Magic Mountains by Donald Kuspit

Albert Bierstadt, Landscape Study: Estes Park, Colorado, Morning, ca. 1860. Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 12 3/4 x 8 3/4 in. Collection of Amy C. Liss

By DONALD KUSPIT, April, 2018       

Why should not we enjoy an original relation to the universe?...Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us, by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope around the dry bones of the past…?...There are new lands, new men, new thoughts.   

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” 1836                 

                  Looking at Albert Bierstadt’s Landscape Study: Estes Park, Colorado, Morning, an oil sketch made in 1859—it’s the keynote work of this fascinating exhibition (The Rockies and The Alps:  Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance of the Mountains)—one can’t help noting that it was painted more than a dozen years before Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise, 1872, a rendering of the harbor of Le Havre, Monet’s hometown, and the work that gave its name to Impressionism. Earlier, in 1834, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painted the Forest of Fontainebleau, the signature work of the Fontainebleau Forest School. Unlike the slick academic landscapes standard at the time, Corot’s more labile handling suggested a fresher vision of nature—a nature in process, a perpetually changing and living nature rather than an inert, perfected nature, an unchanging, eternalized and with that peculiarly dead nature, a nature in all its fresh immediacy rather than stale predictability. 

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872 

The trees in Corot’s painting seem imbued with atmosphere, the intricate interplay of shadow and light informs their leaves, rendering them peculiarly intangible, uncannily expressive.  Corot’s painting still had an academic subject matter—the reclining woman in the foreground was “readily identified…as Mary Magdalene,” “her solitude in the wilderness” a “traditional attribute of the saint”—but his handling was decidedly non-academic:  it prepared the way for the post-academic, “sketchy” handling, along with the dismissal of traditional religious subject matter, in impressionistic painting.  Nature and paint were the only gods the Impressionists worshipped.  Acknowledging Corot’s path-breaking importance, they invited him to participate in their first exhibition in 1874, but he declined. Nonetheless, “his pervasive influence was manifest in works by pupils and followers including Pissarro, Morisot, Renoir, Monet, and Sisley.”  

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1834

In 1855, almost two decades before the first impressionist exhibition, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, noting that “religious painting having died,” declared that “landscape is the victor of modern art…the pride of nineteenth-century painting.” From the “sincere communion” with nature “has come our masterpieces, the canvases of Troyon, Dupré, Rousseau, Français, Diaz,” among others. There’s no mention of Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, at its height from 1855 to 1875. The Brothers Goncourt seemed to have had no knowledge of it. It is unlikely that they had seen or heard of Cole’s seminal landscape painting View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After A Thunderstorm, 1836, commonly known as The Oxbow. It is unlikely that they had seen or heard of Asher Brown Durand’s Kindred Spirits, 1849. Francophiliac Parisians, it is likely they would not have appreciated the masterpieces of Frederic Edwin Church and Bierstadt, for they were influenced by the Düsseldorf School of Painting. There was no such thing as the American Landscape School—New World landscape paintings--for the Brothers Goncourt. And if they had seen them they would probably have regarded them as provincial and unsophisticated compared to Old World landscape paintings, for the terrain of the New World landscape paintings would have been unfamiliar and alien to them.

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm

It is crucial to understand that the European landscapes in the paintings that the Brothers Goncourt admired were critical, defensive, nostalgic, regressive responses to industrial progress— artistic antidotes to poisonous modernity--in contrast to the American landscapes in the Hudson River paintings. However much they also were meant to be critical of the industrialization of society, as Cole’s were, the New World nature pictured—preserved alive--in the Hudson River School paintings tended to be more wild--primordial, uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable—than the Old World nature pictured in the Barbizon School paintings that excited the Brothers Goncourt, where it seemed embalmed.  Or at least domesticated rather than untamable, comfortably familiar rather than foreign and estranging, like New World Nature. The New World nature that the American landscape painters depicted was not threatened by modernity, not yet exploited by industry, seemingly beyond the reach of civilization, and unpeopled, however much it was inhabited by Native Americans. But they were children of nature rather than civilized persons, for they wore deer skin and bird feathers, suggesting they were animals, as they do in John McCahey’s Ball Players, 1844.  

John McGahey after George Catlin, The Ball Players, 1844. Hand-colored lithograph, 161 1/2 × 22 11/16 in. Collection of the Newark Museum, Gift of Frank, H. Sommer III in memory of Frank H. and Kate W. Sommer, 1957

New World nature was unmarked by the march of civilization, while Old World nature was marred by it. Thus, as the Brothers Goncourt famously write, “It is when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plough it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the field, when industry pens man in, when, at last, man remakes the earth like a bed, that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time, conquers her through study, surprises her, ravishes her, transports her living and flagrante delicto on pages and canvases with an unequaled veracity. Will landscapes become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes?” The French painters wanted to recover a lost paradise—a paradise of inextinguishable light and inexhaustible color in Impressionism, a paradise that was always young and fresh, never grew old and decayed—while the American painters had found a prelapsarian paradise of monumental mountains, grand spaces, and magnificent trees, the wondrous paradise God created before Adam and Eve cursed it with guilt.  Carleton Emmons Watkins’ El Capitan, 3300 Feet, Yosemite, 1870s and Eadweard Muybridge’s Loyal Sentinel Rock, 3,270 Feet from Union Point, Yosemite Valley, 1872, had never been crucified by industry—socialized beyond recognition and redemption—which is why they didn’t have to be resurrected by art, only hailed and honored by it. 

The exhibition makes it clear that painting and photography were regarded as equally important mediums when it came to recording and documenting the unusual terrain of the American West. Many of the paintings began as sketches, later refined into paintings in the studio.  The sketches were made on site, as were the photographs, but the sketches were incomplete, while the photographs were complete at once, however much they had to be developed.  They took in a whole scene—every detail—simultaneously and spontaneously, as Watkins’ and Muybridge’s Yosemite photographs suggest, while the paintings are composites of details, slowly constructed and oddly artificial, however convincingly natural the total scene, as Bierstadt’s View in the Yosemite, 1864 suggests. They do not cohere into a whole, synchronize into unity, but hang together, sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely, some incidentally attached to another, some magnetically attracted to another:  we tend to see Bierstadt’s painting piecemeal rather than as a whole. 

Albert Bierstadt Yosemite Valley, 1868

The photographs have an air of immediacy:  the scene is instantly and insistently present, taken in and comprehended at first sight--every nuance of light and shadow, the ins and outs of the spaces, the subtle texture of the rocks, accurately articulated with excruciating precision—while the paintings seem to struggle to convey the perceptual truth, the hard and complex facts of the scene.  The photographs are creative apperceptions, to use the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s term, that is, the photographers seem to create into the hard rock—their subject “matter”—achieving a certain emotional as well as perceptual intimacy and rapport with it.  In contrast, the paintings remain outside the scene, which remains remote, altogether beyond the painter, a distant onlooker, voyeuristically curious about the glorious, mysterious body of Mother Nature.  Thus we see Bierstadt’s Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, 1866 from a seemingly immeasurable distance, suggesting Mt. Rosalie is unreachable and unclimbable, however seductive it is veiled by the storm, making it all the more magical, as much fantasy as reality, even more fantasy than reality.  An ecstatic presence rather than a sober sight, it is a tempting dream come true.     

Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie

The photographs of Watkins and Muybridge lend themselves to meditation--deep contemplation, even reverie—but they seem unpremeditated, no doubt in part because they were unprecedented:  never seen before and suddenly come upon, El Capitan and the Loyal Sentinel Rock seem fresh and unsullied—virginal nature affording instant perceptual and aesthetic gratification, rewarding our curiosity with their remarkable presence, overwhelming us with their intimidating size.  Looking at their photographs, we have no sense that a machine mediated the scene, while Worthington Whittredge’s Kallenfels, 1856 is clearly mediated by his hand.  His conspicuous brushstrokes, intricately interacting to form a picture-generating matrix, seem as engaging and exciting—even more engaging and exciting—than his picture of the rocky mountain.  His expressive “handiwork”—dare one call it proto-expressionist?--seems more to the point of the picture—sections of it even look abstract expressionist--than the scene pictured.  After taking in the awe-inspiring scene, I found myself thinking it was beside the point of the vivid painterliness, there for its own aesthetic sake, and conveying the intense pleasure Whittredge took in painting.  

Looking at the many paintings by the many artists in the exhibition, it seems clear that they enjoyed painting—invested themselves in it as much they projected themselves into the scene, mastering it through their mastery of paint.  They climbed the mountains with their art; informed with their ambition, the mountains symbolize the artistic heights they reached.  One wonders if the fact that they painted the Rocky Mountains rather than the Fontainebleau Forest—nature at its “height” rather than “down to earth”—makes their art more compelling than the art of the Barbizon School painters.  And than the art of the French impressionist painters, who unwittingly disparaged nature’s reality by reducing it to an atmospheric sketch, facilely charged with casual feeling but irresponsible to observed fact.  I think there is something dissipated and cozy about French Impressionism—it’s after all drawing room painting--in contrast to the hardiness and forcefulness of Hudson River School and Rocky Mountain School painting--adventurous outdoor painting.

I think 19th century American landscape painting is more significant than 19th century French landscape painting.  In 19th century American landscape painting the subjective and the objective tend to converge:  the complex, deep feelings nature aroused in the painter, all the more complex and deep because of nature’s seemingly unfathomable complexity, and his exacting attention to its surface appearance, as though getting the facts of its givenness right would enable him to comprehend its raison d’etre--suggesting that American landscape painting had a metaphysical purpose and meaning, physical description of nature being a means to a philosophical end, a way of questioning and gaining insight into nature.  In 19th century French landscape painting the subjective and the objective tend to remain separate:  the Brothers Goncourt emphasize its “unequaled veracity”—its diligent account of the facts of nature, unaware that may be what T. S. Eliot calls “objective correlates” of the feelings aroused by it. The Barbizon School painters tend to err on the side of fact, the Impressionists on the side of feeling:  in the Hudson River School painters and the Rocky Mountain School painters fact and feeling are inseparable.  The American landscape painters seem to have overcome what T. S. Eliot called the dissociation of sensibility, the problem of modern art, as he suggested—perhaps because the American landscape demanded total involvement, all the more so because it was new and unexpected and unfamiliar, a sort of emotional as well as physical terra incognita, unlike the European landscape, which was all too familiar, more of a park than a wilderness, a space of repose rather than surprise.  

Worthington Whittredge, The Wetterhorn, 1858. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 54 in. Collection of the Newark Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Katzenbach, 1965 

The exhibition also makes it clear that living outdoors and viewing the mountains was emotionally liberating—had a therapeutic effect.  Happily leaving the city when he made his first trip to the Rockies in 1859, Bierstadt wrote:  “I enjoy life exceedingly.  This living out of doors, night and day, I find of great benefit….I do not know what some of your Eastern folks would say, who call night air injurious, if they could see us wake up in the morning with dew on our faces!”  Similarly, in 1916, John Singer Sargent, represented in the exhibition by Camping Near Lake O’Hara, a remarkably spontaneous, vivid watercolor, described the joie de vivre he felt camping outdoors in the great wilderness, a joie de vivre that clearly informs his watercolor.  Camping out doors—living in the rough, as Theodore Roosevelt, also a devotee of unhouse-broken nature, put it—was clearly creatively as well as emotionally liberating for the artists.  Coming in contact with primary nature put them in contract with primary creativity, to use the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s concept, his alternative to Freud’s concept of primary narcissism.  Just as Antaeus gained strength when he maintained contact with his Mother Nature, so the artists who travelled West to raw nature gained strength when they left the refined and cautious East.  It was a move away from the sickening cities to health-giving nature.  They made the move and their art to recuperate from neurasthenia, in the 19th century regarded as the characteristic emotional sickness of modern life.  The concept appeared as early as 1829, when it was regarded as a “mechanical weakness of the nerves,” and reintroduced in 1869 as an emotional condition, “characterized especially by physical and mental exhaustion (such as headache and irritability)…often associated with depression or emotional stress…sometimes considered similar to or identical with chronic fatigue syndrome.”  It was thought to be brought on by “the accelerated pace of modern life.”  In the 19th century it was a “fashionable disease,” especially among artists and writers.  It seems worth noting that in the none of the artists accounts of their travels in the wild West and of the hard work they did there outdoors is there any mention of feeling fatigued.  On the contrary, they had more energy—inexhaustible energy—than they had when they were indoors working back East.    

John Singer Sargent, Camping Near Lake O'Hara, 1916. Watercolor on paper, 25 x 30 1/2 in. Collection of the Newark Museum, Purchase 1957 Felix Fuld Bequest Fund 

The American painters of the Rocky Mountains tend to view them from a distance, as though to take in the entire scene, as Bierstadt does in Mountain Lake, 1863, William Smith Jewett does in Yosemite Falls, 1859, Sanford Robinson Gifford does in Valley of the Chugwater, Wyoming Territory, 1870, and Ralph Blakelock does in Western Landscape, ca. 1871. In contrast, Alexandre Calame, the Swiss painter of the Alps, tends to immerse us in them, as he does in Rocky Path, 1860, The River Lütschine near Lauterbrunnen, ca. 1862—all but overrun by rocks—and Glacier de Corner, Vallée de Viege, undated, as does Gabriel Loppé in View of Mont Blanc, undated, and Gustavus Frankenstein in Milky Lake, Alps, ca. 1868.  The Americans prefer the vista, as though keeping at a safe distance from the dangerous mountains, while the Swiss fearlessly venture into the scene, as though to gain a more intimate and with that exciting experience of it—have a so-called lived experience of the mountains rather than a passive appreciation of them.  I am speaking generally, but it seems that for the Americans the mountains are remotely sublime, for the Swiss they are intimately sublime, perhaps because they had long familiarity with them, and had climbed them and become accustomed to them, so that their was nothing strange about their presence.  One didn’t have to go far out of the city to see them, as one did to see the Rocky Mountains, and one could see many of them from the city—Zürich was surrounded by them--indicating that were everyday phenomena of nature.  For the Americans the Rocky mountains were not only unfamiliar—altogether different than the more familiar Appalachian Mountains and thus utterly strange--but seemingly unconquerable, which made them seem uncanny.  In many of the paintings the atmosphere seems to form an aura around them, suggesting they were sacred presences—signs of God’s presence, as though on the day of their creation.  The Alps had already been created and were age old, the Rocky Mountains were still growing—getting higher—and young.  They were still in the process of being created—hence, as I suggested, the process painting look of some of the American paintings of them—rather than finished products, as the Alps were, hence the more finished look of the Swiss paintings of them.

Gabriel Loppé, View of Mont Blanc, 1896. Oil on canvas, 19 x 14 in. Asbjørn Lunde Collection

Alexandre Calame, Lake with Cabin and Fishermen (possibly Lake Lucerne), ca. 1850-60. Oil on canvas, 11 1/2 x 16 3/16 in. Asbjørn Lunde Collection

Kant distinguishes between the “mathematical sublime,” “that in comparison with which everything else is small,” and the “dynamic sublime,” when we experience nature as “fearful.”  The Rocky Mountains and the Alps are both mathematically sublime, as their enormous, seemingly unmeasurable size indicates, and dynamically sublime, for their trans-human size—transcendental grandeur?--makes them fearful.  Their “apparent omnipotence” makes us feel “impotent” and “small.” “But,” Kant adds, “the sight of them is attractive in proportion to their fearfulness so long as we find ourselves in security; and we readily call such things sublime because they elevate the power of our souls above their wont level…so nature is called elevated or sublime because she elevates the imagination.”  It clearly does so for the painters of the Rocky Mountains and the Alps:  they don’t humble themselves before the mountains, but creatively climb them, imaginatively transforming them into aesthetic gold, things of rare beauty.

The exhibition was organized by Tricia Laughlin Bloom, the curator of American Art at the Newark Museum, New Jersey.  The catalogue contains scholarly essays by Patricia Mainardi, Katherine Manthorne, and James M. Saslow, as well as Tricia Laughlin Bloom. WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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