The Holy Land in Art: What Was Painted Was What Was Believed

The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture

By John Davis

Princeton University Press

264 pp., $65

From the beginning, America's self-concept involved the Holy Land. Puritans spoke of founding a "New Jerusalem." While still in transit to the American colony, John Winthrop, later the first governor of Massachusetts, adapted a phrase from the Bible (Matthew 5:14) to describe the nation's destiny. "For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill," Winthrop wrote.

As John Davis reveals in his new book, early American settlers stressed resemblances between the Holy Land and the new land. Towns were given Biblical place names like Bethlehem, Goshen, and Canaan. In the minds of many, America was the promised land.

In the 19th century, artists who had actually visited the Holy Land could claim added authenticity for their works. The demand for images of the Holy Land grew in the second half of the century, especially with the invention and development of photography.

Packaged in series, photographs approximated a walking tour of special sites. Armchair tourists could contemplate the Inn of the Good Samaritan or the Garden of Gethsemane. At the same time, photography created problems special to the medium. Frequently, photographers eliminated or reduced the presence of human figures in Holy Land images. While indigenous peoples underscored the unchanging nature of Biblical lands, the presence of too many residents seemed to sever a viewer's identification with the Biblical sites.

Davis rightly underscores the irony that the Holy Land's people presented a threat to some Americans' sense of mental ownership. The pictorial efforts of four painters who lived and worked in the Holy Land are outlined in the second section of the book.

Minor Kellogg was the first American painter to systematically study Egypt and Palestine. Working in pencil and watercolor, Kellogg traveled from Cairo, across the Sinai, to Palestine and Syria. Kellogg's light-filled paintings were not as financially successful as the work of Edward Troye. Troye frequently promoted his work through lectures and pamphlets. His Holy Land series of paintings was given a national tour.

Poet, playwright, collector, abolitionist, and painter, James Fairman left for the Holy Land in 1871. True to the theatrical quality of his personality, Fairman's pictures of the Holy Land are dramatically lit and rendered in strong colors.

Perhaps the most famous 19th-century American painter to represent the Holy Land was Frederic Church. When Church journeyed in the Holy Land, his reputation was established and his paintings were a commercial achievement. The success of Church's Biblical pictures rested on his ability to visually express early American notions of the promised land. In addition, he gave many of his views a panoramic scope that could be read as a graphic symbol of spiritual redemption.

As modernist art experiments altered painting at the turn of the century, so too did images of the Holy Land change. Artists like John Singer Sargent emphasized decorative patterns and impressionistic light in the landscape of the Holy Land, rather than realistic rendering of sacred places. Yet, as John Davis concludes, Sargent shared a common purpose with previous painters. Each of them found in Palestine a reservoir of aesthetic sustenance.

* Mary Werner Marien is a professor of art history at Syracuse University in New York.

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