While not completely agreeing with Fernando Boteros’s observation that “a painted landscape is always more beautiful than a real one”, there are those moments when the artist’s vision and sense of purpose can, in fact, transcend the pictorial limitations imposed by reality itself. As Aristotle put it, “art not only imitates nature, but also completes its deficiencies.”
This has always been a particularly cogent point in considering the intertwined role of American landscape painting within both the domestic evolution of art, its import noted by Robert Hughes’ statement that “landscape painting is to American painting what sex and psychoanalysis is to the American novel”, but also in the manner that it’s significance has always been irrevocably tied to trends of history and the political and social development of America as a global leader.
In effect, that landscape painting serves as both the quintessential American art motif as well as, especially throughout the 18th and 19th century, the pictorial representation of America’s own unique greatness fostered by the idea of the continental landscape as God’s own creation as well as reflecting the psychological rationale for the deeply religious and nationalistic impulses that were apparent in Manifest Destiny itself.
These dual themes are apparent throughout the current exhibition at the Parrish Museum in Southampton titled “American Treasures” and consisting of approximately 50 landscape paintings from the museum’s permanent collection, roughly half from artists who lived and painted on the East End. Arranged chronologically starting with the Hudson River School with its emphasis on discovery, exploration, and settlement, and moving through various historical periods including Impressionism, Tonalism, and Symbolism, the exhibition culminates in contemporary works by artists such as April Gornik, Jane Wilson, and Jennifer Bartlett.
Throughout, the works serve to reflect eddies of history and the development of American society from William G. Boardman’s “Untitled” (oil on canvas, 1885) in which both man and animals are dwarfed by the majestic sweep of nature’s enormity to paintings like Samuel Colman’s “Farmyard, East Hampton” (oil on canvas, 1880) or George Edward Smillie’s “Farm, Long Island” (oil on canvas, 1883), both of which echo with the longing for simpler times, each having been created as the country was being racked by the horrors of the Civil War.
Perhaps most impressively, the exhibit takes great care in including those painters of the late 19th century whose impact among artists from the mid-20th century to the present day continues unabated. This is particularly apparent in considering Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “The Monastery” (oil on wood panel, 1885) in which literalism gives way to an emotional interpretation of nature thereby paving the way for Pollock and other gesturally expressionistic painters of the 1950’s.
This impact on later generations of artists is also apparent in John Marin’s “Weehawken Sequence” (oil on canvas board, 1916) which illustrates the further significance of European painters such as Henri Mattisse, Andre Derain, and Maurice Vlaminck (among other Fauve artists) in their use of spontaneity and improvisation as well as an electrically charged use of color.
The realms of abstraction in landscape works are illustrated in a number of instances, most impressively being Fairfield Porter’s “Penobscott Bay with Yellow Field” (oil on canvas, 1968) reflecting the artist’s desire to combine realism’s formalism in structure with non-objective art’s tendency towards reflecting the atmospherics of a given scene.
This sense of painterly priorities is also noticeable in Jane Wilson’s “Trees at Mecox” (oil on canvas, 1958) which differs dramatically in terms of immediate ambiance from her more recent color field endeavors but which nevertheless continue with this artist’s investigations into the relationships in nature between what is superficially apparent and what is hidden beneath the surface of the image itself.
Similarly, April Gornik’s “Light Before Heat” (oil on canvas, 1984) offers an interesting measure of surprise in her use of negative space to conjure a powerful emotional response. Seemingly more loosely configured than much of her paintings that recall the German Romanticists, Ms. Gornik nevertheless creates a remarkably dramatic tableau that gains its greatest impact from its mysteriously theatrical atmosphere which is enhanced and emphasized by a radiant and invigorating use of light.