Light and Lively

American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850-1875

edited by John Wilmerding
Harper and Row, 330, 384 illus pp., $40.00

Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875

by Barbara Novak
Oxford University Press, 323, 150 illus pp., $35.00

There has lately been set before us, in exhibitions and critical essays, a twofold proposition: that there is such a thing as a specifically North American light, with physical and moral properties not quite to be paralleled elsewhere, and that that light, and those properties, were captured once and for all in the third quarter of the nineteenth century by a group of painters who now bear the name of “luminist.”

As to the first part of this proposition, we need expect no rebuttal. Visitors and citizens alike have always agreed that American light is not like any other light. Maine light, Arizona light, Marin County light, Chicago light, and North Carolina light have an irreducible something which makes them as distinct from light in any other country as they are distinct from one another. It is as if chapter 1, verse 3, of the Book of Genesis had been revised for local usage and “Let there be light” had been scrapped in favor of “Let there be American light.”

Painting today is as sensitive to this amendment as ever it was. Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series is as full of an unmistakable West Coast light as Willem de Kooning’s landscapes are full of an unmistakable East Coast light. We could argue about precisely what constitutes the light of Winslow Homer, the light of Edward Hopper, the light of Fairfield Porter, and the light of Alex Katz, but we know it when we see it. We also know that no foreign painter has ever quite caught it, and that most foreign painters know better than to try. They sense instinctively that American light is fundamental to American human nature. To an extent not quite to be met with in other parts of the world, American light is a family matter on which the outsider should forbear to intrude.

It is for this reason that “American Light”—the title of the exhibition that will run through June 15 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—gives off so hefty an emotional charge. “American Light” has as its subtitle “The Luminist Achievement: 1850-1875,” and it sets out to prove that the achievement in question was a landmark not only in the history of American art but in the history of American self-awareness. Even as we walk from room to room, inspirational texts smile down at us from somewhere near the ceiling; and the show will have as its lasting memorial the densely argued book to which no fewer than nine scholars have contributed. As in a famous Victorian boat race, we can say of these nine savants that “All rowed fast, but none so fast as stroke”: “stroke” in this instance being John Wilmerding, chief curator of American Art at the National Gallery and prime instigator of the show. It is the contention of Mr. Wilmerding and his colleagues, as it is of Barbara Novak in her new book, that the luminist achievement should be ranked level with …

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