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O Beautiful for Spacious Skies

The splendid show American Sublime, which originated at London’s Tate Museum and will travel from summer in Philadelphia to autumn in Minneapolis, raises, with its article-free title, the question, Why does one hear often of the American Sublime but never of, say, the French or Chinese Sublime? The very word, from Latin meaning “under the lintel”—i.e., as high as one can go in a constructed opening, just under the upper limit—is a roomy and aspiring one, with precise senses in chemistry and psychiatry having to do with the vaporization of solids and the taming of instinctual desires. In philosophy, too, it is subject to close definition, we learn from Andrew Wilton’s authoritative catalog essay “The Sublime in the Old World and the New.” Critical minds of the eighteenth century distinguished the Sublime from the merely Beautiful: “Addison, for instance, found it natural to refer to the Sublime of Homer and the Beautiful of Virgil.” The Alps, one supposes, were sublime and the verdant landscapes of England’s home counties merely beautiful.

Edmund Burke, in 1757, put the distinction on a firm footing in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In Wilton’s paraphrase, Burke relegated the Beautiful to our human function of “generation,” or sex: “In a male-dominated society, beauty is governed by what men find desirable in women: smoothness, gentleness, softness and so on.” Against this startlingly genderized category (do women then find hardness and roughness beautiful or, imitating men, only other women?), the Sublime has to do with “the other basic hu- man instinct, that of self-preservation.” And here Burke is quoted directly:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain or danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

For examples of “whatever is in any sort terrible,” Wilton lists “darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, succession, magnificence, loudness, suddenness,” and in passing cites three natural phenomena that in fact are more than once depicted in the works on display: “the storm, the precipice, the waterfall.”

All three natural manifestations, it will be noticed, dwarf Man and render him helpless. Immanuel Kant, commenting at the end of the eighteenth century upon Burke’s concept of “a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror,” defined the Sublime as something “the mere capacity for thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense.” The Sublime is that which is “absolutely great” and “comparable to itself alone”; comprehending it places the mind under extreme tension. Of course, the attempt to include the terrible and menacing in objects of aesthetic representation is ancient, to be found in the idols of Africa, Mesopotamia, and Central America; if such are sublime, the Beautiful is the younger and more parochial concept. The eighteenth century, having taken reason, order, balance, prettiness, and civility as far as they could momentarily go, was ready to look into the chasm and appreciate wildness. The Gothic novel and Romantic poetry arose to express unmapped depths within the psyche; Napoleon swept all of Europe into a storm of political revolution; science was inexorably rendering nature more and more alien, mechanical, and vast; imperial exploration had annexed strange territories to the European consciousness; in the Western Hemisphere, European immigrants and their slaves grappled with the New World.

If vastness and danger produced sublimity, then the Sublime was to be found where nature reigned untamed, in the thunder of Niagara Falls, the shaggy mountains of the Northeast, the deserts and peaks of the Far West, the volcanos of Ecuador and Mexico. Frederic Edwin Church, in one of his most heroic attempts to portray transcendent, inutile grandeur, rendered with his painstaking brilliance the icebergs of the North Atlantic. Now, with Greenland crisscrossed by commercial air routes and the Himalayas littered with empty oxygen canisters, Antarctica is the Sublime’s last stronghold, where Man can still be cowed by the inhuman.

The excellent catalog texts by Wilton and Yale professor Tim Barringer tell us little about American landscape painting before 1820. Until Romantic developments in theology cleared the ground for Divine occupation of the wilderness, Nature was in a sense invisible. The Puritans averted their eyes from the forest, with its red-skinned deviltry, and their pragmatic successors like Benjamin Franklin were concerned with lightning’s harnessable power but not its thrilling scenic value. Full of inconvenient distances and obstructive underbrush, American nature was the dreadful Other, barely peeping into the windows of the staid indoor portraits of the upstanding citizenry of the colonies and then the enterprising young republic. Who would want to buy a picture of trees, rocks, and poison ivy when the reality stretched for miles on all sides? America needed Wordsworth, and his native apostles William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to begin to love their rugged and interminable land.

American Sublime, thematically arranged (“Wilderness,” “The Still Small Voice,” “‘Awful Grandeur,’” etc.) in the polychrome, neo-Arabic rooms of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, opens with a canvas, by Asher Brown Durand, showing his friends Bryant and Thomas Cole, the father of American landscape painting, posed in frock coats upon a stagelike, sunlit platform of natural rock amid a precipitous landscape derived from sketches Durand made in the Catskills. The painting’s date is 1849, the year after Cole’s sudden death at the age of forty-nine, and its title, Kindred Spirits, was taken from a sonnet by Keats extolling the joys of “Solitude” in “Nature’s observatory.” An early patron, a dry-goods merchant, commissioned the work after Bryant had lengthily eulogized Cole before the National Academy of Design, in New York City, as one who “copied the forms of nature…and made them the vehicle, as God has made them, of great truths and great lessons.” Nature as the God-composed vehicle of great truths was the pious idea, or hope, behind much of mid-century landscape painting: Nature is our friend and looking glass, our bigger, wordless Bible. Bryant’s most famous poem, “Thanatopsis,” written when he was seventeen, begins,

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language…

Furthering such a communion was, then, the ethical purpose of American landscape painting, mixed, at times, with the commercial aim of creating a salable souvenir of an especially prized sight, such as—within this exhibit—Maine’s Mount Ktaadn (Church, 1853), New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch (Cole, 1839), and New York’s Niagara Falls, (Church, 1856–1857, 1867; Albert Bierstadt, circa 1869; John Frederick Kensett, circa 1851–1852). In Europe, landscape painting per se was a relatively recent, early-sixteenth-century development spreading south from the Danube, the Netherlands, and northern Italy. Two seventeenth-century masters of special interest to the English, and thence to Americans, were Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), whose turbulent and theatrical mises en scène were thought to exemplify the Sublime, and Claude Lorraine (1600–1682), a Frenchman, born Claude Gellée, who spent most of his life in Rome and whose representations of Italian scenery were taken to epitomize the Beautiful. Claude’s careful arrangements, wherein gracefully leaning foreground trees frame a misted distant vista, create the impression of a wide garden, in which some structure—a viaduct, a ruined temple—confirms humanity’s nearby presence. Durand’s pristine Catskills have the same decorum, with their quiet dull color and a leaf-by-leaf stillness, as if fading under glass; though precipitous, the landscape feels subdued. Durand’s later work, The American Wilderness (1864), though formally composed, with its dark arboreal shapes drawing back the curtains, as it were, on the faraway blue mountains, renders a gashed trunk and fissured rocks with a precision possibly owed to John Ruskin’s admonitions to observe nature closely, especially its geology. The wilderness, examined with dedicated fervor, shows itself to be compacted of many small violences.

In Durand’s master, Thomas Cole, violence enters the paint: in Mountain Sunrise, Catskill (1826), the tortured shapes of blasted trees are highlighted by wormy lines of white, like congealed lightning, and rocks and clouds share a scrabbled shapelessness; two tiny, clay-colored figures hurry away in the shadows below. In his Landscape with Tree Trunks (1828), the shattered trunk in the foreground fairly shrieks, and a cloud lifts up in the middle distance like a crashing wave. Motifs and a mood imitated from Rosa shed their mythological playfulness in a land whose visible population is a lone Indian brave, a touch of wistful fancy in a region from which Native Americans had already been successfully eliminated. Cole’s painting Crawford Notch (1839) introduces, under the frothing sky and tawny mass of Mt. Washington, a few fragile houses of settlement, seen just above the foregrounded symbol of a wilderness being tamed: a sawn tree trunk. The stump, and the vivid red splashes of turning maples in the woods, mark the landscape as distinctly American. Queen Victoria, on viewing the violent reds in the work of Cole’s follower Jasper Francis Cropsey, doubted aloud that such colors existed in nature, and Cropsey, in England at the time, sent home for some autumn leaves to prove his veracity.

A Cropsey canvas like High Torne Mountain, Rockland County, New York (1850) carries Cole’s agitated impasto a step further, into a clotted mass of color touches. Cropsey, who after his marriage in 1847 lived some years in Rome and England, came under the influence of Turner; paintings like Starrucca Viaduct (1865), Dawn of Morning, Lake George (1868), and Greenwood Lake (1870) bathe in sunlight. The time of day—noon, dawn, and twilight respectively—becomes one of the picture’s subjects. In each, the still waters of a lake collect reflections, and the small figures present are there as viewers of natural splendor, rather than as actors in a Rosaesque melodrama. Cropsey came to the verge of impressionism and luminism without quite stepping over. The two Arcadian canvases, The Spirit of Peace (1851) and The Millennial Age (1854), influenced by Cole’s overtly Christian, allegorizing tendencies, seem primitive and garish in execution, their implausible landscapes littered with palm trees and imaginary monuments.

This sort of allegorical painting deflects a contemporary eye. But one of the curators’ centerpieces is Cole’s five-part series The Course of Empire (1834–1836), borrowed from the New-York Historical Society, where the five big (39 1/4” x 63 1/4”) canvases have been gathering dust since 1858. James Fenimore Cooper called the sequence “the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced.” With Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire plainly in mind, Cole follows the same picturesque bayside acreage—cleverly identified, in slightly differing perspectives, by a mountain topped by a rectangular boulder—through five stages of population: The Savage State, with wigwams, sparse bands of bow-and-arrow hunters, and a fleeing deer; The Pastoral or Arcadian State, with sheep, chiton-clad shepherds, and an intact replica of Stonehenge, evidently still in service; The Consummation of Empire, with more figures than the most fanatic bean-counter could count overflowing all the terraces and rooftops of a marble metropolis; Destruction, with slaughter, rape, collapsing bridges, drowning victims of their own decadence, and lots of smoke; and Desolation, with crumbling pillars and arches, a lowering sun, and two distant tiny deer, no longer hunted. Be warned, O nation of Manifest Destiny; thus is the course of empire.

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