working in non-objective forms of representation. Rosenberg’s gesturalism focused instead on the image, whether non-objective or highly abstract, which was inherently related to, and an extension of the artist.
Helen Frankenthaler’s print Deep Sun (1983) incorporates multiple printmaking techniques, including etching, aquatint, drypoint, engraving, and mezzotint. Frankenthaler acknowledged Jackson Pollock as well as the stylistic concerns of the Color Field painters as important influences in her work. She often layered pure color washes, sometimes juxtaposed with linear elements. She also found great inspiration in the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, as well as the works of Vasily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse:
Basically, the art that helped me in my college years was the Analytic Cubist work of Braque and Picasso (even some of the later Braque and Picasso), early Kandinsky, and Miró. Along the edges were Matisse and Mondrian. I studied and analyzed the structure of their paintings exhaustively.7
For Frankenthaler, experimentation is an important part of the printmaking process. Working with master printers she worked with combined processes and proofs before committing the idea to an edition. By the time she created Deep Sun her prints had become much larger in scale and technically more complex:
This may be seen in Deep Sun, a twenty-two color print from twelve copper plates for which Frankenthaler used mezzotint for the first time, along with etching, aquatint, drypoint, and engraving. In addition two trial proofs were developed on top of early mezzotint proofs, one in acrylic and one in pastel. The proof with additions in acrylic was done first; using colors that are somewhat more muted that in the edition, and with the edges of shapes more severe and pronounced. This proof introduced into Frankenthaler’s printed compositions the idea of carrying the image beyond the embossed edges of the intaglio plates.8
Deep Sun is an important example of her growing interest in printmaking as well as her adherence to an experimental approach which, while unplanned, always retains an attention to color and composition
Jerry Uelsmann’s photography is linked to Frankenthaler’s work through the adherence to what he calls “in-process discovery.” He sees a correlation between the free association of the dream and his combination of photographic negatives:
In his approach Uelsmann has affinities to several artists in a variety of media. . . Uelsmann’s description of his working procedures is similar to Jackson Pollock’s well-known comment, ‘When I’m in my painting, I’m not aware of what I am doing.’ Like action painters Uelsmann sees the aim of art to be discovery, not the solving of formal problems.9
The process of combining negatives allows Uelsmann to capture the non-linear movement of images within a single picture plane. Many of his works are imbued with a dry sense of humor. Ueslmann enjoys creating visual puns, sometimes haphazardly, through his photographic process. His teachers, including Minor White and Henry Holmes Smith, introduced him to the abstract photography of Alfred Stieglitz. White, Uelsmann, and Stieglitz share an interest in the element of time as related to the photographic process. Their work attempts to alter the preconceived notion of time within the photographed image. His photomontages use collage to alter this understanding of spatial time. His Untitled platinum print from 1969 takes the elements of a landscape and reconstructs them. The uprooted tree appears to be flying off into space. The hovering trees and plot of earth take on the form of a U.F.O., either approaching or departing. The mountain range in the background begins to dissociate with its site. The reflection in the water below makes the mountains appear to float along with everything else. Tension between reality and the dream permeate Uelsmann’s subject matter. His work attempts to associate disparate objects in order to compose a meaningful image. Unlike the Surrealists, Uelsmann’s imagery often makes the incongruent appear almost believable.
Ellen Lanyon’s landscape images focus on issues of environmental preservation. Her subject matter often juxtaposes strange creatures within an abstract representation of a specific environment. Her eight-color silkscreen print Naumkeag (1997) is an excellent example of this subject matter within her work. Lanyon has often commented upon a childhood experience that influenced the surrealistic overtones of her work. During the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair she witnessed the “midget village,” an unusual sight for a young girl, and one that would be burned in her memory for years to come. Lanyon also credits the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte as an important influence upon her style. Lanyon’s landscapes are statements about the loss of natural environments, as well as a comment upon the ascendancy of science and technology. She says her concepts begin with trying to translate the metamorphic processes that occur when life commences.
- Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature 1830-1880, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 25.
- Ibid., 26.
- Barbara Haskell, The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950, (New York: Whitney Museum, 1999), 25.
- Michael D. Hall and Nannette V. Maciejunes, On the Middle Border: Charles Burchfield Revisited in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997), 14.
- Kenneth L. Ames, Of Times, Places, and Old Houses in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997), 50.
- Ibid., 59.
- Helen Frankenthaler interviewed by Julia Brown in After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), 50.
- Ruth E. Fine, Helen Frankenthaler Prints, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), 24.
- Peter C. Bunnell, Introduction in Silver Meditations, (New York: Morgan & Morgan, Inc., 1975), 2-3.