Friday, October 28, 2011

A Western Maverick in a Vermont Yankee's Court

Albert Bierstadt's large (10 feet by 15 feet) landscape The Domes of Yosemite (1867) is permanently housed in a gallery that had to be built around it. The display includes a skylight (currently being rebuilt) and a special "viewing balcony" to recreate the original lighting and exact location from which Bierstadt painted his sketches of the scene.
Albert Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite is an important painting by one of the most important American artists of the 19th century, and it's "hidden in plain sight" in a small town in upstate Vermont. 

In his prime, Bierstadt won international acclaim and the equivalent of rock-star status for his outsized paintings of the American West. His giant oils were among the first images of the West's natural wonders that many Americans, in particular the large concentration of those on the East Coast, had ever seen. Some art historians consider him one of the greatest landscape painters who ever lived, and the 10 x 15 foot "Domes of the Yosemite," housed in the picturesque St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, is an excellent and representative example of his work.

St. Johnsbury Athenaeum
The painting's first owner, Legrand Lockwood, lost his fortune in the turbulent gold market that was part of the rush. He was a self-made financier who began as a clerk for a brokerage firm at 18, opened his own firm, and rose to become head of the NY stock exchange in pre-Civil War New York. Thanks to the gold rush, he became one of the country’s first millionaires and began buying up railroads and other hot properties. 

Lockwood bought the Bierstadt in 1867 for a Vanderbilt-style mansion he began building in 1864 (a 62-room turreted stone castle featured in the Stepford Wives). Five years later he was dead, having lost a good bit of his fortune following the devaluation of gold in 1869, and the contents of his estate hit the block.

The man who built the athenaeum in Vermont, Horace Fairbanks, was looking for a centerpiece for a world-class art collection he was building for the citizens of St. Johnsbury. He bought the Domes dirt cheap at auction in 1872.  The painting sold for a mere $5,100, a pittance compared to the astronomical $25,000 the previous owner paid Bierstadt just five years earlier. 

The painting is large enough that the walls of the athenaeum’s gallery had to be built around it. A custom arched skylight and a special "viewing balcony" constructed at the opposite end of the gallery in 1882 completed the painting’s permanent housing. The skylight is intended to provide ambient natural light, while the balcony positions the viewer relative to where the artist was standing when he painted the scene, namely, midway up Yosemite Falls near Columbia Rock. 

All of these elements, including the painting's scale, the natural lighting, and the viewing balcony, were intended to accentuate the immersive "you are there" realism Bierstadt professed to offer his audience.  According to the Athenaeum's website, "visitors coming to see the painting when it toured to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston received a key identifying the sites visible in the landscape and a topographical map showing the vantage point." In fact, the Domes's realism is relative; Bierstadt skillfully compressed the vista and exaggerated various features for dramatic effect.

The library at the Stl Johnsbury Athenaeum
To my knowledge, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is unique in all the world in providing a permanent architectural setting that enhances the viewing of a single landscape painting by combining natural "outdoor" lighting and a special viewing area that recreates the location from which the artist painted it. It's a very Victorian American idea.

Bierstadt himself would end his life in bankruptcy. Another victim of fickle market forces, he saw his paintings selling for a fraction of their previous value as the post-Civil War public gradually lost its taste for grand, optimistic panoramas of pristine wilderness. Today, art historians consider him one of the greatest artists in the history of American art, and St. Johnsbury’s magnificent Domes of the Yosemite is worth untold millions. 

The athenaeum’s entire collection is a kind of time capsule of the kind of painters and paintings that the late 19th century prized most, painters like Bougereau, Corot, Kensett, Cropsey, and Cole, whose true worth is only now being recognized. Their reputations may have flagged during the 20th century as modern art stole the spotlight from traditional landscape and classical figure painting, but today the pendulum has swung back (probably permanently) in their favor, and the works of Bierstadt and others gathered in St. Johnsbury are destined to be recognized as the precious gems of an extraordinary and important collection.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hudson River Landscapes at Peabody-Essex

Twisted! Thomas Cole's painting (right) c. 1850, is very similar in composition to that of Claude's, c. 1650, (left). They're even the same size. 

The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is hosting a traveling exhibition of nineteenth-century American landscapes on loan from the New York Historical Society. Salem is the only New England stop on the tour, and definitely worth a visit, if only to view the paintings by Thomas Cole (not to mention all the wonderful pagans in their witchy-warlocky-Octobery outfits). In a few days, I'll post a report on Cole's works, which includes a masterpiece series rarely shown to such advantage titled "The Course of Empire." Painting - The American Vision, closes on November 6.

But it so happened that just the day before my visit, I'd been studying the nineteenth-century English landscapists (Cole was born in England) and their relationship to the old masters, in particular their debt to Claude Lorrain.

Claude, as he's called, perfected a branch of northern European landscape painting in which the artist fashions "perfect" pastoral scenes more ideal than any in fact. As a young man, Claude led a footloose life in and around Rome, where "pure" landscapes, despite the popularity of those by Dutch masters, were frowned upon as unworthy of serious painting. Claude got around this by having small figures added to his paintings, sometimes even by other artists, thus providing a narrative pretext, often mythical, sometimes Biblical, for the imaginary scenery he loved to paint. Tastes change, and the world soon came to his doorstep, and Claude became one of the most celebrated - and imitated - landscape painters in all of history.

For proof, one need look no further than the Hudson River paintings being shown at the Peabody-Essex. Hudson River pioneer Thomas Cole is generally lauded as "the father of American landscape painting," and so he was, but in the zeal to establish the Hudson River School as the first native art movement in America, the debt to European models is often overlooked. And the more one looks, I'm afraid, the more deep that debt appears. 

Reduced to a formula, Claude's paintings (which are gorgeous masterpieces, don't get me wrong) consist of a broad, horizontal expanse of bucolic countryside pervaded by a warm, golden glow, as of evening, framed by foreground trees and tiny figures in the foreground, with the background receding dreamily into hills bathed in atmospheric violets and blues, often some water in the middle-to-foreground space.

Like his friend Nicolas Poussin, Claude's composites regularly included imaginary ruins suggestive of the pastoral tradition established by Roman writer Virgil. Not only did Thomas Cole do the same, but as shown by a comparison of the two paintings below, he adopted the whole raft of Claudian conventions, including composition, light, warm greens, and the handling of foliage.

Claude Lorrain,  Landscape with Merchants, 1635
Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, 1838
Even the proportions of Cole's most Claude-like paintings shamelessly match those of Claude's. The following FOUR nineteenth-century American paintings from the Peabody Essex show follow basically the same horizontal, Claudian format of framing foreground trees, watery middle distance, and atmospheric mountains receding majestically in the background distance. They're by Asher B. Durand, Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Hill, and Albert Bierstadt respectively.

Even the one Inness on view (below) doesn't stray radically far from the same European motifs. 

Of course, none of these painters would be considered an "imitator" of Claude or Poussin or the Dutch old-master landscapists like Jacob van Ruisdael and his circle. They each updated the old models with North American scenery and their own 19th century sensibilities. That's what artists did for centuries, until the 20th century established the cult of originality, in which works of "striking originality" were supposed to spring like Athena, fully formed, from the intense brow of the maverick individual. And today, of course, it's all about "infringement."

I still believe that studying and copying the techniques of worthy masters is the best way to learn anything. It's just sort of striking to me, I guess, that a show titled "The American Vision"can actually on closer inspection be found to owe such a serious debt to the traditional European conventions of landscape art.