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 the achievement of American literature in the 1850s; and John Wilmerding goes so far as to compare a painting by Fitz Hugh Lane—Brace’s Rock of 1864—with its contemporary, the Gettysburg Address.

These are prodigious claims. Many visitors to the National Gallery will have never so much as heard of Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, John F. Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and Jasper F. Cropsey, on whose behalf these claims are made. And although Frederic Edwin Church in his lifetime was rated very highly indeed he has only lately re-entered the popular imagination on the grounds that his Icebergs: The North made a colossal price at auction. (Those are grounds that Church himself would have heartily approved, by the way.) It is not necessarily the act of a philistine to wonder whether the achievement of these painters can really rank not only with a speech that bound up the wounds of the nation but with the achievement of Melville, Whitman, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson.

To live up to the claims that are now being made for it, the luminist achievement would have to be one of the great human formulations. Furthermore, it would have to be seen to have come about at exactly the right time and remind us of what Emerson said in Representative Men: that “there is a moment in the history of every nation when…the perceptive powers reach their ripeness and have not yet become microscopic. That is the moment of adult health, the culmination of power.”

And, sure enough, it is upon Emerson that the case for the luminists has drawn heavily ever since luminism itself was first given its name, just twenty-six years ago. It was John I.H. Baur, as early as 1947, who made a first attempt to isolate the luminist element in American nineteenth-century landscape painting. “Pantheistic realism” was one of the ways in which he described it then, and he said among other things that “American light looks quite different from that of Europe,” thereby singling out the indigenous quality that has been made so much of by later enthusiasts. But the American light in question did not function merely as a form of garnish unavailable elsewhere. It was what Emerson could be presumed to have had in mind when he wrote in “The Over-Soul” that the soul in mankind was “not an organ, not a faculty, but a light….”


Emersonian, likewise, is the trait by which a painting can be recognized as specifically luminist: the absence of “stroke” (in other words, of any visible movement of the brush). Absence of stroke is fundamental to luminism as it was defined by Mr. Baur in 1954 and as it is redefined with an exceptional cogency by Professor Novak in the Washington catalogue. Here is Mr. Baur in 1954:

Luminism is a polished and meticulous realism in which there is no sign of brushwork and no trace of impressionism, the atmospheric effects being achieved by infinitely careful gradations of tone, by the most exact study of the relative clarity of near and far objects, and by a precise rendering of the variations in texture and color produced by direct or reflected rays.

And here, a quarter of a century later, is Barbara Novak:

The absence or presence of stroke would seem to be a decisive factor in determining whether we are dealing with luminism. Stroke carries with it the sense of paint. When this happens, the idea of light as pure emanation gives way to an idea of paint that approximates or represents light. The illusion is lifted. We remember that we are dealing with a painting of light, not with light itself. The reminder of the actual process of painting recalls to us the agent of process, the painter. It denotes not only the artist’s activity, but the artist’s presence. That presence introduces us to a self who, as it were, stands between the image seen and the spectator. The more that artist’s self, embedded in the “signature” of stroke, occupies our attention, the less we are dealing with the selfless image of luminism.

And, later, in the same passage:

Stroke lessens the hyper-clarity of object penetration central to Baur’s 1954 definition of luminism. In luminism, the absence of stroke heightens the textural properties of natural elements beyond the compass of normal vision: the hard, taut ripples in a lake, the crystallinity of rocks, the minute identities of pebbles. Luminist anonymity erases both artist and spectator and penetrates thingness, the Ding an sich.

Professor Novak here identifies two key elements in luminism: the abdication of the ego, which normally can find exalted expression in brushwork, and the crystalline vision. Both can be linked to an Emersonian view of the relationship between mankind and nature, even if Emerson himself knew nothing of the luminist painters and did not even care much for landscape painting. (Conceivably his relationship with nature was so intense that he resented the intrusion of another human being upon it.) There is a famous passage in his “Nature” in which Emerson describes how “all mean egotism vanishes” when he is in the presence of Nature: “I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing: I see all.” And the “selfless image” of luminism does indeed find its equivalent in Emerson’s account of how water looks when seen from a canoe: “I had never seen such transparency, such eddies: it was the hue of Rhine wines, it was jasper and verd-antique, topaz and chalcedony, it was gold and green and chestnut and hazel….”

That luminist practice ran parallel to certain aspects of Emerson’s transcendentalism and can therefore claim kinship with one of the more consequential climates of feeling in nineteenth-century America is not difficult to accept. But it should also be said that the Emersonian eyeball was only a part of Emerson. The entranced spectator of life in the deep forest was also the man who said that “banks and tariffs, the newspaper and the caucus…rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the Temple of Delphi.” Luminism has nothing to do with banks and tariffs, and the luminists in general did not think it their business to bother with Delphi or Troy. If they were Emersonians, it was in relation to one aspect of Emerson only.

It must further be said, and it is amply made clear at the National Gallery of Art, that they took a view of the constituency of painting which by the standards of their immediate predecessors, and of many of their contemporaries, was decidedly limited. Except as a spatial coordinate, the human figure plays almost no part in luminist painting. Cities and towns, likewise, are banished. If there is a house, here or there, no one is ever at home. Birds and beasts are out of favor. With the exception of Church, whose credentials as a luminist are at best intermittent, the luminists tended to the European point of view that spectacular natural beauty and high art do not sit well together.


In this way the luminists cut themselves off from many of the more robust satisfactions that painting has to offer. The disappearance of “stroke” could well be, and in particular may seem to some of us today, the mark of a superior selflessness, but to those who had been brought up on stroke (and plenty of it) it seemed a deprivation. Thomas Cole had accustomed his countrymen to the idea that an American painter could take the whole of human history for his subject matter and not be worsted. The Hudson River painters had worked with the illimitable profusion of America’s natural resources, seeking to prove that no matter how multitudinous the leafage or how far beyond measurement the tonnage of moving water, the steady and visible to-and-fro of the brush would be equal to the occasion. George Caleb Bingham had taken the rough-and-tumble of everyday life on the Mississippi and elsewhere and mated it with European notions of classical figure-composition. Others worked with the facts of American social history the way an experienced middleweight works with the facts of a fifteen-round fight. To those who took the importance of American people and their appearance in close-up as fundamental there might seem something passive and finical about the activity of the luminists.

This question is not shirked either at the National Gallery of Art or in the book that goes with the show, which includes a great picture by Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen of 1846, to speak for the uninhibited physical activity that is banished from luminism. There are mainline Hudson River paintings to put the case for a more inclusive art. Robert Salmon’s Wharves of Boston (1829) points up the difference between the straightforward steady-handed recording of a given scene and the poetics of luminism. No one who loves these things can say that they are scamped. But when we come to the luminist paintings of Fitz Hugh Lane there can be no doubt, at least for me, that a wholly different presence transforms the secular scene. It is with us as it is with the soprano soloist who steals in upon the last movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet no. 2: we seem to breathe an air that is different from any other that we know, an air “from other planets.”

The paintings in question are small in size, introspective in tone, and elegiac in their subject matter. Never was painting further from rhetoric than in Lane’s glassy and vespertinal Brace’s Rock series, with its minutely plotted lines of bare rock, salt water stilled by low tide and windlessness, once-sturdy boats long beached and derelict, and scant and wry allusions to the tenacity of nature. It is difficult not to see in this deserted cove, from which the tide seems to have ebbed once and for all, a place in which great hopes have been laid to rest and great hurts endured in solitude.

If this reading is correct, Fitz Hugh Lane here presents us with images of bereavement that are as remarkable for subtlety and discretion as they are for depth and straightforwardness of feeling. Lane himself was a cripple: a man condemned to sit on the seashore and watch the life of the seafaring man from a safe distance. Necessarily he had sat out the years of the Civil War in a privileged immunity. So far as conventional reporting is concerned, no man could have seen less of action. But visitors to the National Gallery may doubt that the Civil War was ever more finely memorialized than in these restrained and quite small paintings, where all nature is at half mast and a universal tenderness can be sensed but never turns oozy. It is on this reading that Brace’s Rock may be compared without hyperbole to the Gettysburg Address.

It was the particular grace of Fitz Hugh Lane that he could build up, piece by piece, an iconography of consolation at a time when his country had most need of it. He knew that what Emerson called “the moment of adult health, the culmination of power” might also be the moment at which collective griefs need to find outlet in emblems of a timeless, egoless character. He also knew that, given his particular gifts, those emblems could not be cobbled together in improvisational style. There is in fact a sense in which the Brace’s Rock series is anti-Emersonian. Emerson had once asked himself, “Do not the great always live extempore, mounting to heaven by the stairs of surprise?” and the form of the question implied the answer “Yes.” But there is no question in the Brace’s Rock series of “living extempore,” let alone of “mounting the stairs of surprise.” Not until Georges Seurat worked at Gravelines in 1890 were paintings more carefully plotted or more exactly adjusted toward a long-foreseen end.

It is relevant that more than one of the luminists had served an apprenticeship as an engraver. (There was even one who had been put to engraving banknotes, than which no firmer way of eliminating the individual ego in art has yet been devised.) The engraver learns to subdue his hand, to arrest the spontaneity of his eye, and to keep in mind an ideal of infallible measurement. Engraving, thus described, can sound like serfdom, but it so happens that the traits in question reappear, exalted and transcended, in the poetics of luminism. Barbara Novak put this well in her earlier book, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (1969): “Measure was one of the most important aspects of the luminist sensibility—not only for ordering the space of the picture, but also for controlling by careful degrees the tonal modulations by which the object could emerge from ideograph to thing and then out into the palpable, radiating presence of the luminist light.” Whether the luminists were born with, or had grimly to learn, that “natural skill for mensuration” which Emerson admired in Thoreau, they put it to great uses. It is not only time that is suspended in their best paintings, but human frailty also.

But what if the “air from other planets” gets thin after a while? And what if there are states of mind and attitudes of being, not to mention données of nature, which cannot be fully rendered within the limits of a chastened ego and a meticulous and strokeless arrangement of horizontal planes in an uninhabited universe? What, in a word, if there are situations to which the poetics of luminism are irrelevant? An angelic presence is all very well, and there are wounds which must be bound up if we are not to die of them, but there is also such a thing as a whole human body which has need of terrestrial presences. What if luminism, if seen in the setting of a nation reborn to health, were to seem like a conspiracy of invalids?

To uneasinesses such as these, John Wilmerding has a five-word answer: “Look at Frederic Edwin Church.” It is not his only answer: there is for instance the fact that elements of luminism found their way into American photography at that same time, thereby suggesting that the luminist aesthetic corresponded rather to nationwide concerns than to the whim of half a dozen painters who lived in the East: but we sense that for Mr. Wilmerding, Frederic Edwin Church is the indispensable complement to the exact, delicate, small-scale, introspective, and stay-at-home art of Fitz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade.

It is for instance with reference to Church, if at all, that Mr. Wilmerding can justify one of his earlier salvoes in American Light: the claim that luminism’s “crystalline pictures of the 1850s stand as supreme manifestations of Jacksonian optimism and expansiveness.” There is nothing Jacksonian about sitting still and minding your own business. Nor are “optimistic” and “expansive” among the words that come to mind when we look at paintings that have to do above all with stillness, inactivity, and inwardness. It was Church who had the measure of what is sometimes called “the Era of Manifest Destiny,” and it was in paintings by Church that the Americans of the 1850s recognized a heroic projection of themselves. With New England Scenery (1851), with Niagara (1857), and with Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) he habituated his fellow-countrymen to the idea that landscape painting should be all-encompassing. Church had unlimited energy (he could spend ten hours at the easel and not feel exhausted). There were no limits to his ambition. He was an annexationist by nature: a man who no sooner heard of a new and strange landscape, whether in the tropics, in the Andes, or in the Arctic, than he burned to possess it. Where Fitz Hugh Lane may put us in mind of one of the noblest of all human utterances, it has to be said that Frederic Edwin Church in his larger undertakings was not merely the contemporary, but the peer, of P.T. Barnum. What less can we say of a man who could make even an iceberg look gaudy?

Church was fine-looking, born to money, an immediate social success, a man with a hard head for business and a prodigious worker and self-improver. He was a born explorer, a master of spectacular effects and an inspired showman. But he had very little to do with luminism. Rarely has an ego been more strongly developed, or more fiercely to the fore, than his. He was big on stroke, moreover. So far from craving the holy quiet of the transcendentalist, he exemplified what one critic (in 1859) called “the onward march of civilization, characteristic alike of the western backwoodsman, the Arctic explorer, the southern filibuster, and the northern merchant.” His was a nationalist without nuance and a religiosity that makes us want to call Lucifer long-distance and set up a luncheon date.

The fact that Church was a master of the small oil sketch from nature and a man of untold vigor and resource who gave pleasure to hundreds of thousands of people does not make it any the less inappropriate to discuss him along with Lane, Heade, and Kensett, or to hang his flamboyant and huge-scale undertakings with their smaller and less assertive ones. (There is also the matter of the world view to which Church subscribed. “The faith in Manifest Destiny”—according to David C. Huntington in his The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, first published in 1966—“was the faith that natural history had dictated the Anglo-Saxon domination of the great North American continent. By extension, this preferred nation was ultimately ordained to regenerate the whole world.”)

During the early years of the luminist revival no one bothered about Church. John Baur never mentioned him. In the Karolik collection, which was given to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1949 and precipitated the rediscovery of luminism, Church had only a very small part. In Barbara Novak’s earlier book, eleven years ago, he was roasted on a slow fire until she decided to take him down. (There were references to “the morality of the Hollywood spectacular,” to “a rhetoric of grandeur,” to “a domestication of Wagnerian titanism for democratic purposes,” and to “parodies of high-mindedness and a magnification of popular taste.”)

But then major paintings by Church began to be bought once again for major American collections, and it became clear that in any discussion of nature and culture in American history (such as is the subject of Barbara Novak’s new book) Church would necessarily be important. It became clear, moreover, that when Church was still a wonder-boy in his twenties, and before he got hold (from 1856 onward) of a whole new gamut of synthetic colors, he did undeniably have an influence on the luminist painters. It is not easy to admit Church to the luminist canon without its being crushed by the sheer weight of his output, but in that particular crisis John Wilmerding may be said to turn on a dime as he finally comes up with his conclusion: that “while Church’s handling of composition and paint only peripherally borders on Luminism, the sense of vast stillness verging on an imminent crescendo of light and sound had a profound impact on the movement.”

As will by now be clear to those who are familiar with American art history, there is in the rediscovery of luminism, and in its elevation to the highest rank in American painting, an implicit affront to the Hudson River school as it is traditionally constituted. John Wilmerding spells that out, indeed, for anyone who has not got the point already. “By proposing Luminism as the conclusive development of early American landscape painting (in contrast to the traditional and often uneven Hudson River school surveys), one can view it as the central movement in American art through the middle of the nineteenth century.”

As to this, we shall doubtless hear something from those who still believe that luminism was a subdivision of the Hudson River school which happened to have an outpost on the seashore between Newport and Narragansett. Meanwhile it is fair to say once again that long before luminism reached a safe and luxurious harbor in the West Wing of the National Gallery, much of the rough work in its defense was done by Professor Novak. She it was in 1969 who spoke in passing of “the so-called Hudson River school” and derided “Durand, Kensett, Church and Bierstadt” for having practiced (“sometimes almost interchangeably”) a formula composed of “bucolic sentiment, Claudian design, and ‘near-looking’ detail.” In reading this and other passages of hers we remember what Emerson said of American controversialists—that they “all lack nerve and dagger”—and we regret that he did not live to eat his words after reading these particular pages.

In Nature and Culture, Professor Novak’s intentions are not polemical. What she has in mind is a philosophical interpretation of mid-nineteenth-century American art. Instead of proceeding from one artist to another and giving each one of them grades, she examines the implication for American painting of religion, philosophy, science, exploration, ecology, modes of transport, cloudscape and cloud structure, the garden and the wilderness, botany, geology, and natural history. It is a thinker’s book, as much as a looker’s, and it could be read with pleasure and enlightenment even by people who have never looked at a painting and have no intention of starting now.

Partisanship plays almost no part in her analysis—Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness is the jacket illustration—and it is only tangentially that we can work our way back to the subject of the luminists. We can hardly fail to think of them, for instance, when Barbara Novak quotes Emerson as saying that “Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it.” With the necessarily immobile figure of Fitz Hugh Lane still in our minds, we find a particular meaning in a remark which she quotes from Thoreau: “He will get to the Goal first who stands stillest.” But this is too capacious a book to be given any one meaning or assigned any one limited terrain.

Meanwhile what was initially a minority cult has turned in recent years into something of an East Coast orthodoxy. Theodore Stebbins, Jr., of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has been an enthusiast of the luminists ever since he was a graduate student at Harvard in 1966 and addressed himself to the problem of “Luminous Landscape: The American Study of Light 1860-1875”; and in his contribution to American Light he proves a powerful and committed ally of John Wilmerding and Barbara Novak. His brief is to outline what might be called “international luminism,” as it can be found in major museums all the way from London to Leningrad, but before beginning on that he speaks of Heade and Gifford as having “produced some of the most intelligent and poetic of American paintings.” (He also, by the way, has a stab at defining the position of luminism in American art once and for all by saying that it was not a progressive movement, but rather “a last-ditch attempt to make the Hudson River School serve the complex psychic and aesthetic needs of post-Civil War America.”)

Something in this near-unanimity among scholars who are also contemporaries is owed, beyond a doubt, to a sense of common enterprise. To have been in on the rediscovery of luminism during the 1950s and 1960s was an adventure of the kind, and of the size, that binds people together for life. (A similar collective warmth is characteristic of recent studies of Georges de La Tour, likewise long neglected.) Something is owed to the fact that luminism is presented by many—though not by all—of its champions as wholly indigenous to this country. But to this foreign observer it seems relevant that luminism has been rediscovered in times that in many ways are similar to those in which it first came into being. May it not be for this reason, as much as for any other, that it arouses so intense a loyalty?

To be precise: luminism flourished after an ugly and demoralizing war. It was a time—here I quote Bishop Mc-Ilvaine—of “rebuke, and darkness, and apparent deep discouragement.” It was a time, as Walt Whitman said in 1871, when “the official services of America…are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood and maladministration….” We do not need to press these parallels point by point to agree that in the America of the 1870s luminist painting was a school of consolation. American Light may cause hard feelings here and there, but American light as captured by the luminists is today what it was in the 1850s and 1860s: healing light.

This Issue

May 29, 1980