American Landscape Paintings of the 19th Century
Joshua Shaw (1777-1860) Seven Hills: An American Landscape 1818
“In no quarter of the globe are the majesty and loveliness of nature more strikingly conspicuous than in America. The vast regions which are comprised in or subjected to the republic present to the eye every variety of the beautiful and sublime. Our lofty mountains and almost boundless prairies, our broad and magnificent rivers, the unexampled magnitude of our cataracts, the wild grandeur of our western forests, and the rich and variegated tints of our autumnal landscapes, are unsurpassed by any of the boasted scenery of other countries.”
Joshua Shaw Preface “Picturesque Views of American Scenery”- 1820
Well before the Hudson River School was recognized, English artist Joshua Shaw was already documenting the natural beauty of this new land. The painting above is one of the earliest examples of 19th century American landscapes. Shaw traveled the length of the Appalachian spine of mountains, going as far south as North and South Carolina. He often included people in his scenes, as shown below. A backwoods settler is returning to his mountain home after a hunt. The artist used “Allegany Mountains” in his title, even though the Alleghenies were much farther to the north.
From 1819 until 1822, Shaw traveled from Charleston, through Augusta, north to Table Rock along the North and South Carolina border, to the Catawba River as it flowed down from the mountains. In the painting below, Shaw captured one of the many natural falls along the Catawba River in the Carolinas.
In his companion notes to Stoney Creek, Shaw wrote: “The view here reproduced is in a wild district in North Carolina not very distant from the Swamp, on a small creek emptying into the Catawba River, near Morgantown. It has nothing in it historically interesting, as far as I know, and I sketched it entirely for its wild and picturesque appearance.” After describing encounters with members of the Catawba tribe, the artist concluded his entry. “I soon after crossed the Catawba River, which being swollen with heavy rains, which had fallen a few days previous, made the passage a little hazardous. The water was muddy, and losing sight of the bottom I had to be very cautious, as a large stone or deep hole would sometimes nearly capsize the gig. . . . I made a sketch of this crossing place next morning, which I propose to give in the course of this work. That evening I slept at the house of a widow, who resided close by and whose history, which I heard on the spot, was a little interesting and will accompany the engraving in its proper place.”
I have always admired the American landscape painters of the 19th century, and I wanted to share a few of my favorites that have inspired me in my photography. Because there was no color photography when these paintings were made, the artists had to balance the light and color that would showcase the scene in the best possible way. That’s what I try to do with my work. The artists included Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, and Paul Hansen. This style of painting became part of America’s first art movement, known as the “Hudson River School”, because most of the earliest scenes featured the Catskill Mountains along the Hudson River. Later artists used the mountains of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas for their inspiration.
These works are almost photographic in their detail.
Harriet Cany Peale Kaaterskill Clove 1858
Modern photography is limited in the way it can capture light in any scene, especially landscapes. The colors and clouds in a sky will always be lost in favor of details in the forground, or vice versa. The early American landscape masters could paint the sky, the rivers, the mountains, and the trees, just as they saw them, without the limitations of photographic exposure. The painting below, “Clearing in the Forest”, by Robert S. Duncanson from 1866 is a perfect example of this beautiful technique.
The ability to capture the details around the dark waterfall while showcasing the intricate tones of the sky was something that only a human eye could see, and therefore, could transfer to canvas.
In his painting, Franconia Notch, 1857, above, Asher Brown Durand balanced the textures of the distant sky and mountains with the animals grazing in the fields, and the reflections in the river.
Charles Henry Gifford……..New England Landscape
Thomas Cole’s, Evening in Arcadia, from the 1830’s, was one of the first American paintings to capture the grandeur of this new land. Europeans had been doing this for centuries, but the Americans were finally showing the world the splendor of this virgin landscape.
George Inness (American 1825-1894) learned from the Hudson River painters, but he went a different direction with light and color. His Catskill Valley, above, showed that color and shapes could replace the exacting detail of earlier landscape painters. He was known as a Tonalist because of this.
George Inness Sunset on a Meadow
His earlier work, like his Medfield, Massachusettes meadow, above, was more like the earlier Hudson River painters. As an American landscape painter, few were his rivals.
Finally, modern photographers are able to represent the many different lighting areas by using a technique that blends three images of the same scene, one regular exposure, one overexposure, and one underexposure, to get the view that the human eye saw. My image of “Sunrise Over Otter Pond”, above, is a perfect example of this process. This is the technique I prefer to use in many of my landscape photographs.