Purple Mountain Majesties

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

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

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.

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."

In its vastness and diversity, America was infinitely better suited to inspire such revelation than small, dreary Britain. And the American landscape painters of the 19th century made up for their lack of originality by working in an epic scale--a preference for supersizing seems to have been an ingrained American trait even then. Huge paintings like Albert Bierstadt's panorama of Yosemite Valley were meant for urban audiences who might never experience the West firsthand. Dramatically lit and hung low so that the viewer's eye could wander into and explore their vividly detailed scenery, many of these paintings were originally exhibited as theatrical events--a precursor of myth-making Hollywood Westerns. If nothing else, "American Sublime" reminds us that before paintings were art, they were pictures.

¬ Like the gauzily nostalgic Thomas Kinkade, these early American artists painted for maximum melodramatic effect. Muted, warm browns and reds match the melancholy hues of autumn foliage. The skies, darkened by storm clouds or falling dusk, are painted in a cooler palette. The brushwork, especially when contrasted with Turner's proto-impressionist technique, is often nearly invisible. The overall mood is one of pacific calm: In Fitz Hugh Lane's placid seascapes, for instance, it's as if, in the new American Eden, even the ocean's tempest has been stilled.

Above all, though, these painters were interested in the effects of light: how it falls on mountainsides, how it plays in leaves, and how it glitters through cloudbanks. "American Sublime" bears out Emerson's famous observation that "as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters."

Naturally, these painters sought out scenes as evocative as their style, especially favoring monuments that typified the heroic grandeur of the American landscape--Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon were favorites. Yet although many of the artists were explorers in their own right, they weren't just interested in producing an accurate pictorial record of the landscape (Durand, for instance, thought nothing of relocating New York's Kaaterskill Falls in order to include it in one of his paintings). Rather, they sought to involve the viewer in the sublimity of the untamed land. In Durand's "The American Wilderness," for example, the viewer's perspective is located near ground level, and the eye is left to wander at a leisurely pace through an autumnal wilderness to the unfolding plain below. The mood is less one of Apollonian detachment than of melancholy contemplation. That Durand painted this canvas in 1864, near the height of the Civil War, adds to its somber cast. This archetypal scene is, like the battlefield so recently consecrated by Abraham Lincoln, hallowed ground of the American imagination.

"American Wilderness" is further remarkable in that it bears no trace of human habitation: A common feature elsewhere in "American Sublime" is the use of small foreground figures to draw the eye into the scenery. Occasionally, as in Cole's 1828 canvas, "Landscape with Tree Trunks," the figures are American Indian (though, again, this is a historical fudge; the native population had by then been driven off the Atlantic seaboard). More often the figures are lone explorers, surrogates for the intrepid painters themselves. Cole and his fellows saw themselves in the mode of Thoreau's Solitary Wanderer, traveling the secret byways of the continent in search of spiritual communion.

In Durand's "Kindred Spirits," for instance, Cole himself is seen on a rocky ledge overlooking a fiercely beautiful mountain valley, standing next to the poet William Cullen Bryant. Painted as a memorial to Cole, the picture celebrates the friendship between the two men, both of whom would come to be identified with the Hudson River School. But its title seems also to assert the fraternity of the arts: To describe the beauty of this landscape, an artist must be painter, explorer, and poet.

Like the tumbledown ruins of Rome for European history painters, mountains were a potent symbol for American landscape artists such as Durand. The central feature of nearly every painting in "American Sublime," the mist-veiled peaks of the East or precipitous crags of the West seem intentionally positioned to dwarf humanity. America, in these paintings, is a land suited to giants. Implicit in this--as it was for many of the European artists who mused on Rome--is the suggestion that modern civilization is a pale substitute, unworthy of such grandeur. Surveying this art from our own foggy millennial promontory, you might detect a familiar brand of fatalism: If America was becoming a second Rome, how could it avoid a similar destiny? One of our more dangerous delusions has perhaps always been that we could stand outside of history.

In fact, for all their contemplative serenity, many of the paintings in "American Sublime" seem to reflect a very contemporary disquiet over the country's direction. Cole's 1828 "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," for instance, a biblical scene by way of Milton's Paradise Lost, depicts tiny human figures crossing from a tropical grotto into blasted, storm-wracked wilderness. The painting might be viewed as a critique of America's rapid industrialization: As in Cole's allegorical history paintings, the Arcadian peace of the republic is under siege by the violence of empire building. But might it not also be read as a prophetic reflection on America's Original Sin, which would likewise divide and despoil the land? Only two years earlier Thomas Jefferson had written, on the issue of slavery, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

In Jefferson's view, the way to forestall this inevitable reckoning was territorial expansion. The West would become, in historian Joseph Ellis's phrase, America's Fountain of Youth. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny--or, less charitably, lebensraum--informed the ignoble land-grab of the Mexican-American War (perhaps as it informs our current campaign for global hegemony). And you can sense the country's expansive new ambitions in this show's selections from the 1860s onward, like Bierstadt's monumental painting of Yosemite Valley in the penumbra of a fiery desert sunset. The attitude here is one of imperial jubilee: America was, after all, a nation conceived in perfect virtue, and guided by Providence. These paintings seem to offer an advertisement for empire.

In the nationalist epics of "American Sublime," though, there is an unmistakable tint of nostalgia. The frontier was closing quickly, and war threatened to permanently rend the country. The creeping mood recalls that of Cole's "The Course of Empire": Even at the peak of the republic's glory, we may sense intimations of its ruin.