American Painting – A Native Growth Of Landscape Painting

THE most direct outcome of the development of a national spirit was the appearance of the so-called ” Hudson River School.” It was a title given to a group of landscape painters who began by working in the neighbourhood of the Hudson. It is customary to speak of these men disparagingly because they did not paint as well as the majority of modern painters. They should, however, be honoured, despite their technical deficiencies, for the motive and manner of their inspiration.

In the first place, they went to nature for their motive, and, secondly, they studied it in that love and pride of American conditions which, outside of painting, characterised their age. They were the first of American painters to give expression to the prevailing spirit of nationalism.

While the earliest of these landscape painters was Thomas Doughty, the one who gave the impetus to the new movement and helped most to make it popular was Thomas Cole. In a sense also he was a link between the new enthusiasm for nature-study and the older predilection for historical and ” grand style ” subjects, since in those pictures which his contemporaries particularly applauded—Expulsion from Paradise, and the two series respectively called The Course of Empire and The Voyage of Life—he was not satisfied to depict nature for its own sake, but made it the vehicle for moral allegories. The public recognised in them what it had already appreciated in Bryant’s ” Thanatopsis “—the introduction of nature as a setting for elevated sentiments. But Cole’s more enduring claim to be remembered consists in his having aroused an appreciation of the pictorial possibilities of the Catskills, and of American landscape in general.

He was born in England in 1801, and when nineteen years old accompanied his family to this country, his father, a wallpaper-maker, settling in Steubenville, Ohio. But the son was of a wandering disposition, and his roamings led him farther and farther afield, until at length he reached Philadelphia, and in the Academy had the first chance of studying pictures. Meanwhile it was nature that prompted his own desire to paint, and when he finally arrived in New York it was with a number of studies made in the Catskills and along the Hudson. These came to the notice of Trumbull and Durand, who saw in them the beginnings of a new development of native art. They were exhibited; Bryant among others praised them; some found purchasers, and Cole’s successful career was started. He made visits to England, France, and Italy, and his pictures appeared in the Royal Academy. But, though he made his permanent home near the village of Catskill, close, to some of the most beautiful scenery of what he called his ” dear Catskills,” his love of nature, pure and simple, became confused with other motives. Possessing a religious and romantic temperament, a student of Bunyan and Sir Walter Scott, he yielded to the stronger influences of the time, which, as we have seen, were literary, didactic, and oratorical, rather than pictorial. In The Expulsion from Paradise, for example, we miss the note of nature-study; the landscape has been compiled; while in Destruction, number four of his Course of Empire, he has emulated the artifices by which Claude built up his imaginary scenes of classic grandeur; only, unlike the Frenchman, whose artistic instinct kept him to the sole motive of a beautiful picture in which the figures count simply as spots of animation, Cole, with no skill of figure-drawing, has made these puppets the main actors in the great spectacle. The total effect is in consequence bombastic and the details pitifully weak.

Yet, as we have seen, he was not the first American landscape painter. This title belongs to Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), who had been painting from nature for five years before Cole’s appearance in New York. His work, like that of Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and J. F. Kensett (1818-1872), breathes the true spirit of what the French call the paysage intime, that love of the simple country-side, of nature for its own sake, which characterises the pictures of the Barbizon School and of their forerunner, Constable. These paintings of the Hudson Valley had in them the true stuff that has made landscape painting the sincerest form of modern expression; what they lacked was skill in the craftsmanship of painting and the painter’s point of view. These men looked on nature with an eye at once too niggling and too comprehensive.

In the first place, for example, the landscape by Durand, reproduced here, is too big in size and too extensive in subject to be embraced by a single vision. The eye wanders over it, as it would in presence of the original scene, receiving a number of enjoyable impressions, but no impression of unity and completeness. Lacking these qualities, which are the result of selection, simplification, and organic arrangement, the subject is not so much pictorial as panoramic and topographical. It represents the ordinary way of looking at a landscape rather than the artist’s way. In the second place, there is an absence of synthesis, that is to say, of a summarising of essentials, in the actual representation of the details. A uniformly patient and conscientious putting together of little effects is spread like a network over the whole; the painter has not grasped the salient characteristics of the whole or its parts, has not enforced these and subordinated the rest. The result is, that his trees and mountains do not assert themselves as masses, but invite attention to the infinite, niggling strokes of which they are composed,* and this is partly the cause and partly the effect of the way in which the brush was handled.

In some parts it has spread a thin tint over the canvas, in others worked like a pencil point ; nowhere with the breadth and fulness and firmness that distinguish the methods of the real painter. We recall the fact that Durand, until his thirty-ninth year, was only an engraver, a very skilful one, and it is the engraver’s rather than the painter’s feeling which is evident throughout the canvas. Kensett also began life as an engraver, and his landscapes equally betray the fact. But the previous occupation of these men was not the only reason for this lack of painter-like quality in their work. With the sole exception of Stuart, no painter in the true sense of the term had appeared in America. It was not until later, when Americans came in touch with the Barbizon men and learned from them how to look at nature, how to select from it and compose the essentials into a picture, and how to paint with a full, firm brush in masses, that landscape painting, as distinct from mere representation of landscape, commenced in this country.

Meanwhile it is very cheap criticism to decry these men of the Hudson River School for their lack of technical ability. Rather should they be remembered as the leaders among us in that return to nature which, unknown to them, had also led Rousseau and his followers to Barbizon, and was to become in literature and painting the strong, distinctive characteristic of the nineteenth century. Nor should it be overlooked how closely in our own country the movement was related to the general trend of thought and action. While Cole with his palette and brushes retraversed the ground that Washington Irving had made famous with his pen, and his landscapes embodied the elevated sentiment of Bryant’s poetry and the mystery and vastness of Cooper’s descriptions of nature, the work of all these painters reflected and contributed to the love and pride of their own country which was filling high with hope and certainty the heart of the nation.

It should be noted that the careers of these men of the Hudson River School lasted far on into the century.. Accordingly, we may as well shake our-selves free from the shackles of chronology for a little while, and complete this portion of our story.

The simple study of nature, begun by Doughty, Durand, and Kensett, was carried on by the two brothers, William and James McDougal Hart. Both were born in Scotland, the former in 1823, the latter in 1828, and were brought to this country in 1831, their family settling in Albany. Here, as they grew up, they were apprenticed to a coach-maker, and gained their first experience as painters in decorating carriages. William Hart by self-instruction graduated from carriage panels to can-vases, working first on portraits, later on landscapes. He passed on his experience to his younger brother, who also studied under Schirmer at Düsseldorf.

This was in 1851, the year in which Leutze re-turned to America, after studying in the same school; and Hart may have been influenced by him to go thither, as certainly other students were. Indeed, for a short time during the middle of the century Düsseldorf represented to American students the goal of their desires, just as Paris does today; and the fact was not without influence upon our painting. For Schirmer himself was a tame and sentimental painter, and the whole tendency of the school was toward a trivial exactitude of method and a banality of motive; both seen most characteristically in the sentimental genre pictures of lovely and virtuous peasantry. A great many such pictures found their way to America, and, of course, because of their representing a little anecdote or story, were popular with a public that was still very much under the dominion of the Word and not yet trained to an appreciation of a painting as a painting. So, indirectly on public taste, and directly on a considerable number of painters, the influence of the Düsseldorf school was unfortunate.

Hart, however, lived it down, gaining with experience more freedom of brushwork and developing a charming resourcefulness in colour. Nor was he touched by the sentimentality of the school. His landscapes, like his brother’s and those of the other painters of the Hudson River School, represent as frank and sincere a delight in the lovable aspects. of nature as one can imagine. It is, however, a purely objective one; and this fact, I think, is very interesting. It is not until later, when our painters shall have come under the influence of the Barbizon group, that they will begin to concern them-selves with the moods of nature, the reflection in the latter of their own moods. This consciousness of self and need of self-expression represent an older, if not necessarily a maturer, habit of mind-a product of the effort everywhere to realise and emphasise the individual. But, as yet, our early painters had not begun to think of themselves as individuals ; like the rest of the community, they were engaged for the present in building up a nation; it was the spirit of nationality that fired them and found its natural expression in love of country and in love of nature as its embodiment. So their attitude toward it was that of the child, frankly delighting in the beauty of the thing spread out before their eyes.

By degrees, as the country was opened up and the wonders of the Rocky Mountains were unfolded, the painter’s imagination, like that of his fellows, became stimulated and his ideal expanded. He turned from the simple surroundings of the homestead to the miracles of nature, and began to be affected by the prevailing enthusiasm for ” the biggest thing on earth.” It was the grandest and most tremendously impressive manifestations of nature, demanding large canvases, which now attracted such men as F. E. Church, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt; and, a thing to be noted, this preoccupation with the grandiose, which had begun in an awakened pride of country, led to the pursuit of bigness for its own sake. Church sought his subjects from South America to Labrador; Bierstadt and Thomas Moran in the Rocky Mountains. But how thoroughly these men be-longed to their age is proved by the enthusiasm which their work aroused in the public.

Bierstadt, of German origin and with a German’s passion for the romantic, had the faculty of possessing himself with the spirit of the scene. Moreover, although his method of painting was hard and sleek—owing to his Düsseldorf training—his draughtsmanship was excellent. One may see in the accompanying illustration of Yosemite Valley what a power he had of representing the constructive force of mountain masses, and of suggesting perspective. A thing, however, to be observed, as affecting the dignity of the picture, is that its size is comparatively small. The painter concentrated his effort, and concentration on the part of the spectator is also possible, whereas over a very large landscape-canvas there is a corresponding lessening, by dispersion, both of effort and effect.

Yet even this picture, though unquestionably it may give us a sense of nature’s impressiveness, does not conclusively impress us. We are not made to realise the emotions which the painter must have felt and we ourselves should feel in presence of the actual scene. We are conscious of no condition of feeling but one of purely intellectual comprehension; we are pretty well assured what the scene looks like, but not what it feels like. It is almost exclusively a view.

Apart from questions of technical skill, this is the sharp line of difference between the earlier landscapes and those of the present day, in which we shall find the expression of a mood in nature to be the painter’s aim. It is a difference of point of view and motive. The mental attitude of Bierstadt, Church, and Moran still remained like that of Trumbull, and their landscapes might be styled, without straining the word, ” historical.”