'American Light -- a dazzling display

Ralph Waldo Emerson once described light as "the first of painters." In the history of Western painting there is surely no more enduring symbol than light. To Rembrandt light was divine revelation; to Turner divine radiance. The impressionists in contrast dealth with light scientifically be dissecting it into particles.

The dazzling exhibition on view at the National Gallery of Art here, "American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850- 1875," sheds more light on the essence of the American imagination than any show in recent memory. The landscape painting of the mid-19th century that lavished unusual attention on the special effects of light and atmosphere was not even recognized as a distinct movement until scholar and historian John I. H. Baur labeled it luminism in the late 1940s.

This exhibition takes luminism out of the shadows and spotlights it for the first time as a movement of major significance. Credit for this spectacular show belongs to the NGA's curator of American art and senior curator, John Wilmerding, who assembled more than 160 paintings, 49 drawings and watercolors, and 47 photographs and put together a catalog of essays on luminism that virtually constitutes the first and last work on the subject.

Luminism was the culmination of American landscape painting in the 19th century, taking root in the Hudson River School and branching into psychological realism and impressionism later in the century. This exhibition spans its evolution, beginning with its Hudson River antecedents such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand and closing with its heirs -- Thomas Eakins, James Whistler, Winslow Homer. But the focus of the exhibition is on the four painters who gave luminism its definition: Fitz Hugh Lane, John F. Kensett, Martin Johnson Heade, and Frederick E. Church.

To appreciate their breathtaking paintings, like picture postcards of the 19 th century, one need only bask in their glorious light. But to understand their importance one must relate them not only to the art history of the period but the literature, the philosophy, and the political events. The 1850s were the decade in which Jacksonian democracy created a mood of expansiveness and optimism, until the Civil War cast a cloud of gloom over the nation in the 1860 s. But until then America was the Promised Land, the paradise regained, and writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson were ready to sing her praises.

Certainly the writer who had the greatest influence on the luminist painters was Emerson, whose philosophy of trancendentalism propounded that "the whole of nature is a metaphor for the human mind." Emerson, who compared himself to "a transparent eyeball," brought out the notion of the sublime reverence for nature as a manifestation of God. Emerson's philopshy, coupled with the Puritan belief in America as the millenial kingdom and redeemer nation prophesied in the Book of Revelation, prepared the way for luminism.

The principal characteristic of luminist painting is its radiance, an effulgent glow that emanates from a source that seems more mystical than natural. The scenes depicted in early luminist painting are ephemeral, banal even, as in Fitz Hugh Lane's simple seascapes of Brace's Rock and Norman's Woe in Gloucester, Mass., or Owl's Head and Christmas Cove in Maine. The impression is one of infinite space, of time caught in a moment of unearthly hush that recalls Tennyson's line, "Here, at the quiet limit of the world." Similarly in Kensett's Rhode Island seascapes or his ethereal "View Near Cozzens Hotel, West Point," the mood is peaceful and the world at rest.

In mature luminist painting the prevailing atmosphere of silence and stillness gives way to one of mounting excitement and tension. Commented Mr. Wilmerding, "The key element in luminist painting at its most mature is light at transitional moments of the day -- sunrise, sunset, twilight -- or during weather changes. . . . The consciousness of light changes as the Civil War approaches to obsession with storms, twilight, exploding volcanos. There is a loss of order, extremes of hot and cold, polarites of north and south. . . . The early paintings are more contemplative whereas in the later ones the light becomes wrenching, exhilarating, threatening, and terrifying. It is the sublimity of silence but also of impending violence."

Church, who studied under the Hudson River School's Thomas Cole, was not a pure luminist painter, and yet it is his paintings that best illustrate luminism at its most dramatic and even operatic. One of the most stunning paintings in this show is his "Twilight in the Wilderness" in which a sky of Wagnerian color and turmoil reflects upon the still water below.

In addition to his apocalyptic American sunsets, Church painted exotic scenes from southern and northern climes. His paintings from South America such as "Andes of Ecuador" and "Cotopaxi" are so warm and golden that they seem to have been painted with the sun's rays rather than paint. (The new series of chemical pigments that became available in the 1850s were as responsible for the virtuosity of Church's palette as the inspirational rays of the sun.)

In the north he deep-froze that glacial arctic glow in "Aurora Borealis" and "The Icebergs (North)." About the latter his companion (and Cole's biographer) the Rev. Louis Noble raved: "All the sea in that quarter, under the last sunlight, shone like a pavement of angeldust. . . . Wonderful to behold: It was only a fair field for the steepled icebergs, a vast metropolis in the pearly white and red as roses, glittering in the sunset.Solemn, still and half celestial scene: I said aloud but low: "The City of God: The sea of glass: The plains of heaven:. . . .'"

Reverend Noble would undoubtedly be shocked to learn that his beloved icebergs are now more famous for bringing in a cool $2.5 million, the highest price ever paid for an American painting at auction, than for conjuring up images of heaven.

In contrast with Church's pyrotechnics, Heade's paintings seem relatively subdued. Yet in their subtle way they augur as effectively the looming conflict and disillusionment. As Church is to fair weather, Heade is to foul, with his sunlight turned umbral as a storm breaks or approaches. His "Thunderstorm over Narragansett Bay" and "Marshfield Meadows, Massachusetts" are as ominous as they are luminous. Gifford's paintings presage a different darkening of the sky -- the smudge of industrial smoke.

In short, this exhibition chronicles the transition from a romantic vision of the world to modern reality. The luminist movement captured America at its most beautiful, before "progress," and one leaves the exhibition with a nostalgia for those halcyon days and a melancholy awareness that the sun has never shone so brightly on the country since.

The exhibition, which will appear only at the NGA, continues through June 15.

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