Copyright 2000 www.cosmopolis.ch Louis Gerber All rights
The exhibition Exploring Eden/Explorar El Edén
Museum Thyssen-Bronemisza in Madrid until January 14, 2001
Thomas Cole: Expulsion. Moon and Firelight.
1828, oil on canvas, 91.3 x 121.8 cm.
Asher B. Durand: A Creek in the Woods.
1865, oil on canvas, 56 x 43 cm.
Martin Johnson Heade: Crimson Topaz,
Hummingbirds in the Jungle. 1875,
oil on canvas, 46 x 26 cm.
Exploring Eden at the Museum
Thyssen-Bornemisza is the first exhibition
in Spain exclusively devoted to 19th-century American landscape
painting, a chapter of art history which is
little known in Europe. Recently, the exhibition America.
Die Neue Welt in Bildern des 19. Jahrhunderts
at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna (March 17 - June 20,
2000; catalogue: Prestel, 2000) covered partly the same subject which
constitutes an important contribution to the tradition of landscape
painting in the west.
A lot of American 19th-century artists
considered that the essence of the origin of their country was reflected
in the landscape. With nature as the starting point, they developed their
own artistic current which distanced itself from the European tradition by
making nature their primary source of inspiration and by representing
nature as the promised land whereas in Europe man's relationship with
nature and not nature itself was at the center of attention. Americans
were not interested in the landscape marked by man's presence but they
regarded nature as a virgin territory, a landscape that had not been
sullied by human kind, in which the hand of God, its creator, could be
seen. They combined this religious feeling for nature with the idea of
national identity. The exaltation of this paradisiacal landscape, hence
the exhibition title Exploring Eden, met the idea of Americans as
the chosen people, a nation with a moral mission - the
recent statements by Bush, Gore and Powell confirm that this idea
is still well alive.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is one of the few European museums that
possesses a large collection of
19th-century North American paintings. The exhibition features works from the permanent collection (formerly the
private collection of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza),,
from the Carmen
Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, on loan to the Museum,
and from important American collections and museums such as The
Metropolitan Museum Art in New York, The New York Historical
Society and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The exhibition in Madrid is
chronologically structured, from Romanticism to Realism. It begins with the figure of
Thomas Cole, considered the
precursor of the new American landscape painting in the 1820s, to Winslow
Homer, who concludes the century
introducing, in his turn, a new way of looking at nature, heralding the beginnings of modern art.
Many of the American landscape painters were of European origin. They
either emigrated at a very young age or were children of immigrants.
Therefore, they were familiar with the work of the Romantic or Realist
European landscape artists and applied it to the landscape they discovered
in the New World.
Among the exhibited works of Thomas Cole (1801-48) are Expulsion. Moon and
Firelight from the
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum's permanent
collection and the famous cycle The Voyage of Life
from the National Gallery of Art in
Washington - which hosts the second version of the series from 1842 (the
first from 1839-40 can be seen at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute in
Utica). The Voyage of Life is a Romantic metaphor of life as a journey,
presented through a series of landscapes which are part real, part imaginary. Cole,
born in England, upheld
the idea of the direct contemplation of nature, but also the importance of conveying a
spiritual and moral content in his
paintings - in which he is American.
Cole's followers, the painters of the Hudson River School, who began to paint in the
years following American Independence, were the artists who definitively established
American painting as a separate school, and who broke away from the influence of English
art which had until then predominated. The celebration of the American natural world and
its depiction as a sort of earthly Paradise and a virgin land undefiled by any trace of Man,
became widespread and established itself as the best way of expressing growing
nationalist sentiment. The exhibition includes views of the landscape along the banks of the
Hudson River were they settled in
the last years, hence their name although they did not call themselves so.
The artists went to the river to make sketches which they would later work up into
finished canvases in the studio. Among the members of the school, Asher B. Durand stands
out as the leading exponent of direct observation of nature. His sketches made
outdoors are surprising for their modern and spontaneous qualities, making Durand a true
pioneer of plein air painting.
The pictorial representation of the spirituality of nature achieved its maximum
expression in the style of painting known as Luminism.
The Luminists such as Kensett and
Lane also shared a pantheist vision
of nature, but their landscapes retreated from the theatricality and
grandiosity of the Hudson River School. In their works, the simplification of form, the refined and highly detailed technique, the
delicate tonal variations and the luminosity all take on a
After these small, serene and tranquil Luminist paintings, the exhibition shows a
group of large-scale works inspired by travel to the remote and unexplored American West and to the
Tropics by artists such as Heade, Bierstadt and Church with the aim of celebrating the marvels
of the New World.
The exhibition closes with a room devoted to a group of oils and
Winslow Homer, a Realist artist who, in contrast to his predecessors, was no longer
interested in capturing the spirituality or the moral values of the American landscape, but
rather in its formal, pictorial ones.
Homer suppressed the details, replacing them by great swathes of form and
color with strong contrasts of lights and shadows, by a looser and more
vibrant brushstroke that brought him close to the European works by the
artists of the Barbizon School and, later, of the Impressionists. Homer's works, which represent a profound reflection on nature
and its relationship with man, open the way towards a vision of the modern world.
(The catalogue can be purchased at the
Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza; 258 p., with reproductions of the more than 60
works and with texts in Spanish and English).
Added on December 16, 2001:
Book about American landscape painting:
Gene Edward Veith: Painters of Faith. The Spiritual Landscape in
Nineteenth Century America. Gateway Editions, 2001. Get it from Amazon.com.