|Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862.|
|Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Coming Storm, 1863.|
|John Frederick Kensett, Paradise Rocks, Newport, 1868.|
In addition to Church, the works of Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford and John Frederick Kensett are on exhibit. All were part of an American nineteenth century art movement known as the Hudson River school. The country's dominant movement of the time, the Hudson River school promulgated a highly idealized take on the American wilderness. During the first half of the nineteenth century its adherents created a transcendental vision of the wilderness, which conceptually, approximated the philosophies of such contemporaneous thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson; who held that God could be intuitively experienced through a meditation on nature. The Hudson River school artists imputed spiritual and regenerative influences to the wilderness too. The eighteenth century notion of nature as background to a larger, human drama, gave way to paintings in which the landscape took center stage. Nineteenth century painters tended toward the animistic in their view of nature; their landscapes are emotive and heavy on atmospherics: The Hudson River school painters meant theirs to be nothing short of transcendental visions.** Favorite subjects were mountains, symbolizing a heavenward ascent, and luminous golden light, symbolizing Divine Grace. (As someone who was a philosophy major, I've always taken an interest in the ideas----particularly metaphysical ideas----that inform art movements and find expression in their adherents' paintings.)
|Sanford Gifford, The Camp of the Seventh Regiment near|
|Albert Bierstadt, Guerilla Warfare, 1862.|
|Conrad Wise Chapman, The Flag of Fort Sumter, Oct. 20 1863.|
|Winslow Homer, Home, Sweet Home, 1863.|
|Winslow Homer, A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876.|
|Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859.|
One of the things I found most fascinating about the exhibition was the disparity between what was being produced by the landscape painters on view, all of whom share a basic romantic aesthetic vision, and their realist counterparts----most notably Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson. It is hard not to conclude that the transcendental beliefs of the Hudson River school were ill suited to the portrayal of a manmade catastrophe such as the Civil War; or to addressing the difficult social issues in its wake. So it isn't surprising that their paintings fell out of favor over the next two decades.
*Exhibition Catalog: Civil War and American Art by Eleanor Jones Harvey. Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Yale University Press. (You can peruse copies of the catalog at the exhibition, as I did.)
**Knights of the Bush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape. James F. Cooper. Copyright 1999, the Newton Cropsey Foundation. Published by Hudson Hills Press, Inc.
The Civil War and American Art runs through September 2, 2013. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NYC.