Romancing the landscape

QUITE frankly, I miss the expansive, unabashedly romantic kind of landscape painting produced in the United States during the middle of the 19th century. The kind that drew us in and invited us to wander about at our leisure among its lovingly rendered forests, lakes, and mountains. And that allowed our spirits and imaginations to soar without the slightest concern for art-world theories or restrictions. How wonderful it was to ``enter'' such pictures, and how refreshing to lose ourselves in the world they depicted.

But no longer. From the Cubists and Constructivists on down to the Minimalists, we've been told that pictorial illusion and romantic sentiment are wrong, and that we should only pay attention to the strictly formal or purely expressive elements in art.

What utter nonsense, and how unfortunate and sad! But not, after all, very surprising - for hasn't it generally been true that the introduction of a new idea in art has made continued acceptance of the old one nearly impossible?

Consider, for instance, how difficult it is to get anyone to say a good word today for such outstanding academic painters as Meissonier or G'er^ome, a good century after the Impressionists fought to free themselves from their influence. Or how long it took the American art establishment to even consider the possibility that Sargent and Chase might have been good painters. For decades art students were taught that they were superficial tricksters.

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn as far as landscape painting is concerned. Before long, Americans will once again be able to enjoy the pictures of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, Asher B. Durand, and other members of the Hudson River School without the sneaking suspicion that they are being seduced by questionable, nonartistic qualities.

From there, it is to hoped, it will only be a short step to the more respectful appreciation of some of today's younger landscape painters. Artists such as Barbara Kassel, John Gundelfinger, Brooks Anderson, Tino Zago, Charles Moser, Karen Gunderson, and Dean Hartung, all of whom have had considerable creative, if not always significant professional, success.

But even they, and such somewhat older and more established painters as Jane Freilicher, William Beckman, and Rackstraw Downes, seem disinclined to paint the truly open, dramatically panoramic landscapes that were the almost daily fare of Church, Bierstadt, Durand, and other major landscape painters of the mid to late 19th century.

Compared to these older figures, even the most expansive of today's landscape painters seem tame and civilized, concerned more with ``foreground'' matters than with the wild and wondrous things that lie beyond the horizon.

We are not invited, in the work of these younger artists, to explore virgin forests as we are by Cole, to wander about among barely visible, snowcapped mountains and lakes as we are by Bierstadt, or to visit exotic foreign places as we are by Church. At best we are shown a few open spaces, a few fields with hills in the background, or a gently panoramic view with the outskirts of a city to one side.

But then, what can we expect? Our frontiers are tamed, our rivers are criss-crossed by bridges, even our wildest and most distant mountains have become familiar to us by air. And just as frustrating, anyone who attempts to paint nature ``in the raw,'' as it was a century or more ago, is dismissed as a romantic, an escapist, someone more interested in living in the rural past than in confronting the urban present.

Glorifying the past does, of course, have a place in today's art world. We need only examine the numerous and generally very expensive paintings produced on Old West themes today to realize how thoroughly cowboys, Indians, and rugged mountain views have captured the public imagination. The art establishment may object, but the characters and landscapes we associate with the Wild West probably constitute the most popular subjects in American art today. Other themes may come and go, but the desert vista with an Indian on horseback silhouetted against the horizon, or the rugged mountain landscape with a single cowboy preparing to bed down, will probably last forever.

And so, I hope, will the carefully rendered, richly detailed panoramic landscape - whether it be of the Rocky Mountains in winter, the White Mountains in summer, with every tree, rock, stream, hill, and cloud beautifully delineated, or any other portion of nature's fascinating and enchanting wilderness.

All I ask is that any and all such works be lovingly painted, that they show respect for nature's beauties, and that those who paint them make no attempt to force what is depicted into a rigid, formalist mold.

After all, the world is big enough for several approaches to landscape painting. I have the greatest respect for the manner in which Poussin, C'ezanne, and Seurat envisioned the art. But I have an even greater love and respect for nature in the raw, for its infinite twistings and turnings, and for its laws that no artist has, or ever will, be able to appropriate as his or her own.

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