Visions of AmericaThe 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 …
…g of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism and theAmerican Experience. New York: Praeger Press, 1969.
Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Novak, Barbara, ed. “On Divers Themes from Nature: A Selection of Texts.” The NaturalParadise: Painting in America 1800-1959. Ed. Kynaston McShine. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976.59-105.Rosenblum, Robert. “The Primal American Scene.” The Natural Paradise: Painting inAmerica 1800-1959. Ed. Kynaston McShine. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976. 13-37.
Wilmerding, John. “Fire and Ice in American Art: Polarities from Luminism to AbstractExpressionism.” The Natural Paradise: Painting in America 1800-1959. Ed. Kynaston McShine. New York: The Museumof Modern Art, 1976. 38-56.