July 5-11, 2002
American Sublime: Epic Landscapes of Our Nation, 1820-1880Through Aug. 25, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad & Cherry sts., 215-972-7600, www.pafa.org
It’s hard to imagine a better venue for “American Sublime,” which originated at London’s Tate Britain, than the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The industrial/Gothic Victorian building was designed by Frank Furness and George W. Hewitt in 1876, right at the end of the period covered by the exhibition. The colorful, extravagant galleries are exactly the kind of setting in which these 19th-century paintings were intended to be seen. In addition, works in PAFA’s permanent collection, like Benjamin West’s unfathomable, monstrous Death on a Pale Horse, historically set the stage for the grand canvases of the sublime Hudson River School painters.
At least since the Greek philosopher Longinus used the word hypsous (height) to convey the idea of greatness or nobility, we've recognized the sublime as an aspect of art. Edmund Burke analyzed the sublime as an emotion in 1757. It became an important factor in forming the taste of the 18th century. Kant, the philosopher most closely identified with the sublime, said that it must be grounded in space and time and embody a sense of limitlessness or vastness. Kant's contention that the sublime is connected with a sense of virtue and spirituality is dubious. The destruction and violence that inspire the powerful emotions of terror and awe of any ilk know no morality.
Death on a Pale Horse, though a bit stiff and stagey to some eyes, is a good example of over-the-top Wagnerian destruction. At PAFA, you will want to compare it to Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire." Setting his five pictures in the same imaginary landscape, Cole begins with wilderness in The Savage State. The Arcadian State introduces a pastoral Greek civilization. In the flower-decked, white-marble city of The Consummation of Empire, the largest work in the series, a decadent population celebrates the return of a conquering general. Of Destruction, Cole wrote, "Luxury has weakened and debased. A savage enemy has entered the town ..." In this painting, an analogue to West's Death, a maiden leaps to her death to avoid rape and men struggle among the bodies of murdered children. In the final picture, Desolation, the city has fallen into picturesque ruins, peaceful in the moonlight.
When Cole composed "The Course of Empire," he felt America moving toward the consummation phase, but he clearly foresees the price of excess. That theme is embodied more subtly in many "Sublime" works. In fact, the more pristine the American landscape appears, the more we anticipate future depredations yet unlimned.
The first picture in the show, Asher B. Durand's Kindred Spirits, is a touchstone of American landscape painting and of the related Emersonian transcendental philosophy. Durand shows his mentor Cole, recently deceased, conversing with the writer William Cullen Bryant. They stand on a rocky outcropping overlooking a gorge. Not only is the great painter gone, but the solitary enjoyment of this wilderness is soon to vanish as well.
John Ruskin's devotion to nature and its particularities was an important literary influence. Frederick Church, the most bankable landscape painter of his day, traveled widely and made wonderful sketches of what he saw. Back home, he composed huge, accurate representations of places most viewers would never visit. They paid to see just one of Church's big paintings, such as Niagara (1857). Vast, detailed and original in its treatment of "a view," it dispenses with traditional stagelike European composition. Gone are repoussoir elements, such as clumps of trees and grasses set at the sides to suggest depth. As in the work of American abstractionists like Jackson Pollock, every inch of Niagara is equally important to the whole.
Church often includes images of crosses in his paintings. He was an ardent supporter of the North during the Civil War. The red sky in Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) is believed to foreshadow the War Between the States. The lack of references to human habitation in this piece also hints at his disillusionment with the consequences of "civilization" on God's creation.
With its lush blue clouds and warm slash of oblique sunlight, Albert Bierstadt's Storm in the Rocky Mountains is displayed draped with red velvet, as it would have been in the 19th century. The "Mt. Rosalie" in the painting is fictitious, but it is characteristic of mountains Bierstadt had actually seen. Thomas Moran also specialized in painting the West, including an almost psychedelic representation of the Grand Canyon. It must have been a dilemma for Moran. The railroad commissioned paintings from him to encourage the tourism that sullied these pristine landscapes -- though paintings like these also helped to protect some natural environments.
Other artists in the exhibition include John Kensett, Sanford Gifford and Martin Heade. Two major paintings by Church in the London show, The Icebergs and Cotopaxi (actually on the cover of the super-excellent catalog), are missing here. These are significant losses, but they should not put off potential visitors.