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Grand Illusions

Thomas Moran

catalog of the traveling exhibition, edited by Nancy K. Anderson, with contributions from Thomas P. Bruhn and Joni L. Kinsey and Anne Morand
National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 400 pp., $60.00

1.

“I knew the artist was going to paint a big picture, but I didn’t know how big it would be. It was not begun till he had been back from his summer rambles many months. When I think of his carrying that immense canvas across his brain so long, I wonder that he didn’t go through doors sidewise, and call to people to look out when they came near.”

The artist with the fourteen-foot-wide canvas on the brain is the English-born American painter Thomas Moran, described by a contemporary in 1872, but it could have been any one of several American landscape painters of the day. Big was good. Big was appreciated. We are told by the art historian Barbara Novak that the public liked to bring their opera glasses to view the grand canvases when they went on display.

This was an age which had developed a taste for Cinemascope—in advance of the invention of the motion picture. This was the audience that, in 1849, came to the Louisville Theater in Kentucky, paying fifty cents for dress circle and parquet, twenty-five cents for boxes on the second tier, to see Henry Lewis’s Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River, “representing the Mississippi from St. Louis to the Falls of St. Anthony.” “Doors opened at seven forty-five and the Pano-rama commenced moving at ‘8 1/2 precisely.”‘1 There was a spoken commentary and a piano accompaniment—exactly, as Novak says, like a silent film.

Such a marriage of theater and painting is not an American invention. It goes back, at least, to the late eighteenth century, to the Alsatian painter Philip de Loutherberg, whose London production of Omai: or Obesa Queen of the Sandwich Islands (Drury Lane, 1785) was based on the drawings made by John Webber of Captain Cook’s last voyage, which culminated in the apotheosis of Cook. De Loutherberg’s experiments in synesthesia were conducted in his Eidophusikon, and involved ingenious use of oil lamps for optical effects. The first such scene, in 1781, was called “Aurora, or the Effects of Dawn, with a View of London from Greenwich Park.”2

Topography, the latest news, the oldest news (geological formations), the eternal verities (the voyage of Life from Childhood to Old Age in the paintings of Thomas Cole), paradise, wilderness, hell—all these formed appropriate themes for the artists of panorama, diorama, and the great landscape machine. Most of the panoramas have been thrown away. They had to be. Henry Lewis’s Mississippi was painted on 45,000 square feet of canvas. (The Metropolitan Museum retains John Vanderlyne’s exquisite panorama of Versailles.) But one may conclude that, for instance, the first black artist in this tradition, Robert Scott Duncanson, was creating work much like de Loutherberg’s, in Cincinnati’s Concert Hall in 1844, when he advertised “chemical paintings… after the singular style of Daguerre.”

These chemical paintings were executed on cloth transparencies, painted on both sides, so as to respond to variations of light. The subjects advertised—Saint Sophia, Christ’s Last Supper, the destruction of Nineveh, Belshazzar’s feast—suggest that these must have been dioramas. One imagines also that the vocabulary of the last two at least would have been derived from that key figure in the history of the Sublime, John Martin.3

The Met also possesses two of the grandest and most popular landscapes of their period, one of which is Frederic Church’s The Heart of the Andes, for which they have reconstructed an imposing frame, far weightier than many an altarpiece, graced with luxuriant swags of green silk. Church was one of those who liked his audience to bring their binoculars. When Thomas Moran first exhibited his Grand Canyon view (the “immense canvas” he had been carrying around in his head) a visitor to the exhibition was shocked:

There was none of that professional festivity that has come to be the expected thing at all picture exhibitions in New York. There were no flowers, no birds in cages, no delicately printed programmes, no tin tubes, no drapery. A zealous friend, going to the hall in the afternoon to see how things were getting on, was troubled in spirit to find the picture in its bare frame standing up against a background of nothingness. Generous efforts were made to cover this nakedness with a few fig-leaves of upholstery, but it was too late, and a quaint bit of stuff, like a blanket in the alarm of fear caught up, made a satire of the usual paraphernalia of such occasions.

This satire on paraphernalia (flowers and birds in cages being attempts at synesthesia—and the “tin tubes” were presumably viewing devices) apparently contained an attack on Albert Bierstadt, who went in for such elaborate presentations. Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains is the other grand and popular landscape in the Met. James Jackson Jarves wrote of this painting: “The countryman that mistook the Rocky Mountains for a panorama, and after waiting a while asked when the thing was going to move, was a more sagacious critic than he knew himself to be.”4

2.

None of the American landscapists—Church, Bierstadt, Cole, Moran, and the rest—is well known in Europe today. Generally speaking, the greatest galleries have not thought to collect them, and it is most probable that European collectors could not afford them if they suddenly wanted to. There is one major American painting on display in Edinburgh (a view of Niagara by Church) and there is a minor work by George Innes in the basement of the National Gallery in London. The only European museum with a good selection of such works is the Thyssen in Madrid (Baron Thyssen has collected more than a hundred nineteenth-century American paintings), and it is indeed one of the great delights and surprises of that collection. For the rest, one would be hard put to know where to look.

I mention this situation not to deplore it. These early American paintings should hang where they will be most admired and understood, and, besides, there are many American artifacts that we never see in Europe. Colonial furniture, for instance, which so clearly resembles English furniture but which immediately, on first acquaintance, looks both familiar and puzzling to the English eye. It is part of the pleasure and pur-pose of going to Boston or Baltimore that we will encounter such objects where they mean most. The reason for pointing out the absence of early American paintings from Europe is that it gives us, in Europe, a false sense of history. For these early artists not only visited Europe from time to time. They happily turned from American to European scenes and they even aimed their work at European patrons.

William Cullen Bryant addressed a sonnet “To an American Painter Departing for Europe”:

Thine eyes shall see the light of distant skies:
Yet, Cole! thy heart shall bear to Europe’s strand
A living image of thy native land,
Such as on thy own glorious canvas lies.
Lone lakes—savannahs where the bison roves—
Rocks rich with summer garlands—solemn streams—
Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams—
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves.

In the sestet Bryant informs Cole what to expect in Europe:

Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest—fair,
But different—every where the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight,
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.

Actually, Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the addressee of the poem, was born in Lancashire and only emigrated to Philadelphia at the age of seventeen. And it is part of the inexpertness of Bryant’s sonnet that he makes its two sections turn on a distinction he didn’t entirely believe in, between the American landscape as wild and without history, compared with that of Europe. But the American landscape, as he well knew, had “paths, homes, graves, ruins”—it was a common theme of the poetry of the time, just as it is a common theme of the paintings, that this wilderness was indeed inhabited, but by a doomed, savage people:

The Indian native, taught the ploughman’s art,
Still drives his oxen, with an Indian heart,
Stops when they stop, reclines upon the beam,
While briny sorrows from his eye-lids stream,
To think the ancient trees, that round him grow,
That shaded wigwams centuries ago
Must now descend, each venerated bough,
To blaze on fields where nature reign’d ’till now.

Philip Freneau’s idiom in his “On the Civilization of the Western Aboriginal Country” is eighteenth century but sets the tone for the nineteenth. “We claim no more, for we have had our day,” is what his Indians announce, and that is what many of the paintings (with their themes from Longfellow or Fenimore Cooper) imply as well. Moran’s paintings of the Green River carefully exclude signs of modern habitation or the railroad, while including Indians whom Moran had never seen there, but who suited his theme.

Moran, the subject of an exhibition earlier this year on view at the National Gallery in Washington, is another son of Lancashire, who emigrated from Bolton to join his father in Philadelphia in 1844, at the age of seven. Almost four decades later he returned to his home town and mounted an exhibition there, before going on to London to receive the blessing, and patronage, of Ruskin. One of the works he exhibited on that occasion, Nearing Camp on the Upper Colorado River, was recently blocked for export from Britain and has become the subject of a national campaign. Bolton Art Gallery, which (in defiance of the trend mentioned earlier) possesses four other Morans, is attempting to raise the purchase price of å£1.4 million, and seems to stand a good chance of success. A part of the argument used to block the export of the painting is that, if the work is exported to the US, “it will be…lost forever to the British public—the very audience that Thomas Moran originally intended this landscape for.” Moran could have had two motives for targeting the British public: to draw to their attention the splendors of the American West, and to validate, through success in Britain, his status back home in America.

The black painter of “chemical” dioramas, Duncanson, is represented by one work in the admirable current exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford: a View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky (circa 1851). It is plausibly suggested that the painting contrasts the lives of free whites and enslaved blacks on the Kentucky side of the river with the prosperity and freedom represented by Cincinnati in the distance, a freedom rendered that much harder to attain by the Fugitive Slave Act passed the year before.

Duncanson appears to have decided to sit out the Civil War when it came, first in Canada and later in Britain. He also seems to have been adept at cultivating the British. Encountered by a compatriate in the South Kensington Museum (the Victoria and Albert) in 1865, he explained that he had been exhibiting in Scotland with some success. According to the Reverend Moncure D. Conway in the Cincinnati Gazette:

He has also received a letter from Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate, inviting him to his home on the Isle of Wight, where he will go and take with him, The Lotus Eaters. Think of a Negro sitting at the table with Lord and Lady Tennyson, Lord and Lady of the manor and mirror of aristocracy.

The painting illustrating Tennyson’s poem is recorded by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan as now belonging to His Royal Majesty the King of Sweden.5

3.

In contrast with the Americans, the Australian landscape painters of the nineteenth century did not have the luxury of intermittent trips to Europe. There was no “Australian colony” in Rome. Once you emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land or New South Wales, that was it. Australia’s non-Aboriginal population did not reach one million until 1858, at a time when the American population stood at around 30 million. Most of the Australian artists exhibited in New Worlds from Old were born in Europe. Somebody said of the Wadsworth Atheneum show in Hartford that it was like the bringing together of identical twins who had been separated at birth. Indeed it is. Both traditions of landscape painting have their origins in Europe—with the British and German traditions being of paramount importance in both cases.

So it is that the DÌ?sseldorf Academy extended its influence to both continents, although in markedly different ways. The Prussian-born American Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) confects a sublime view purporting to represent Mount Corcoran in the Sierra Nevada. But he has borrowed part of the Alps in order to do so, and anyway there was no Mount Corcoran. There was only Bierstadt’s ambition to get his painting (originally called Mountain Lake) into William Wilson Corcoran’s gallery in Washington. This is the Manipulative Sublime.

By contrast, the Austrian-born Eugene von GuÌ©rard (1811-1901), who also trained at DÌ?sseldorf, sets the tone for the Australian style. That style has an intimacy of scale and sweetness of effect that puts one in mind of Biedermeier. Von GuÌ©rard, the son of a Viennese court painter, was forty-one when he arrived in Australia, lured by the gold rush. After two years of prospecting he fell back on his art, which he pursued with success, eventually becoming master of painting at the National Gallery School in Melbourne and, simultaneously, curator of the National Gallery of Victoria. In old age he returned to DÌ?sseldorf, having trained some of the painters who were considered the first exponents of a truly Australian style.

What precedes this truly Australian style is nevertheless identifiably Australian, even if this has not always been recognized. The artists may have arrived already trained, but they had a new set of circumstances in which to work, a new landscape to convey, and a new public for their wares. One can hardly expect them to cohere as a national school in advance of the nation itself cohering. They worked, generally speaking, on a modest scale. They celebrated settlement and agriculture, but not industry. They operated in a landscape where water was scarce, and generally speaking they do not show the great rivers and lakes and waterfalls beloved of their American contemporaries, because these were not to hand. They were not great figure painters, and indeed when figures are important in these landscapes, as in the works of John Glover, featuring Aboriginals at corroborees, their dance festivals, the painting comes across as naive. When a broad view of the landscape is taken, and human beings and their habitations are reduced to tiny incidents, this impression of naivet̩ disappears.

The first paintings in the Hartford show are by the English artist William Westall, who came to Australia as a topographical painter, and was disappointed by what he found. And indeed it seems that it took some time for artists to begin to think of what they were looking at as particularly beautiful. The trees of North America, coniferous or deciduous, have much the same emotional connotations as the trees of Europe. They differ from the trees of Europe, as the American artist knew, who, sending a painting to be exhibited in Europe, sent with it samples of autumnal leaves, correctly predicting that the red in his canvas would look overdone. But the difference is one of degree rather than of kind. Whereas a walk in a grove of eucalypts, with crackling dry bark underfoot and a flock of galahs overhead, is an utterly new experience.

For a while it would appear that the Australian landscapists worked more or less unselfconsciously, responding to a taste for topographical accuracy but not thinking of themselves as creators of the Australian tradition. Andrew Sayers, in his catalog essay, evokes a major exhibition held in Melbourne in 1869, pointing out that, of the seven hundred paintings displayed, only a minority were Australian landscapes. Most were copies of European paintings (Guido Reni and Teniers are names mentioned), historical, genre, and narrative paintings, portraits of British royals, animal subjects, and Scottish and English landscapes. It is only in retrospect that the landscape tradition stands out. Before the foundation of the National Gallery School in 1870, art teaching in Australia had been conducted in Mechanics Institutes; there was no professional art school and nowhere to study figure painting. Christopher Allen, in his recent sur-vey Art in Australia,6 finds nothing of interest to report in most genres of art other than landscape until the last two decades of the century. In sculpture he finds only two artists of interest: Benjamin Duterrau and Benjamin Law. Both of them made physiognomic studies of Tasmanian Aboriginals, the latter being responsible for two portrait busts of the last two full-blooded survivors of the race, Trucaninny and her husband Woureddy (1835 and 1856).

This interest in the doomed Aboriginal is shared (as in America) by painter and writer alike. Here are some verses from Henry Kendall’s “The Last of His Tribe”:

He crouches, and buries his face on his knees,
And hides in the dark of his hair;
For he cannot look up to the storm-smitten trees,
Or think of the loneliness there:
Of the loss and the loneliness there.

The wallaroos grope through the tufts of the grass,
And turn to their covers for fear;
But he sits in the ashes and lets them pass
Where the boomerangs sleep with the spear:
With the nullah, the sling, and the spear….

For his eyes have been full with a smouldering thought;
But he dreams of the hunts of yore,
And of foes that he sought, and of fights that he fought
With those who will battle no more:
Who will go to the battle no more.

The age of the hunter and fisher, the Aboriginal, is over. The country belongs to the stockman, the tiller of the soil, the builders of cities—the pioneers.

Toward the end of the century we encounter a nationalistic assertiveness in the art. The palette is reformed in order to correspond to what is seen as authentically Australian light. The figures begin to dominate the landscape. The paintings tell stories of prospectors down on their luck, of heroic cockatoo farmers staking their claim to a modest patch of ground. In one of the most famous, Tom Roberts’s A Break Away!, a stockman tries to prevent a herd of sheep, driven crazy by drought, from stampeding toward the water. When this exhibition was originally shown in Australia, A Break Away! was placed in apposition to Frederic Remington’s Fight for the Water Hole, one of his cowboy illustrations. The comparison caused some queasiness, and in Hartford care was taken to keep the two images well apart.

It is the Remington painting that causes the queasiness: the fight for the water hole depicts five cowboys defending their last source of water against the distant, approaching Indians. As the catalog reminds us, these “inguns” are seen by Remington as a foreign group—where once they had featured as age-old inhabitants, now they have simply become the enemy. In Australian art, this does not happen. The enemy is an unforgiving ature, which drives the sheep crazy—a landscape which by now has been peopled with the ghosts of generations of pioneers:

Out on the wastes of the Never Never—
That’s where the dead men lie!
That’s where the heat-waves dance for ever—
That’s where the dead men lie!
That’s where the Earth’s loved sons are keeping
Endless tryst: not the west wind sweeping
Feverish pinions can wake their sleeping—
Out where the dead men lie!

In Barcroft Boake’s ballad, the stockman is haunted and the cattle are frightened by the passing dead—but these turn out not to have been, say, scalped by “inguns,” but to have been destroyed by the combined forces of hostile nature and a greedy landowner:

Strangled by thirst and fierce privation—
That’s how the dead men die!
Out on Moneygrub’s farthest station—
That’s how the dead men die!
Hardfaced greybeards, youngsters callow;
Some mounds cared for, some left fallow;
Some deep down, yet others shallow;
Some having but the sky.

The author of these lines quit the city for the bush, became a drover, but died in 1892 at the age of twenty-six, “hanging himself with his own stockwhip on the shores of Sydney’s Middle Harbour.”

The assertion that is made again and again in these Australian paintings is that the pioneer has earned his right to the land by the sweat of his brow. Arthur Streeton’s The Selector’s Hut: Whelan on the Log, painted in 1890, is described by one critic thus:

Streeton’s depiction would be recognised immediately as belonging within a genre of imagery of selectors or “cockatoo” farmers who, in Australian lore, invaded the large [sheep] runs of the (aristocratic) settlers to peg out their own farms. They were equalising heroes of a young, democratic society; they literally cut down to size the pretensions of the big men.

Christopher Allen in Art in Australia says of the same painting that its real subject is work: “It is through work that the selector has earned the right to sit on the log, smoking his pipe, satisfied and happy even though he lives in a hut with none of the amenities of modern life.” The Hartford catalog points out that Whelan, the figure depicted, was not a selector in any true sense. We are dealing with a piece of myth-making. And the fact that the painting was also exhibited by Streeton under the title Australia does indeed encourage us to look for a broad political myth—the history of Australia, says the catalog, as “the transformation of nature into culture.”

It is worth remembering that the Commonwealth of Australia was not inaugurated, under its first federated parliament, until January 1, 1901, by which time America was already an imperial power. In this sense, if American and Australian landscape art resemble identical twins, separated at birth, they were twins who went off to inhabit quite different centur-ies. The assertiveness of these late-nineteenth-century Australian paintings—this land is ours, we have earned it by the sweat of our brow, working against the odds—may be directed against the Moneygrubs, or against the colonial power. But it also seems to work to drown out the claims of those Aboriginals who, as it happens, did not all die out like the Tasmanians, and whose rights remain controversial to this day.

Will he go in his sleep from these desolate lands,
Like a chief, to the rest of his race,
With the honey-voiced woman who beckons, and stands,
And gleams like a Dream in his face—
Like a marvellous Dream in his face?

The answer turned out to be: No, he will not conveniently go; the Aboriginal will not glibly die out. Whatever the marvelous Australian dream may be, he will remain, a figure in the landscape.

  1. 1

    Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture:American Landscape Painting 1825- 1875 (Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1995), p. 23. 

  2. 2

    Francis D. Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution, edited and revised by Arthur Elton (Augustus M. Kelley, 1968), p. 98. 

  3. 3

    Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Sharing Tra-ditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America (Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1985). 

  4. 4

    Novak, Nature and Culture, p. 24. 

  5. 5

    Hartigan, Sharing Traditions, pp. 62- 63. There seems, alas, to be no record of Tennyson’s actually receiving Duncanson, at least in 1865. 

  6. 6

    Christopher Allen, Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism (Thames and Hudson, 1997).