The American Wing at the Met
American art ended after Abstract Expressionism went international. The subsequent movement, Contemporary Art, which began life known as “Post-Modern Art”, may have begun in America with Cornell and Warhol and Rauschenbusch, but it went international very fast and has now been the style of art all over the world for a very long time, some forty years now, though I have no idea why, and looks much the same in Paris and Shanghai and Seattle as it does in New York.
The American art that preceded it began in the Colonial Period and ended in the 1940’s. This art was dominated by large canvases devoted to realistic landscapes and only slightly stylized portrayals of rural and then city life. Towards the end of the era of distinctly American art, photographs by Riis competed with Bellows and Hopper to provide a sense of how it was. Muralists and other WPA artists told the story of the American worker as a hero. Much of the work seems simple because it is so directly accessible, and so perhaps too much of a concession to popular taste, and so more entertainment or commercial art than it is high art. Ever has it been such in American art. The charge of being sentimental can be leveled against Sidney Mount’s “genre paintings”, and is applicable as well to Sergeant, whose portraits of women are meant to flatter the patrons who commissioned them, until you look at the paintings and see a ruthless accuracy that nonetheless makes all women into beauties because that is what women are. The appeal to the pleasant entertainment that paintings can provide continues through those artists who survive the deluge of Contemporary Art. David Hockney and Alex Katz come quickly to mind.
What makes American art distinctive is not easy to point out because, as the wondrous rooms of the New American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City make clear, American art is so clearly a descendant of English art, and it very quickly grew up. Eighteenth Century American portraits are not as good as those of Reynolds, either in composition or being true to life; they have too much of the primitive in them, the artists not yet schooled to the highest of standards. But that is over by the time of the Revolution, when the decorative art, in the form of silver tankards and glass, are as exquisite as anything to be found anywhere and yet true to what is already the American inclination to the clean line and veneer of usefulness. No French prettiness. And the portrait work of Benjamin West had caught up with English standards.
Two hundred years after the first colonies, America is an extension of European world culture, part of it rather than opposed to it. The English in America are different from the Spaniards in Mexico. Where the later think of themselves as the proud descendants of Spain, and so pure and different from the Indian inflected blood of other Mexicans, the English in America are simply Englishmen who have discovered that the English back home do not regard them as highly as they do themselves and so they, the American English, set out to do something about it. They go about it by going into revolt, reviling the English, the way jilted lovers might, while the Spaniards in Mexico still pine for what might have been had they lived so grand in the Old Country which, of course, could not have happened.
The relation of American to English art, and this is especially so during the core years during which the Hudson River School flourished, which is when American art found its own themes and its own ways of handling the art of painting, is similar to the relation that existed at that time between American and English letters. As my old teacher Quentin Anderson would put it, the American novel was a romance, by which he meant that it was a flight of fancy, of larger than life themes and people, as those are embellished with lyrical prose and lush settings, and emotions so deep that they are right there on the surface, while the English novel is realistic, its themes having to do with how people make their ways in the world, the characters in Austen and Thackeray more subdued than Hester Prynne or anybody in Twain. Dickens and the Brontes are the exceptions that prove the rule because their characters are exaggerations rather than meant to be swallowed whole. They are escapes, the Brontes still the model for chick-lit, and the Dickens caricatures providing some relief from the somber thoughts and visions of the later novels. Only Laurence Olivier can be Heathcliff and only a grand dame of the theatre can be Mrs. Haversham. In the American romance, however, taking characters as they are, in all their grandeur, is surely what is required. Otherwise, Ahab and his crew are not credible. Reading Hawthorne, then, is different from reading Thackeray (the latter is much funnier); reading Whitman is different from reading Keats or Shelley or even Byron (who is funny only as an acquired taste). Reading Twain is different from reading the inestimable Austen, who is much more judgmental of her characters and will not permit you to shed a tear, as you do for Huck and Jim and Pudd’nhead Wilson, however much you think the Austen characters have earned the reader’s forbearance. Austen never thinks her characters border on the pathetic, however reduced may be their circumstances. Austen thinks there are bad people and people who merely seem to be bad, as well as some few good souls, which is what most people try to be, while Mark Twain in his better moods blames everything on circumstance and in his worse moods blames everything on God.
American painting is also deeply romantic in feeling even it is realistic in its compositions. The American landscape is given over to the grandiose, the awesome, the less than beautifully composed, all in the service of, paradoxically, being accurate rather than emotionally responsive to the subject matter before it. The woods in Nineteenth Century German paintings breed moodiness; the woods in American paintings come off as looking like what woods look like rather than what they ought to look like if they are to make one or another moral or psychological point. You get the facts from the American paintings even while everyone in the painting is posturing because that is the pose of people who are truly grand, or at least famous. It is all put on. The mystery of Asher Durant’s Kindred Spirits comes from the fact that this is a portrait of two famous men, posed and dignified in formal clothes, who are nonetheless standing on a cliff in the Catskills, and don’t seem in the least perturbed by the fact that they could fall off the very accurately rendered rocks onto the accurately rendered watery chasm just in front of them, however much their precipice is softened by a frame of trees.
The Hudson River School, which has been written about in great detail, provides the essence of this American approach; realism of detail combined with romanticism of outlook. A good way to say that freshly is to look in some detail at one painting, Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow Notch at Northampton, a painting that has come to be seen as epitomizing the school, whatever its failures and however many of Cole’s other paintings are superior to it and make use of far grander styles, such as the portrayal of great imagined empires. The Oxbow has many flaws of conception and of execution. First off, it is lopsided, as if a slab of the earth had been lifted up at an angle so as to display itself more clearly for the artist. Second, the colors are overly pale; it this was the age of photography, the negative would have been said to have been overexposed. Third, the painting is ill composed what with the hill in the foreground at a different angle than the lopsided earth that takes up most of the picture, and also in a different shade, so that the hill seems like a flat that is set in front of a diorama. But there is enough in the painting to explain why this is a painting that remains, upon recollection, vivid and detailed. Like Cole’s pictures of imaginary empires and of a Gothicized present, it puts you in a place you will not forget.
The dramatic center of the picture is an oxbow in the Connecticut River. It is set down as a natural wonder, a piquant moment when moving up or down the river, but not as well experienced as from a ledge where it is as strange a happening as if a sailor had tied the bow to make it happen. But far from being awesome or frightening, as if made by a giant or a god, the oxbow is a pleasant place on which to take a sailboat. That is because, in part, the valley in which the oxbow is set is laid out flat, like a map, and so one sees the natural wonder best from afar rather than close up or from within, where it would be just a particularly sharp set of bends in the river, which would also have made an interesting painting, but a very different one.
The cartographic impulse behind the painting makes one look to see how the various parts of the place are tied together by their distances from one another and by the similarities and differences in the topography. There are hills or almost hills in the valley, really just depressions and rises to hide or shelter one or another house. There is the flat stream which takes its own course rather than a course guided by the topography. There are squares set off from one another by their level and kind of cultivation, and that provides the color pattern that cartographers usually provide artificially so that people can orient themselves on a map. You know a great deal about what this place is like, how its parts fit together; you see it as an expanse, but one cut up well enough so that one has landmarks to guide one away from and back to wherever in the painting one has taken up a view. The oxbow itself is therefore not a symbol; it is merely a curiosity. It is worth noting only as a point of interest for a tourist whose senses are much more engaged with the thickness of the air as that is transmitted by how reflective it is of the sun’s rays, and so creates the picture’s overexposed look.
Another feature of the structure of the picture is that the artist places himself in the picture as sitting on a ridge overlooking the expansive landscape he is painting, however much his rendering is less painterly than most of his other paintings, which are rich oils and full of distinct and gently molded colors. It is trite, of course, to engage the convention of an artist putting himself in the picture. This, however, is the evocation and invention of a much more complex convention having to do with the person in a picture able, from his perch, to see out onto every aspect of the landscape, nothing hidden from his sight. That is very different from the European landscape where Poussin, for example, has Diogenes in Landscape With Diogenes staring out at the shore while all the interesting stuff is going on without him and behind him, a raised hillock mostly blocking his view should he turn the other way and almost certainly blocking his view of the architectural marvel in the upper left corner of the painting. Lorraine’s Sermon on the Mount is a marvelous exception to the rule because the distances are so far that most of the people attending cannot hear anything being said, or even but barely see Jesus, knowing what is said and to be seen only by report. The same avoidance of a figure in a painting having a good look at what the viewer can behold is true of most classic Northern European landscapes. Yes, there are Ruisdael’s long flat vistas, as well as the Hobbema paintings where a bend in the road allows the viewer to see a spot of territory and the paths from getting away from there but the spot is hidden from its destinations. But Ruisdael does not portray anything that could get in the way and in Hobbema you are in a middle distance shot, not a far away view American landscape that makes sure nothing is hidden from view even though it easily might be, features of the landscape that, if observed from a different angle, would block out most of the view.
Cole’s landscape is in this respect not different from other American landscapes. The figure next to the cross in Church’s The Heart of the Andes can see what the viewer of the painting can see over the figure’s shoulder, and what is not seen by the inhabitant of the painting of the painting could be seen if the figure would just turn around. That is a marvelous idea: there is nothing known to the real viewer that cannot be known to the internal viewer. Both have an excellent perch and can get engrossed in what they see, their view becoming absorbed rather than remaining only mysterious or otherwise made oblique. Bierstadt’s Smugglers Notch shows a rider approaching a cabin at twilight with the Rockies around him. The cabin is the center of the picture but so is the rider who has everything in his line of sight that the viewer does: the Rockies, the cabin, the near foliage, the clearing. Notch does not find the horseman menaced by nature; rather, he is its master in that he can see what he wishes and he can find a house in which he can get warm, all without loosing the attachment to the spectacle of the landscape around him. America is welcoming rather than forbidding.
The third feature of American landscape painting is in the depiction of communities. Hobbema gives a few cottages gathered behind the trees that separate the village from the road, if that is what the rut in the ground can be called. Brueghel gives a fuller picture of a life in the community, people intersecting with one another in spaces as they make up crowds and engage in commerce even as they are also distinct in their ways of life: innkeepers, harvesters, and hunters. The Irish of the nineteenth century Irish townscapes are seen as loners even as they pass one another on the streets of a town. They look past one another.
The American community is entirely different. It is all spread out, not defined by space at all. There may be quite a distance between one dwelling and another and there does not seem to be an overall plan that relates these houses to one another. They have each sprung up where a farmer has settled or a miller has found a slight downturn in a stream. There is no danger from the nature around them; the settlers are merely nestled within it, a natural extension of the geography, and so subverting the notion that mankind has been placed upon nature as either a threat to it or dependant on it. Nothing in nature will go beyond the bounds to make it uninhabitable nor, once some place is no longer Indian Country, is there any need for forts (until, at least, there was the appearance of fortress architecture in the 80’s to compensate for being a middle class held under siege by the underclass). An American community is any extended place across which people communicate and interact, and so it can be a mall in Texas that serve a population that travels many a mile to get there or a set of Eastern suburban communities that are hardly known for being independent political entities but mainly as the names of where a favorite restaurant can be found.
Social Darwinism, which is the idea that you have to talk tough and push ahead and many will fall by the wayside, and that is the way it should be, is an easy message for Americans to accept because the tough talk hides the much softer belief that everyone can find a niche and so those who don’t have something wrong with them. Nature is wondrous rather than formidable. At least, that is what could be said in mid-century, before the Civil War rendered American life as red for the highest of moral principles rather than because nature was red in tooth and claw. It is also a generation or two before the museum of natural history made the nature lived in by pterodactyls take on a gothic intensity. This America, this classic America to which people say they want to return, where doors are open and nature is abundant, somehow abides in the American imagination as the real America, however few are the Americans who have inspected the idylls of the Hudson River School.