Visions of America
The importance of American landscape painting in the nineteenth century extended far beyond the borders of the art world. The nineteenth century in America was a paradoxical time in which great nationalism and “enormous self-confidence and optimism” merged with growing disunity (Wilmerding 54), and the glow of “progress” was inextricably tied to the destruction of the majestic landscape that was a source of American identity and pride. Landscape painters at this time were faced with the difficult task of reconciling these conflicting aspects of American culture and identity. Their paintings blend physical descriptions of the American land with cultural descriptions of the American national identity.
American landscape painting was founded primarily by European artists like Thomas Birch, Francis Guy, William Groombridge and Joshua Shaw, who came to America to escape the “background of political turbulence” in Europe that was the result of the Napoleonic Wars (Wilmerding 40). The most famous and influential of this first group of painters was Thomas Cole. Although Cole’s influences included European artists like Turner, Poussin, Claude, and Salvator Rosa, he came to create a style of landscape painting that, despite its indebtedness to artists like these, was distinctly America in flavor. It was he who “particularly came to articulate a national consciousness through his paintings, which we now recognize as the beginning of America’s first major landscape style” (Wilmerding 40).
With Cole, landscape painting took on a stature in America like that which history painting traditionally possessed in Europe. He was able to “transfer the heroic aims of history painters to the landscape category, where at last they could take firm root in American soil” (American Painting 61). This trend bolstered America’s sense of self-importance, for America had plenty of natural scenery, but an absolute lack of history in the classical, European sense. As Novak goes on to point out, this elevation of landscape painting eased America’s fear that the country’s lack of classical culture prevented its art from standing up to that of Europe. Cole himself, while describing a new definition of the sublime, describes as well the shift in America from valuing history to valuing the sense of possibility manifested in the land:
He who stands on Mount Albano and looks down on ancient Rome, has his mind peopled with the gigantic association of the storied past; but he who stands on the mounds of the West, may experience the emotion of the sublime, but it is the sublimity of a shoreless ocean un-islanded by the recorded deeds of man. (Cole, from “Essay on American Scenery,” quoted in “Themes from Nature” 61)
Fig 1. Thomas Cole, Landscape with Tree Trunks, 1825.
Landscape with Tree Trunks is an example of Cole’s vision of the American land. This work, with its rich palette and swirling dark storm clouds, has all the seriousness and...