That Vision Thing

John Haber
in New York City

Sanford Robinson Gifford

George Inness: The Visionary Landscape

Long before New York "stole the idea of modern art," the Hudson River School brought together a wily gang of thieves. The movement sounds provincial, no doubt, right down to its name. In turn, it promises a specifically American Romanticism. Its landscapes survey far more than New York State or the present. They assert a command of nature, history, and spiritual enlightenment to rival anything in Europe.

Two compact retrospectives, of Sanford Robinson Gifford and George Inness, offer a fresh look at those claims—and at America's skies. Sanford Robinson Gifford's A Gorge in the Mountains: Kauterskill Clove (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862)Both worked in and around New York. Yet they turn out as fascinated with European currents as with the American scene. The results, oddly enough, influenced American painting as it neared the twentieth century.

The course of a republic

My line about stealing alludes, of course, to a book about Abstract Expressionism—How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War. By "the idea of modern art," its French author, Serge Guilbaut, just happens to mean the primacy of French art. In fact, Gifford and Inness both turned to France for inspiration, most often to the Barbizon school. The Barbizon painters, such as Camille Corot in the 1860s, see even the brightest sky through the densest of woods. They stick to a fairly traditional palette, of somber green and gray, but their loose, foamy brush anticipates Impressionism. Working not far from Paris, they imagine nature as the edge of urban life, and they see that shifting boundary as if through a newly clouded glass.

The collision of "nature and culture," or what Leo Marx called the "machine in the garden," meant a great deal to American painters as well. As Barbara Novak wrote in her book of that name, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875, these artists traced an expanding nation. Does Impressionism describe parks, beaches, and woods as a venue for tourism and other quite modern pleasures? The Hudson River School captures an uncanny mix of personal and national interest. Thomas Cole, the group's founder, depicts The Course of Empire—leaving an old world in chaos and a new one yet unborn. Others, less prescient about American Neo-Cons today, settle for the course of railroads.

The engagement of America with its land and native peoples mirrors another concern of artists and writers in the old world. For Romanticism, perception requires an active engagement with nature, rather than a simple mirroring of it. Compare the horses of George Stubbs and John Constable. America gives that engagement a national turn.

Naturally it also translates the Romantic sublime into the scale of the new world. As seen in a stunning 2002 show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, "The American Sublime," American art brings one close to dampness of a leaf or the darkness of a pond at sunset. It stands back from a sweeping wilderness. Better still, with F. E. Church it gives the illusion of both at once. As Robert Rosenblum has argued, it anticipates Abstract Expressionism, blowing meditations on the conscious and unconscious mind up to poster size.

For both Gifford and Inness, however, the course of civilization does not end in American art, and the fascination of Europe does not begin or end in Paris. They share with overtly grander art its paradoxical point of view, but they pull it off at easel scale. Gifford's greatest theme, a liquid yellow sun, looks back to J. M. W. Turner in England, and he traveled twice to Italy. There, like a younger Corot, he learned to give sunlight the crisp certainty of the houses and land upon which it shines. Inness looks back, too, to Caspar David Friedrich, Friedrich's moonlight, and the mystic doctrine of Emanuel Swedenborg.

No wonder both artists often slip past pocket histories of American painting. Still, both play a vital part in its growth. Gifford, who learned from both Cole and Church, marks a kind of balance point, after Cole and Asher B. Durand had concluded the movement's first strain. His brief career, roughly from 1860 to 1880, parallels the reemergence of a nation from civil war. Inness, continuing into the 1890s, supplies a transition to Modernism's "allover" style. Like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, or even J. M. Whistler abroad, he hints at a later conception of landscape as personal rather than national.

Near and far

One leaves the Met with no doubts about the messy interchange between American and European histories. With Ruins of the Parthenon, around 1880, he has traveled far from home. At the same time, this late work sums up his achievement in America. He marks out light, color, and a vanishing past unlike anything in Paris's art or skies.

The Parthenon rises at the left. The frame cuts it off, reducing its mass but implying a greater length. Sky and sea also follow the horizon, in nearly flat tones of yellow and blue. Gifford had been moving for a decade toward barer, more horizontal, compositions. He knew Italy's and Greece's more even light, but he also had to compete at home with Church's grandeur and John F. Kensett's blanker, more contemplative vistas. Still, Gifford maintains the legacy of his wooded valleys and rolling hills from the 1860s, with their plainly visible sun and without two millennia of western civilization.

One could almost overlook two men amid the Parthenon's scattered, broken columns, a westerner and a man in native dress. The first—whether archaeologist, artist, or tourist—searches carefully for clues to a puzzle left unstated. The other, no doubt a guide, stands beside him. They know what Europe means on the scale of human history. Ironically, the Corcoran, in Washington, owns the painting.

Again, however, Gifford builds on his early works. They, too, often draw the eye to a background object. Typically, a mountain dominates the composition's center, perhaps reflected in water or in light shimmering across the land. It helps to establish the painting's scale, the precise distance to its furthest point. Paradoxically, it also marks the vanishing point. It makes the scene at once familiar as the ground at one's feet and impossibly infinite.

Often in those early landscapes, the line of background hills descends quickly and rises once again. A tree may stick out at just that point, further implying height and scope. In the same way, if one looks past the Parthenon, low mountains nestle over the water. Almost forgotten, a ruined tower fits into their slightest dip.

Earlier, Gifford typically places a few people, at rest, in the nearest foreground—although never so much as George Caleb Bingham with boats on the river. They sit at about eye level, but at a distance from the picture plane. They stand for the viewer, increasing the intimacy. They imply that the artist, too, could have seen all this from a natural height. Like them, the westerner studying ancient Greece looks at ease and objective. Like them, too, his place in the middle distance fixes more firmly the scene's immensity.

Lesson plan

Gifford's New York looks untouched and natural, but he struggles to make it that way. He works at the associations with science and art, humanity and nature, finite life and infinite space.

He does the same thing with color and brushwork. Often he starts with underpaint, to set an overall tonality. He paints the background hills broadly. Over this, a glaze of yellow fills the canvas like a pool of lacquer.

Sometimes the fall of light leaves a spot of white on the hills. Just as often, the apparent highlight represents a river or waterfall. Like the fluid glaze, the pun makes the bowl of hills into a receptacle for the sun. I prefer those early scenes to the Acropolis's stark sky, but the subject remains the light as a measure of space. It serves as the subject of vision and its medium, as a humanized environment and as its limits.

With a final, surface layer come the foreground rocks, vegetation, and people. No doubt he lacks Church's thrilling technique, exotic colors, and unmatched engagement with the land. Church paints a foreground so finely that a viewer with a magnifying glass, one almost believes, could pick out every leaf. Church fills one sunset with muddy rows of clouds. If a museum hung it upside-down, they would become a naturalistic earth for the lighter vegetation.

Gifford settles up front for small but fairly loose strokes of red and green. He also learns from Kensett how scumbling can texture foreground rocks. He separates all these elements by their color from the sunlight behind them. Like Church, he, too, wants the illusion of both the very large and the very small in a single, continuous vision. One thinks again of the archaeologist in Greece, kneeling with his magnifying glass to study the finer point of stone. One thinks of tourism not as pleasure but as a lesson for the intellect and the soul.

A sublime nostalgia

When Gifford brings together incompatible scales of space, he roots the sublime in something as familiar as home. Back in Europe, prophets of the sublime spoke of awe. Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke wanted to awaken the human imagination by things outside it and beyond it. Romantics such as Turner wanted to scare the living daylight out of art. Gifford instead renders an inhuman scale in terms of a human presence. He thus signals something of America's pragmatism and optimism, even in the face of civil war.

He takes much the same approach to the scale of time. On the one hand, his scope exceeds even Cole's. The four-part Course of Empire shows a vast historical pageant. It leaves no doubt how a great nation falls into ruin, much like a cycle on the same theme by Ed Ruscha in 2006. Gifford's Parthenon shows only the ruins.

If he hints at a longer history, however, Gifford also describes loss within the span of a human life. As with the ruins in place of the pageant, modesty forbids his showing more. Athens fell long ago, but Gifford's nicely dressed westerner is only now invading Greece. Meanwhile the guide stands for a native culture that the west will unsettle for good.

In much the same way, the early landscapes often incorporate Native Americans as those tiny foreground figures. They remind one of a wilderness that existed as little as a generation before. I feel more nostalgia than dread, and I remember that Gifford lost a brother in the Civil War but kept working here and abroad. As the Met points out, he returns more than once to the theme of a passing storm.

Obviously I like Gifford more than he may deserve. I respect his modesty along with his stern lessons and his sunlit pleasures. I appreciate his blowing up the scale of art but not its size. In all this, he looks forward to the rebirth of American landscape after the Hudson River School, particularly with Homer.

Church feels distinctly modernist, almost like Jackson Pollock before his time. Gifford feels modern in a more comforting way, with high theory left on the back burner. He could play suburban America to Church's canyons. Besides, he makes one grateful for an open mind and a willingness to steal. In its own way, Modernism in America had to return to Europe for a fresh perspective on home.

Night and day

If I like Gifford too much, I probably appreciate Inness too little. His soft surfaces expand on Gifford's overflowing skies—but in order to darken them. Where Gifford turns from the historical scale of empire to a human lifetime, Inness seeks something larger than either. The Met calls Gifford's retrospective "Hudson River School Visions." In a concentration on just three dozen works, the National Academy of Design boasts of Inness's "Visionary Landscape." Each prefers the modern visionary to the nineteenth-century realist, but their visions turn out to differ like night and day.

George Inness's The Coming Storm (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1878)

Inness had more time to absorb the Barbizon school. Even his first landscapes, however, lay the dark woods on thick. Indeed, he can outshine Cole himself in distinguishing kinds of trees. He likes storm clouds more than Gifford, Turner, and John Constable put together. He does not, however, share their elevation of the active mind.

Nature, for Inness, leaves an imprint, but not necessarily on consciousness. It hangs on long after the experience has passed. I think of Surrealism and of Pollock's Jungian fantasies. Gifford, like most of the Hudson River School, places the viewer at an impossible height. At the same time, Gifford implies a place to stand within the landscape. Inness's implied viewer, in contrast, floats about three feet off the ground, like a spirit barely able to ascend.

Gifford covers hills with sunlight and sunlight with people. Inness buries both a solitary figure and the full moon in heavy brushwork. I think of Friedrich's Moonwatchers, but without the sharp colors, the romance of adventure, or even the watchers. Inness has exactly one scale of space and time, and it weighs heavily on the imagination.

The National Academy of Design (destined to sell a Gifford of its own) has never much liked modern art, so one can expect it to downplay the formal tradition in visionary color, from Church and the Impressionists to Mark Rothko and beyond. The Academy's quirky arrangement overstates Inness's weight and mysticism. Chronology quickly gives way to rooms divided by theme, with frequent references to Swedenborg and others in Europe. One could easily forget that Inness sticks with landscapes, in New Jersey and elsewhere, throughout his career. One would never know that he also paints daylight and open country.

Still, the show does more than revive a lesser-known artist. It helps one see the turn from the Hudson to Europe as a return—to the roots of Romanticism. It helps one, too, to see that look backward as a foretaste of American art to come.

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"Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford Robinson Gifford" ran through February 8, 2004, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "George Inness and the Visionary Landscape" ran through December 28, 2003, at the National Academy of Design.


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