Armchair Peregrinations

December 31, 1998

Imagine if you will, a landscape nearly pristine and untouched by the hand of man. Great forests stretching unbroken and uncleared for hundreds of miles. Rivers flowing free and undammed. Vistas open to the sky and free of manmade clutter. A balance in nature between the animals, birds, and human inhabitants. Such were the sights that greeted the early colonists to this New World of America in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is difficult for me to even imagine what those great virgin forests must have looked like, how they must have seemed so majestic and fearsome to Europeans used to the tame and domesticated soil of their continent.

Such scenes of nature, resplendent and awesome, were disappearing by the 19th century, but not before they had inspired a special school of artists -- focusing on upstate New York and the Hudson River Valley, and the American West, just being opened up and explored -- to convey on canvas those sublime vistas and landscapes. This Hudson River Schoool of artists have long inspired me in my love of landscape art. I can trace it back to undergraduate days when I took art history courses and came to respect and admire so much the great English master, John Constable, with his idealized scenes of the English countryside, replete with horsedrawn carts, gristmills, huge oak trees and, always, his mastery of the conditions of sky and light. Who cannot appreciate his portrayals of billowy white cloud formations and his obvious love of the summer day in all its optimistic glory? I went on to learn about and appreciate the French painters Courbet and Corot, and the impressionists whose magnificent portrayals of changing light conditions were an unceasing wonder.

But the paintings I love above all are these American Hudson River School works by such artists as Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, George Innis, John Frederick Kensett, Thomas Cole and Asher Brown. It was not just the grandeur and epic nature of many of the landscapes, but the intensity of feeling conveyed in these huge canvases. Each was a tableaux of nature at its most wondrous and pure as conveived by the artists. Those truly Romantic-era painters looked to nature as a refuge and delight for the senses, and they waited for and captured the fantastically delicate and subtle changes to be seen in the sunrises and sunsets that so captured their imaginations and sensibilities. With exquisite attention to detail, those artists could so perfectly realize the skies they painted that we can only stand in awe of their accomplishments. When I look at those paintings, I can only wonder how it was possible for mere paint to work that magic. It was indeed a spiritual quest for many of the painters, and their connection with the divine source of creation was through the creation of art. For a good representative sampling of paintings, see Selected Hudson River School Paintings.

The artists Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt took as their subject matter the grand vistas of the American West and captured not only the limitless skies of those great open spaces, but the changing dynamics of color and light on the rock formations they encountered. Bierstadt's "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" and "Sunset in the Yosemite Valley" are glowing masterpieces of light and dark, with a luminous center toward which the gaze is drawn. The symbolism is stark and apparent. The pioneers in "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" are entering a new world; they are making the long trek West in pursuit of the dream of a new life. "On the Cache La Poudre River, Colorado" by Worthington Whittredge shows a riparian scene of great cottonwoods along a desert river, creating a pastoral oasis in a harsh land. These paintings, when exhibited, were also the first glimpses many people had of those fantastic new worlds far away to the West. They were eloquent testimony to nature's grandeur, but often hid the more forbidding aspects of this same Nature.

A huge exhibit of paintings, including many by Hudson River School artists, was held in Washington, D.C. in 1980. It was called, "American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875." This exhibit was a feast for the senses. I have never forgotten it. How appropriate the name "luminist" is to describe these artists. As I look at the pages of the catalog which I have in front of me now, I am filled with wonderful associations of that exhibit and how I was struck by the sheer scope of these painters's ambitions. How devoted they were to Nature and the outdoors in all its manifestations. A good example is the sunset John Frederick Kensett painted, "Sunset, Camel's Hump, Vermont" in 1851. You see a quiet and calm landscape, just before the sun has departed. It is that stage of a sunset where the finest and most intense colors are visible, and which you want to see linger on and on and not disappear. But disappear it does, into the night.

You can perhaps see now why I so enjoy photographing skies and landscapes, whether at Folly Beach or in Wyoming. With the camera I can capture some of this gloriously fleeting and constantly changing world of color and light. My interest in this goes back a long way to the enjoyment and delight I experienced looking at the works of the landcape painters of the 19th century, and it continues with appreciation of the superb landscape photographers who are working today. (See, for example, "Outdoor Photographer" magazine).

It is the last day of 1998, and is only fitting that I conclude this year's entries with the subject I have just written about, one very close to my heart and which I wish to share with readers of this journal. To those who do read this journal, I wish you a very Happy New Year and hope that you will write to me sometime and let me know what you think of this journal. My best wishes to all of you.

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