The awesome effects of the sublime
by Corinna Lotz
Gore Vidal once quipped that America had passed from barbarism to decline without going through civilisation. The grain of truth in his notion is shown by Tate Britain’s display of American landscape painting from the 19th century.
An awareness of the fragility of nature under the onslaught of modern capitalism – and a deep unease with where it would take society – is an underlying theme for many of these artists. Sometimes they expressed their concerns in explicit “history painting”.
Others focused on the nature they saw around them simply to show its grandeur and unique qualities. In paintings drawn from key public collections in the US, we can see how artists in the US began to paint under the influence of European culture but eventually developed their own styles.
The idea of the “sublime” was an aesthetic principle put forward by 18th century philosophers. The Americans found it suited them well. It reflected the excitement of escaping from the confines of densely populated Europe weighed down by thousands of years of history.
Discovering and charting a vast new continent became a major theme.
The cruel treatment of the indigenous Indian nation and accompanying invasion of the environment is not shown directly in these paintings. On the contrary, painters like Sanford Gifford evoke a wilderness that is not empty of humans, but with Indians living in harmony with it.
Kindred Spirits, the iconic painting of American landscape art was made by Asher Brown Durand in 1849. It is a tribute to Thomas Cole, seen by many as the founder of the tradition of American “wilderness” painting. It shows the influence of the great French landscapist Claude Lorraine, as well as Constable and Turner.
The romantic admiration of landscape, the vertiginous cliffs bring to mind German painters such as Caspar David Friedrich. The overarching branch which frames the scene is a device used by Claude as well as Constable.
The notion of appreciating nature directly as an intellectual as well as emotional enterprise also brings to mind the English critic, John Ruskin. The dialogue between the artist and the writer is similar to a work by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Millais showing himself with Ruskin standing by a stream in Scotland.
Thus the US artists first saw the continent through eyes conditioned by Europe. But the content of their work was the land they saw around them. When this reality broke through the old forms, something fresh and new emerged.
But it did not appear so often in the grandiose showpieces as in the more intimate depiction of particular places. They acquire meaning in the loving and sometimes innovative approach to the subject. But if you are looking for exciting impressionist brushwork, or immediate light effects, you won’t find them.
What we do learn from these works is how artists and others first discovered the nature they saw around them and then absorbed, understood and treasured it as an object of beauty.
Almost invariably, the nature depicted hints at what was already happening – the wanton occupation and destruction of the land by modern capitalism. Broken off trees and stumps were a common spatial device used to create the illusion of depth. But they often create a touch of melancholy, or a feeling of decay.
Cole found drama in cliffs and fir trees glimpsed in the Catskill mountains of New York and New Hampshire. Nature is not seen as peacefully idyllic. Blasted trees and dead stumps become metaphors for the destructive aspect of things, a device used by others like Jasper Cropsey who also found the Catskills a great place to paint.
Upon return from a trip to Rome, Cole was deeply affected by the sight of ancient ruins of the empire, he decided to make a grand historical cycle. A rich patron provided $2,500 for a cycle of five huge works, called The Course of Empire.
They set out phases in the history of humanity and its relation to nature: Savage State, Pastoral or Arcadian State, Consummation of Empire, Destruction and Desolation.
The first two depict early stages in the history of human life, set against wild mountains, ocean and forests. In the second, where nature is being tamed, we see flocks of sheep in pastures, a woman spinning and people playing music and dancing. In the distance a pagan temple similar to Stonehenge overlooks the bay.
The third, Consummation, looks like a film set for an epic blockbuster with a cast of thousands. There is a hideous overabundance of temples, statues, gold – a picture of consumerism gone mad. It is supposed to represent “the summit of human glory” – but the effect is suffocating and grotesque.
In its time the painting was seen as revealing how “the ostentatious display of riches has succeeded to the efforts of virtuous industry and the study of nature and truth. We see that man has attained power without the knowledge of its true use: and has already abused it”.
The last painting in the series, the post-holocaust Desolation, reverts back to a kind of tranquil beauty. The remnants of architecture achieve a melancholy reverie as ivy creeps up a lonely column. A bird has nested on top, and in general nature is reclaiming its own.
Curator Tim Barrington links the figure of the “conqueror” to the then US president, Andrew Jackson, who was seen as a corrupt representative of the new expansionist ruling class based in New York. As a patrician conservative, Cole felt Jackson’s presidency would lead the US to inevitable disaster.
Conservative or not, Cole reflected the intimations of mortality and contempt for imperialist arrogance amongst thinkers in 19th century America. He is a kind of pictorial counterpart of writers like Thomas Carlyle, who denounced early industrial capitalism in Britain.
It must be a sign of “civilisation” that so early in the history of the United States artists and thinkers were already concerned about how human beings developed socially and asked what “civilisation” was about. They were acutely aware that progress had an opposite within it – the threat to environment and humanity.
After completing The Course of Empire, Cole left New York city and spent the rest of his life upstate in the Catskill mountains.
Cole was one of the first of the influential Hudson River School. Jasper Cropsey, Sanford Gifford and his pupil, Frederic Church, were also devoted to this beautiful part of New York studying the effects of the sun on the mountains, valleys and trees.
Through other painters we are led from the Catskills further north to Vermont and finally to Maine. The rocky, pine-fringed coasts of Mount Desert island provided a continuous source of inspiration as an untouched wilderness.
There are marine views with a wonderful serenity. We are given a minimalist view of nature by artists like Fitz Hugh Lane and John Kensett. Views of empty shores and sea, ships resting in harbours, the effects of storm and sunlight show acute observation and daring sense of colour.
The final section takes us to the far west and South America, exploring new parts of the continent, including South America and the Far West. Grandiose views, like the Niagara Falls, the Yosemite Valley and the Rocky Mountains showed the folks back home what extraordinary sights nature could offer. But the days of such monumental efforts were numbered as photography on the one side, and a new way of looking at nature – Impressionism – on the other, stole the ground from under the attempt to depict the awesome effects of the sublime.
American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880 is at Tate Britain, Millbank, until May 19. Admission £8/£6. Open daily 10-17.40. www.tate.org.uk
Kindred Spirits, Asher Durand, 1849
The course of Empire: Desolation, Thomas Cole, 1836
Falls from the American side, Frederic Church, 1867