Purple Mountain Majesties

"American Sublime" looks at the spacious skies and gathering storms of the beautiful landscape painting

Walking around "American Sublime," the terrific traveling exhibition of early American landscape paintings now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I was trying to think what these 80-odd paintings reminded me of. The canvases were postcard-perfect--fairly bursting with purple mountain majesties, amber waves of grain, and such. Then, while I was staring at a mist-shrouded autumn valley painted by Sanford Robinson Gifford, it hit me: They put me in mind of Thomas Kinkade, the contemporary "painter of light" whose softly lit, hyper-idyllic landscapes have made him a commercial phenomenon. Of course. These paintings were chicken soup for the 19th-century American soul.

But if anodyne scenery is all that's on display here, then why does "American Sublime" feel so timely? It isn't just that these paintings surf along on the recent swell of patriotism; the exhibit was actually organized at London's Tate Britain. Nor is it the enduring quality of the work: For every awesome panorama of the unfolding American West, there's a seascape that looks like it came off the wall of a Motel 6. Rather, there's something going on beneath the surface of even the most placid of these paintings that seems to reverberate in our unsettled historical moment.

Roughly spanning the period between the death of Thomas Jefferson and the end of the Civil War, "American Sublime" documents America at a turning point, when Jefferson's agrarian republic began to be eclipsed by Jackson's rising empire. And you can see the competing versions of the nation's future working themselves out on the exhibit's canvases. On one hand, America is presented as a prelapsarian Eden; on the other, as an imperial colossus destined to bestride the earth. The tension gooses "American Sublime" with a jolt of currency.

Not a postcard for new urbanism: Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire: Destruction"
Thomas Cole
Not a postcard for new urbanism: Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire: Destruction"

Despite its offshore origin, "American Sublime" doesn't shy from grappling with America's most dearly held myths of itself. The exhibit's critical framework is apparent from its first gallery, which is dominated by Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire," a magisterial yet minutely detailed five-painting cycle portraying the Gibbonesque rise and fall of an imagined civilization. In the series' first two scenes, a tangled forest dominated by roiling storm clouds gives way to a pastoral landscape showing the beginnings of agriculture and architecture. Like the European history paintings from which Cole drew, these scenes are stocked with references to Greek and Roman antiquity. The poses of the shepherds and hunters who inhabit them appear cribbed from classical sculpture.

In the third painting, titled "The Consummation of Empire," the natural landscape has been wholly erased by a towering city of gilded marble. In the foreground, a red-robed Caesar rides in a triumphal procession (the figure could be an allusion to the ascendant military hero Andrew Jackson). In the final two scenes, the city is sacked and burned, and the landscape reverts to picturesque ruin. The series, taken as a whole, seems to warn against imperial hubris. Even at the height of the city's glory, the decadence and sloth of the gathered citizenry suggest that the seeds of its destruction have been sown. But the cycle might also be read as a broader comment on the ephemerality of all human achievement--the march of civilization proceeds from sunrise to sunset in a mere day. Cole himself said as much in an accompanying text: "Violence and time have crumbled the works of man, and art is again resolving into elemental nature."

Cole, who died in 1848, is regarded as the fountainhead of American landscape painting. It's no lost irony that he, like a number of the artists represented here, was born in Britain. Indeed, the major purpose of "American Sublime" is to connect the burgeoning of American painting with the European landscape tradition, and in particular the work of JMW Turner, Claude Lorrain, and John Constable. In Cole's time, American painting was regarded in Britain as a sort of bastard cousin (as, one suspects, was America itself). With characteristically blithe British disdain, the great Victorian critic John Ruskin blamed this perceived deficiency on the country's relative youth: "There are crude efforts at landscape-painting, made continually upon the most splendid physical phenomenon in America, and other countries without any history."

Certainly, many of the earlier American efforts are visibly derivative. Constable's brooding chiaroscuro shows up in the work of Frederic Edwin Church and Asher Brown Durand, while Turner's paintings of ancient Carthage seem to inform Cole's Attic allegory. The rotted tree stumps that seem to show up on nearly every canvas here are filched from 17th-century Italian painter/ poet Salvator Rosa. Yet the lineage is more than skin-deep. Cole and his American peers, the exhibit argues, were connected to their European counterparts by their interest in the notion of the Sublime. Distinctive in the 19th-century mind from the Beautiful--a more formalized visual vocabulary that stressed a scene's harmony--the Sublime sought to overwhelm viewers with the awesomeness of the natural world. Recognizing a divine design in nature, audiences would be led to contemplate their own mortality. As in Cole's sweeping visions, the point is to shock the viewer into consciousness.

Allegiance to the Sublime wasn't limited to painting: It also informed the Transcendentalist movement. Ralph Waldo Emerson might have been speaking for Cole and his peers when he wrote in an 1836 essay, "Nature stretches out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. Willingly does she follow his steps with the rose and the violet, and bend the lines of grandeur and grace to the decoration of her darling child. Only let his thoughts be of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture."

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