Framing Nature

John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), View on the Hudson, 1865, The Baltimore Museum of Art,<br/> Photography By: Mitro Hood

What could be more natural than a landscape? And yet the word landscape—commonly used to describe not just a picture but any view of mountains, fields and woods—originates in seventeenth-century art terminology. (Used as a verb, landscape even more explicitly connotes notions of human intervention and artifice.) Scenery is another word applied to any attractive perceived arrangement of natural features, and its etymology lies in stagecraft. So a landscape is a picture, a representation, a composition—requiring an artist’s, or at least a viewer’s eye. Strictly speaking, a landscape only comes into being when we consciously look at it. The wonders of the natural world are there, but they are periodically reshaped by human perception.

The history of the landscape genre is a record of discoveries. In the nineteenth century, features like the Alps became beautiful under the category of the Sublime, rather than difficult and inhospitable; realists enamored of geology and botany turned their attention to details of rocks and plants; the Hudson River School found new edens in upstate New York, the American west and South America. But the genre’s trajectory is also a record of adjustments, as artistic conventions—the compositions of Claude, for example—are tested against fresh observations. Outside the Western tradition, other models prevail. When we think of landscape, we tend to think of an easel picture, wider than it is tall (a standard canvas size is designated “landscape”). But in Chinese and Japanese art, landscapes are depicted on vertical hangings—where the convention for spatial recession is up-is-back—or on multi-panel screens or on scrolls that are gradually unrolled, suggesting the sequential experience of a journey through time or space.

One way to make the landscape more immersive is simply to make the picture bigger, a strategy employed by a number of nineteenth-century artists, including J.M.W. Turner, Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. There were even novelties, like prints that could be unspooled or stereograph photographic images that, when viewed through a stereograph, produced a three-dimensional images. A selection of such works are on display February 2–May 19, 2013, at the Hudson River Museum in “The Panoramic River: the Hudson and the Thames.”

Rivers are a natural subject for expansive views, whether the primary goal of the represention is topographical or aesthetic. The choice of Hudson and Thames, great rivers in their national iconographies, makes sense, too especially given the lively transatlantic exchange between artists. The exhibition features splendid examples from James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s etching and drypoint Thames Series (1859) and juxtaposes two lovely paintings by John Kensett, a dramatic View on the Hudson (1865) and the more pastoral On the Thames, Near Windsor (1868).

John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), On the Thames, Near Windsor, 1868, Oil Collection of the Maryland State Archives, Photographed by Edward OwenThe show strikes a nice balance between city and country. John Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1821–31) shows the bustle of an event in the capitol, but the artist characteristically works the human activity into a broader view of river currents and grey, atmospheric sky. The Currier and Ives lithograph City of New York and Environs (1875) documents the commercial life of the city in an aerial view. More bucolic scenes, such as Thomas Cole’s View of the Thames (1845) and Samuel Coleman’s Looking North from Ossining, NY (1867), celebrate the natural beauties that were increasing prized in the face of rampant change in the name of progress. The interplay between city and country is a crucial dynamic. While not a masterpiece show, the exhibition lays out an important part of nineteenth-century visual culture in a highly focused and illuminating way. The catalogue explores many ideas, including the shift from the carefully orchestrated vedute to the equally artful but philosophically different panorama, and what co-curator Laura Vookles calls “The Art of Virtual Travel.” The museum has recently added to its collection contemporary panoramic paintings by Brad Marshall (Twin Towers, Bannerman Island, 2006), Sylvia Sleigh (Invitation to a Voyage: The Hudson River at Fishkill, 1979–99) and Tula Telfair (New Constructions of Pleasure, 2000). This ongoing enterprise continues to consider the ways in which we frame the natural world and our place in it. Hudson River Museum, 511 Waterburton, Yonkers, New York 10701. Telephone (914) 963-4550.

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