• Email
  • Print

The Artist as Prospector

This engaging, farraginous show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, on Fifth Avenue, invites the viewer to think of the nineteenth-century landscape artist, usually envisioned as the independent producer of a luxury artifact, as, instead, a tool of commerce and real estate development. Frederic Church, who has recently played a starring role in 2002’s traveling (London, Philadelphia, Minneapolis) megashow “American Sublime” and this year’s exhibition “Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church,” at the National Academy Museum in New York,* extends his twenty-first-century revival by dominating the two other named artists in an assemblage subtitled “Tourism and the American Landscape.” Though Winslow Homer is represented by a number of amusing wood engravings and beautiful watercolors, and Thomas Moran adds his otherworldly West to the collective depiction of the relatively unspoiled American wilderness, it is Church whose heirs lodged over two thousand works in the collection of the Cooper Union Museum (as compared with more than three hundred by Homer and less than a hundred by Moran), and it is Church who, in his preternaturally deft and rapid oil sketches, most decisively places before us the thing itself, the New World’s nature.

The Cooper-Hewitt and its vast collection need some explaining, which Barbara Bloemink’s catalog introduction concisely provides. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was founded by Peter Cooper in 1859 “in order to provide practical courses for the education and self-improvement of the working class, particularly in the trades of engineering, illustration, industrial design, architectural drawing, and painting.” Cooper, born in New York City in 1791, was himself an inventor and a hands-on industrialist, whose fortune got its start in the glue business, greatly expanded in the iron industry, eventually included more than half the telegraph lines in the United States, and was significantly invested in philanthropy and the cause of public education. Cooper Union provided night classes so that working men could attend; an existing art school for women was incorporated into the institution, “in order to provide female students with the practical skills to become self-supporting designers and art teachers.”

A committee drawn from the distinguished artists on the faculty acquired contemporary drawings “to be used for teaching purposes,” but it wasn’t until 1897, fifteen years after Cooper’s death, that his three granddaughters—Sarah Cooper Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt, and Amelia Hewitt—founded “the first design and decorative-arts museum in the United States.” Their models were the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Victoria and Albert in London—stately grab bags whose polymorphous utility was expressed by Eleanor Hewitt at the museum’s founding: “For the worker, the source of inspiration is frequently found in the sight of an unexpected object, possibly one of an entirely different trade.” The sisters stocked their museum with buying sprees abroad; Dr. Bloemink states, “Many of the objects the sisters acquired were unusual and eclectic, reflecting an enormous range of works, from matchsafes and birdcages to wallpaper and fine lace.”

It was, then, for the training of artists that works of art were acquired, with a craft emphasis on preliminary drawings and sketches. Toward this pedagogic end the sisters and such advisers as the artist Eliot Clark and the collector Charles W. Gould acquired, in 1912, the gift of hundreds of Winslow Homer’s watercolors and drawings from the artist’s brother, and, in 1917, eighty-plus works from Thomas Moran himself. The same year saw the massive donation from Church’s son Louis, including most of the works remaining in his deceased father’s Hudson Valley mansion, Olana.

Church’s oil sketches, often dashed off on paperboard pinned to the inside of his paint-box lid, are marvels of an artist’s habituated eye and hand. Some, such as Sun Rising over Bar Harbor (circa 1860) and Sunset Across the Hudson Valley (1870), when reproduced in a catalog, belie with their grandeur their small size; others, like Coast at Mount Desert (Sand Beach) (circa 1850), Autumn Landscape in New England (circa 1865), and the seething, spray-filled Surf Pounding Against the Rocky Maine Coast(circa 1862) amaze us with the fineness of their quickly captured detail.

These plein-air notations were meant, of course, to be worked up as studio canvases of marketable dimension and finish, and were added to the Cooper-Hewitt collection as a professional master’s leftovers; their present aspect as delightfully fresh and free works of art had to wait until Impressionism loosened our sense of acceptable brushwork. Still, it is hard to see the two studies by Church of Mount Katahdin’s near slopes, both dated before 1878, one a foot square and the other fourteen by nine inches, as preliminary works, so poised is their composition and impressive their illusionism.

Church, a decade older than Homer and Moran, had the jump on the scenic high points of the American Northeast. As a young man he studied in the Catskills as the only student of Thomas Cole, the founder of American landscape painting. The Mountain House, Kaaterskill Falls, the Hudson Valley, the coast of Maine, Niagara Falls—he painted them all, and produced, in his seven-and-a-half-foot-wide oil Niagara (1857), housed at Washington’s Corcoran Art Galley, an image that, according to Gail S. Davidson’s catalog essay “Landscape Icons, Tourism, and Land Development in the Northeast,” “supplanted Niagara itself as the symbol of America.” Images, reproduced in popular magazines by painstaking wood engravings and lavished upon the middle classes in the photographic form of stereoscopic views, were a key to the solidification and spread of American identity from mid-century onward. Semi-tamed landscape had become a middle-class consumable with the development of vacation resorts, a process in which artists served as groundbreakers. The editor of The Nation, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, analyzed the process as early as 1883, in a tongue-in-cheek essay titled “The Evolution of the Summer Resort”; the cultural historian Hans Huth, in his serious 1957 work Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes, perceived a

three-phase development of resorts, which starts with artists and writers exploring a place and locals creating boarding houses to serve them. In the second phase, the boarding house becomes a rustic hotel filled initially by cultured and refined visitors, then by more economically diverse vacationers. In the final phase, the elite clientele, seeking refuge from the larger community of resorters, builds their own cottages with privately owned beaches.

Godkin puts it this way: “The hotel boarders, who have now become second-class citizens, are driven away to seek newer resorts; and the cycle begins again.”

Niagara Falls, the first and still-classic vacation sight, was swiftly overrun by tourists. Church’s magnificent paintings—his second large oil, Niagara Falls from the American Side(1867), came ten years after the epic view from the Canadian side—showed nary a soul of the throngs of visitors and vendors (some in Native American costume, the ancestors of the present day’s Falls-Side casino operators) that are visible in a more naive canvas like Ferdinand Reichardt’s Niagara (circa 1855). Entrepreneurs on both sides of the river erected industrial mills and ever-larger hotels, crowding views that remained, in Church’s representation, pristine. Church also, through the magic of thoughtful observation, triumphantly solved a technical problem which the photography of the time could not yet handle—the representation of running, rippling, falling water.

Though he displayed his most ambitious canvases for an admission fee, Church did not exploit the techniques of mass reproduction as Homer and Moran did. Homer produced black-and-white images, often reused in his paintings, that could be turned into woodcuts for such journals as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s, The Century, and Appletons’ Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. Moran began as a wood engraver; his craggy, rather Gothic views of the arid, mountainous West, based upon his own delicate watercolors, gouaches, and pencil sketches, supplied illustrated magazines and the massive two-volume album Picturesque America, or The Land We Live In, edited by no less an eminence than William Cullen Bryant. The artist’s western travels to the Yosemite Valley, the Sierras, and the Grand Canyon were underwritten by railroads and hotels hoping to attract tourists. Born in England and raised in Philadelphia, Moran was influenced by Ruskin and the paintings of J.M.W. Turner; his own paintings have a Turneresque, romantic, dematerializing tendency flattering to the stony realms portrayed. From prehistorical cave paintings of hunted bison up to medieval icons and Renaissance panoramas illustrating a cultural mythos, art had served social functions; it still served, as advertisements for travel and land development. Further, in the post–Civil War period, glamorized images of the vast American territory distracted North and South from their wounds.

Winslow Homer differed from Moran and Church in populating his vistas with live Americans. The figures in his popular wood engravings from the postbellum decades, such as The Summit of Mt. Washington and Summer in the Country, share an icy lack of facial expression and a lively complexity of costume. The conscious comedy of The Artist in the Country (a mustached dauber paints under a tilted umbrella while a comely spectator frowningly eyes his canvas; the original sketch had two painters working in tandem, as on an inspiration built for two) is rivaled by the unconscious comedy of sun hats multiplied like the sharp bills of a flock of birds in The Fishing Party, and the heavily garbed women anxiously peering out from Under the Falls, Catskill Mountains, and the two uncomfortably stiff gentlemen surrounded by roughing-it equipment in Camping Out in the Adirondacks. These representations of the wilderness being breached in clothes designed for the parlor nevertheless spelled out to the middle classes possibilities of activity hitherto restricted to the servant orders. A catalog essay by Sarah Burns, indeed, accuses Homer of inventing a type of false American pastoral; his sojourns at Houghton Farm, an estate, two hours from New York, run “in accordance with strictly scientific methods” by a well-heeled family, the Valentines, that Homer had known since his boyhood, yielded to the artist’s hand images of toothsome, dreaming shepherdesses: Bo-Peep (Girl with Shepherd’s Crook Seated by a Tree) (1878), Shepherdess Resting under a Tree (1878), Shepherdess Resting (circa 1877), and the superb watercolor Fresh Air (1878). Such visions of wholesome rural simplicity are, according to Burns, “transparently artificial concoctions that the artist himself had conceived, dressed, and staged” for “urban consumption at a time of vigorous, and problematic, metropolitan expansion.” Even Homer’s beloved image, painted in two versions, of country schoolboys playing snap-the-whip falls into this category of “concoction,” in the form of a study, dated 1872, in black and white chalk.

Homer’s drawings, sometimes present as tracings produced in the wood-engraving process, come off as works of art that, however casual, are superior to his rather stiff and surreal magazine illustrations and the colored tiles that, as a member of the Tile Club, a group of New York artists devoted to “ancient methods of hand craftsmanship,” he adorned with shepherdesses. His oil paintings on display at the Cooper-Hewitt, executed with a broader, slower brush than Church’s, provoke some verbal acrobatics in Floramae McCarron-Cates’s essay “The Best Possible View: Pictorial Representation in the American West.” Having observed the “detached immediacy” and compressed perspective of Homer’s wood engravings, she states of two, good-sized oils on display, each representing a single erect figure, respectively in fall and in blossom-time (Gathering Autumn Leaves, circa 1877; The Yellow Jacket, 1879), that “it is almost as if a sheet of glass were held up between the viewer and the figures represented, pulling the background forward, and resulting in an abstracted arrangement of forms.”

Even those unable quite to grasp this optical stunt can see that Homer of the three artists is the most modern; his early low-keyed Barbizon pastoralism brightened to a home-grown impressionism wherein spatial depth is of small concern. Two watercolors on view, Landscape with Deer in a Morning Haze (circa 1892) and Valley and Hillside (1889–1895), are virtually abstract (but for the tiny, poignantly alert deer), and his late, great oils eliminate humanity and confront, like Church’s Niagaras and Moran’s buttes and canyons, raw American nature—crashing waves and battered cliffs. The scenic Maine area of Prouts Neck, incidentally, where Homer built his final home and studio, had become, thanks to the shrewd purchases of the painter and his brother, a Homeric real estate development.

Development and the need to escape the overstuffed Victorian parlor motivated and recompensed American landscape painting, we are told. Karal Ann Marling’s concluding catalog essay, “America Inside Out: The View from the Parlor,” wittily speaks of “a dream of some fresh-air utopia visible only from the vantage point of the great indoors.” Fresh air, as eastern American cities, planted in coastal swamps, grew into massive infestations of humanity, was no small blessing in summertime. A wall card at the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition states, “The pictures made by artists…brought in ministers, lawyers, doctors, bankers, and teachers for their summer vacations.” It wasn’t just nostalgia for an imagined Native American freedom that settled the resorts, but concerns of health and comfort, even though the urban parlor accumulated souvenirs like vases depicting an Indian Encampment (Edward Timothy Hurley, 1909) and wallpaper of repeating braves in canoes. Longfellow’s greatly loved poem Hiawatha helped bring the Midwest’s northern lake country into the orbit of vacationeers.

The Cooper-Hewitt (which has its own pleasant outdoor space, and a paneled staircase evocative of an older, more stately scale of construction) has in its copious collection of designed objects a wealth of tickets, postcards, hotel registers, promotional posters, stereoscopic photographs, woven fishing baskets, and pottery depicting Catskill wonders, a sampling of which is on view to awaken in twenty-first-century breasts nostalgia for nostalgia of a pre-modern, more simply satisfied sort, when Arcadia was just a steamboat ride away and the sublime was a palpable sensation. But perhaps our forebears had a more complex relation to nature than we imagine. Nineteenth-century tourism received its most attentive description in William Dean Howells’s first, transparently autobiographical novel, Their Wedding Journey. Its hero, Basil March, enjoying, in 1870, the standard honeymoon swing north, at one point confides to his bride,

We come to Niagara in the patronizing spirit in which we approach everything nowadays, and for a few hours we have it our own way, and pay our little tributes of admiration with as much complacency as we feel in acknowledging the existence of the Supreme Being. But after a while we are aware of some potent influence undermining our self-satisfaction; we begin to conjecture that the great cataract does not exist by virtue of our approval, and to feel that it will not cease when we go away. The second day makes us its abject slaves, and on the third we want to fly from it in terror.

  1. *

    See the reviews in these pages: “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” August 15, 2002, and “Love of Fact,” March 23, 2006.

  • Email
  • Print