American genius for landscapes

I can't resist a good landscape painting, especially if it's open and expansive, if it glows with a shimmering, all-encompassing light, and if it's rich in color, texture, and detail.

In particular, I can't resist a painting of a wild and untamed corner of the world that shows little or no evidence of man, that sings with life, and that lifts me up and engulfs me with a sense of awe.

Small wonder then that I'm partial to 19th-century American landscape painting, to the art of Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, George Inness, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, and Thomas moran -- to the painters of the Hudson River School and to the dozens of lesser lights who spent their lives painting this country before it became civilized.

It should come as no surprise then, either, that I very much enjoyed two exhibitions largely devoted to 19th-century American landscpe painting on view here: "Next to Nature: Landscape Paintings from the National Academy of Design" (at the National Academy), and "The White Mountains: Place and Perceptions" (at the New York Historical Society).

But I enjoyed them only partially because of my personal predilections, for these exhibitions -- in addition to displaying works of art it would be difficult for anyone to actively dislike -- also illuminate certain questions of connoisseurship, and they extend our knowledge of a particular time and place.

Before going to see it, I had carefully read Barbara Novak's introduction to the catalog of the National Academy of Design show (which she, in conjunction with 11 graduate students, had selected). In her introduction she raises the question of how art could be evaluated better, but without relying exclusively on its thematic content, or its formal structure. Could we, in other words, work out an approach to connoisseurship which would more fully take into account allm matters of subject, the period's attitudes and standards, our current conceptions of quality and relevance, stylistic influences -- even personal intuition -- in the final appraisal of that art's quality, historical significance, and worth?

I had also read that she had drawn exclusively on the National Academy of Design's extensive holdings of American 19th- and 20th-century American landscape paintings in order to assemble a carefully selected and cohesive exhibition which would enable her to examine this question publicly and in considerable detail.

Well and good. But as so often happens when a "scholarly" show is put together with imagination and taste, it quickly transcends its academic reason for being and becomes a special event in its own right.

Such is the case with this particular show. It hums with the qualities that enchant me and should be a joy for anyone inclined as I am to appreciate images of wide open spaces filled with sunny skies, distant mountains, deep green forests, partially glimpsed lakes and streams, and dramatic, gnarled old trees. Among the dozen of my favorites, I was especially taken by Frederic Edwin Church's 1854 "Scene on the Magdalene" and John Frederick Kensett's "Mountain Stream: Bash Bish Falls."

Unfortunately, I must add that I wish the 20th century had been left out of it. By and large, the works by George Bellows, Jane Wilson, Peter Hurd, Wolf Kahn, etc., strike a flat note in the proceedings, especially as we are shown excellent examples from the 19th century -- and mediocre ones (although by good artists) from the 20th. Even Burchfield, one of the truly outstanding landscape artists of this century, is represented by a watercolor considerably below his highest achievements.

But that's about the only negative thing I can say about this show, for it is , on the whole, an extremely handsome one. I especially recommend that careful attention be paid to the 12 tiny oil sketches by William T. Richards exhibited in a display case. What that artist could do with a few well- placed brush strokes is truly extraordinary. The show closed Feb. 22.

"The White Mountains: Place and Perceptions" at the New York Historical Society, is a different sort of show entirely -- even though it includes many of the same artists found in the National Academy of Design exhibition. It examines the cultural, social, and economic history of New Hampshire's White Mountains region in the 19th century and documents how the area changed physically, and how its inhabitants interacted with one another and with their environment.

Although it includes many interesting illustrated books, maps, advertising material, photographs, etc., it is through its various paintings of the White Mountains countryside that this exhibition really springs to life. Here again, we find proof of the American genius for landscape painting in works that range from Jasper Cropsey's dramatic vision of untouched wilderness, "Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains" to Winslow Homer's study of a busy tourist attraction, "Summit of Mount Washington."

This show also includes several drawings and studies for more polished final works, and a number of prints which give further information about the landscape and the activities of that region and period.

After viewing it, I would suggest that visitors walk over to the historical society's permanent collection of 19th-century American landscape paintings. It includes some of the best (and best-known) works by many of the leaders of the Hudson River School as well as many outstanding examples by some of the other major American landscape painters of that period. It is a rare opportunity to see so large a selection of these works under one roof.

After its closing on Jan. 30, the "White Mountains" exhibition will travel to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where it will be open to the public in March.

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