Nothing prevents one from the taking the museums in one's home city for granted like living in another city where making visits to such institutions is impossible. This was my recent experience in Baghdad, where I worked a mere ten minutes from the Iraq National Museum, one of the greatest museums in the world, but was prevented from visiting for security reasons. Thus I was doubly happy to return to D.C., where the museums are readily accessible, not to mention excellent, free, and distinguished by a wonderful diversity.
These exhibits provide evidence for Paul Johnson's recent claims that American landscape painters founded "one of the greatest schools of landscape in the whole history of art" and were "perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent ever to devote itself to this form of art."
Independence Day: Sanford R. Gifford and the Hudson River School
The Hudson River School, the first movement in American painting to boldly originate an independent style based on native resources, has been the subject of much renewed attention recently. Two years ago, the American Sublime exhibit in London and Philadelphia introduced viewers to this school's spectacular achievements in capturing the natural wonders of the young country.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is now offering a major retrospective of Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) one of the most distinguished members of this group. These works, alternatively stunning and serene, are complemented by majestic landscapes in the gallery's permanent collection by other members of the school, such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt.
Before we get to Gifford a bit of context. Thomas Cole was the founder of the American landscape school, the first man who opened his eyes to the stunning immensity of the new continent and resolved to paint it. Cole was almost entirely self-taught and had many obvious limitations as an artist. But he had a moral vision and drive traveling up and down the Hudson River making outdoor sketches of what he saw.
When his early landscapes studies attracted little notice he realized that 19th-century Anglo-Saxons loved nothing so much as a sermon. Thus his major attempt to storm the fortress of high art was the ambitious suite of paintings The Course of Empire. This five-part series tells the story of a civilization's rise, decline and fall with imagery that inspired such popular 20th century artists as Cecil B. DeMille, with his Biblical epics, and Steven Spielberg, in his sci-fi blockbusters. (The National Gallery of Art has Cole's subsequent series The Voyage of Life.)
When an English painter criticized the Americans for their inattentiveness to their own scenery, Cole responded with his magisterial View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (1836). This painting celebrates the uniqueness of America by encompassing, in Cole's words, "a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent." To examine it carefully (as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website allows one to do) is to see the actual landscape as if with a pair of powerful binoculars. Precise detail is revealed, yet the moment the binoculars are lowered, the great sweep of the whole absorbs the minutiae.
Cole had many associates, including Asher Durand, and one formal student, Frederic Edwin Church. In his time Church was considered one of world's greatest landscape painters only rivalled by J.M.W. Turner. Measuring himself by the greatest sights in America he painted The Great Falls (1857).
After years of study to find the best possible viewpoint Church produced the final version in six incredible weeks. "The finished work", as Paul Johnson says, "can no more be described than Niagara itself, for it is Niagara, or rather the Falls, made understandable."
In this initial stage of the school, as spectacularly exhibited in the catalogue of American Sublime, there was an attempt to overwhelm the viewer with awesome views of waterfalls, mountains and jungles. Artists of the next "Luminist" phase like John Frederick Kensett, Martin Johnson Heade and Gifford, while not eschewing spectacular scenes entirely, thought of their art as more serene. Aiming through subtle effects of light, color and atmosphere to evoke a more thoughtful, quieter version of the sublime. Think Mozart not Wagner.
Gifford was the only one of these painters born and raised in the very center of the Hudson River Valley. His family was prosperous enough to nurture his artistic leanings as well as those of his older brother, Frederick. This meant, as Kelly points out, that Gifford could choose painting as a pursuit without financial worries and left him free to pursue his art over a lifetime with little concern for the vagaries of public taste.
Beginning in 1855, Gifford made a long tour of Europe in order to experience the famous natural landscapes of the old continent the painted landscapes of the old masters and their more recent challengers especially Turner, Constable and the Barbizon painters. As Franklin Kelly notes in his essay in the catalogue, Turner represented the greatest challenge. Gifford found it difficult to reconcile John Ruskin's admiring analysis of Turner with what he described as the "shamefully careless" handling of some material evident in Turner's later works. This led him to seek out John Ruskin himself, asking the great man what he meant in Modern Painters about Turner being true to life? Ruskin must have explained that the truths Turner had aimed at were not to be found on the level of literal details but rather in the editing of them into a unity. Such careful editing made the phenomena, however complex, simple and understandable.
Lake Nemi (1856-57), a work that Gifford painted for exhibit in New York while in Italy, is the first of his paintings to have the sun as a focal point of the painting using light and tone to unifying and simply the landscape. This was to become a trademark of his work. We can trace his fascination with the transfiguring effects of light on the natural landscape throughout the exhibits in such works as A Gorge in the Mountains (1859) Mansfield Mountain (1859) and The Wilderness (1860).
But the best reasons for not missing this show are Sanford's masterpieces of minimalism such as An Indian Summer's Day on the Hudson (1868) and Fire Island Beach (1878), where his ability to capture a perfect moment in time allows him to approach artistic perfection.
Artcyclopedia entries for artists mentioned in the text: