Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wyant: Romance of the Real

The landscapes of nineteenth-century American painter Alexander Helwig Wyant (1836-1892) are rich in an emotional response to otherwise "ordinary" natural phenomenon.

Wyant's career took off during the American Civil War, a traumatic period that, in terms of landscape painting, strained the Hudson River School's unquestioning faith in an orderly, harmonious universe built upon a divine First Cause.

Wyant was far from alone. As American ex-patriots returned from studies in France during the 1870s and '80s, they turned their backs on the conventions of the dominant Hudson River School and supplanted it with an entirely different take on nature and mankind's place in relation to it.

Although the approach owes a debt to French Barbizon painting, Wyant's take on it is typical of early American Modernism, I think, in his insistence on the beauty of the un-glamourous, common-place, and neglected. Wyant scholar Anthony E. Battelle finds direct evidence in Wyant's work for the impact of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species on nineteenth century art:

"His alignment with Darwinian concepts as applied to botany and geology, whether or not intentional, left him non-aligned with the conceptual underpinnings of transcendental artists of the Hudson River School. His canvases record the behavior of natural objects according to natural laws in unpicturesque locations where that behavior is most evident."

Batelle is building an online catalog of Wyant's work that you can access here and from which the above quote and these images of Wyant's paintings are taken.

Wyant's Moonlight and Frost

It's easy for practicing artists to get caught up in technical matters of composition, values, color, and light in historical paintings. Scholars such as Batelle remind us that great art reflects the emotions and ideas of its time, and that what paintings say is as important as how they say it.


  1. Wonderful website and thank you for leading us there, I went straight to the flooded marshlands. His atmospheric paintings are very ethereal.

  2. Love your paintings, love your blog, and so grateful to Alexander Helwig Wyant for having brought me to them.

  3. Hey Chris- that's great. Welcome! Your post has reminded me of what an inexhaustible source of inspiration Wyant has been and can be for the contemporary desire to make meaning from the real. I'm not entirely sure of this, but Wyant's paint handling might be the simultaneously atmospheric and chunkiest of all the Tonalists - so, a painter after my own heart.