Exhibition catalogues exist somewhere between post cards and coffee table books. For many, they are part souvenir, part aide memoires. While the selection of objects change as shows travel and installations differ, catalogues remain true to the spirit of the organizers. Nevertheless, anecdotal surveys suggest few people actually read these tomes. Perhaps only local critics on deadline, college professors and their students look for more than an insight or two among the well-illustrated pages and scholarly essays.
Now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts after a summer residency at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, "American Sublime: Epic Landscapes of Our Nation 1820-1880"-- or, as it was called at Tate Britain, "American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880"-- features glorious work by 10 underknown painters. The two English curators, Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer, have written a book to treasure.
If this project -- two Brits interpreting American paintings -- sounds very "coals to Newcastle," it is, a bit. Nevertheless, unlike their colleagues in the United States, Wilton and Barringer explore the big picture behind these big pictures. As Wilton points out, the Americans used "an international idiom" as they limned "a new-found land." Initially, there are debts owed to Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, 17th-century painters who also inspired British landscapists. Towards the end of the period under consideration, Barringer notes that artists who depicted scenes in India and elsewhere in the English Empire used the conventions Americans embraced to render views of the Wild West.
Wilton and Barringer refer to such a variety of fields as they explain the course of landscape painting in the U.S., you'll see why art historians often make great "Jeopardy!" players. They raise issues that touch upon poetry, philosophy, history, religion, economics, geography and other arts. It's not often you'll find texts on painting that provide dates for the "American" Civil War, discussions of Jacksonian Democracy and an analysis of Manifest Destiny.
While William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame regretted in 1805 that he did not have the skill of the poet James Thomson to describe the sublime nature of the landscapes he was traversing, almost two centuries later this English writer is all but forgotten in America. Fortunately, Wilton and Barringer are just as knowledgeable about Milton, Edmund Burke, Kant, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryan, Bishop Berkeley and Eugene Lies.
They do an equally splendid job explaining how paintings expressing the sublime came to be large, hung low and dramatically lit. In contrast, the sketches on view in the show are lovely but utterly different in spirit and tone than the huge works for which they served as studies and afterthoughts.
Wilton makes a valuable contribution to the study of American art history as he explains why he prefers the word transcendental when discussing the ten painters in this exhibition. Quite rightly, he notes that the term Hudson River School has "limited application" to 19th-century landscape paintings executed in New England, South America and the Western frontier.
"Luminism," another common designation, does not work for him either. His quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson are particularly illuminating vis a vis Cole, Durand, Church, Kensett, Cropsey, Gifford, Heade, Lane, Bierstadt and Moran. For Wilton, the way the horizon and light are featured in these paintings is of paramount importance.
If it had been possible to reproduce installation photographs in the catalogue, other lessons learned from the show would be evident. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Frank Furness' enchanting architecture was an ideal vehicle for recreating the original way that many of these works of art were seen. The frames were particularly compatible with the decoration of the galleries.
But Tate Britain offered something else entirely: the opportunity to view 19th-century paintings in austere, skylit spaces that have displayed, among others, a retrospective of the art of Robert Ryman and a survey of painting and sculpture by Pablo Picasso. It was a thrill to realize how clean and elegant this work could be. Instead of viewing 19th-century landscape painting as a thing of the past that became outdated with the rise of the modern city, it was possible to enjoy its presentness.
After all, American artists still enjoy these same landscape views. Ellsworth Kelly lives a few minutes drive from Olana, Frederic Church's home near Hudson; Helen Frankenthaler's studio is a short walk from a studio John Frederick Kensett maintained in Connecticut; and Robert Wilson's Water Mill Center is not that far from Moran's summer retreat in East Hampton. They enjoy the same horizon, the same light, the same sunsets.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and the Lancet.