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This article by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the June 30, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Sublime Subjects, Winsome Exhibit

There is perhaps no greater pleasure than the sense of owning something beautiful. A Martin Johnson Heade painting, “Sunset Harbor at Rio,” has this effect on the viewer. At the far lower right of the canvas Heade has painted an opening through which someone may have passed on his or her way to the water’s edge. The passerby is gone now; and the view belongs solely to the observer.

The painting is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in a small, honeyed, sometimes winsome exhibition called the “Sublime Landscape.” The painting, like so many others in the exhibition, depicts a sunset. The pale lavender and silver start by eclipsing jagged mountain peaks across a bay and end as a silken throb on the water below.

One summer many years ago when I was an art student I found a message — “Ain’t Nature Grand” — scrawled on a studio wall at the Yale Summer School in the bucolic Norfolk, Connecticut hills. The message was attached to a hand-drawn arrow that pointed to a floor-to-ceiling window. It was the vertical dimension of the window, rather than the little patch of green it framed, that sticks in my mind. Vertical is, after all, the opposite of the larger horizontal dimension of almost every landscape ever painted.

American landscape painting of the mid-19th century swept viewers along an ever-widening horizon, providing them with an experience not unlike that of entering a diorama, creating a sensation that PAFA curator Alex Baker calls “vertiginous.”

In the hands of masters, the results are nothing short of sublime.

Master landscape artists would include painters Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt, all of whom showed in PAFA’s previous landscape exhibition, “American Sublime: Epic Landscapes of Our Nation, 1820-1880.” That show, which took place in the summer of 2002, was by all accounts a blockbuster.

Organized by London’s Tate Gallery, the 2002 exhibition consisted of more than 90 works. There are only 20 on view in the current show, which also includes some foreign landscapes — although they are painted by Americans. If the Tate show was epic sublime, this one is small sublime, respectable and modest.

Baker points out that he was handicapped by the work available from the PAFA collection, which never acquired the big names. He explains, “PAFA, which is now almost 200 years old, heavily collected figurative art at the expense of the landscape tradition — in part to support its figurative-based curriculum.”

The Tate show, because of its scope and scholarship, was able to draw cogent parallels between old masters of European landscape painting and their American counterparts. The 2002 show included important loans from around the world. It had a sizable concentration of major works by major artists compared to the competent but lesser lights of the 2004 exhibition.

The current show has been called a “revival,” which generates expectation but risks disappointment, particularly for those who saw and loved the first show. “It is,” Baker acknowledges, “a downsized sublime.” Back in 2002, he says, he had planned to mount a sidebar exhibition to the Tate show.

“I had in fact selected a trove of 20 paintings — about half of which were in storage — or at least not seen in recent memory. The Tate show required no sidebar. We decided to hold this show for the next appropriate opportunity. That opportunity presented itself when the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art asked PAFA for a contribution to its citywide cultural arts festival, which included meditative themes. This seemed like the right time. Our paintings would revisit the stillness of nature and that transcendental moment that nature evokes in man. We would also be riding on the good coat tails of the previous show, which was such a great success.”

What American painters had over their English counterparts like J. M. W. Turner and John Constable was truly sublime subject matter. In a time before the skyscraper, development, or even cultivation, the land had a distinctly Arcadian character. America was, after all, a new continent of raging waterfalls, roiling skies, and majestic mountains. By English standards this land was a raw, untamed wilderness. When it was calmed by perfect days, and the rising sun cut itself gently on a rocky promontory, then bled into the valley, it became an Eden that was no less awesome.

For American painters, the immense spaces of the New World had a curious hypnotic pull, what English philosopher Edmund Burke would call fascination with the “terror within the vastness.” When I asked Baker about Burke’s aesthetic, he said he would substitute the word “vertigo” for terror. “As in the fear of heights,” he says, “there is not only a desire to experience nature’s grandeur, but to the extent that it is possible to control it through interpretation.”

While Hudson River School painters flourished, the Industrial Revolution was taking hold. Baker reasons that the painters were trying to correct its negative impact by painting only the most pristine sites or otherwise editing out the blemishes of industry. “If a power plant appeared on the banks of the river, these artists simply did not paint that part,” he points out. “It was in a sense the last great moment when the artist seized the initiative and memorialized what was left of the sometimes-savage beauty of the American wilderness.”

Replicating nature was a monumental challenge. Many landscape artists — like Dwight W. Tryon and George Inness — embraced the direct observation method of the French Barbizon painters. Others, like Thomas Cole, fused reality with imagination, integrating on-site pencil sketches into studio compositions completed months later. Cole’s eye was all encompassing. He could see both clear and troubled skies across the same majestic sweep, making him the acknowledged leader of the genre. Unfortunately, Cole is not in this show, but several painters whom he influenced are.

Almost all of these painters used figures. Sometimes they are solitary wanderers like the man with a walking stick in William Stanley Haseltine’s panoramic landscape, which is more than three times as long as it is tall. Others use human figures or animals in groups, such as the grazing cows in Charles W. Knapps’ “Delaware Valley Near Milford,” or the three hikers in Edmund Darch Lewis’s “Lake Willoughby,” tiny figures dominated by beams of Heavenly light.

Almost without exception, these figures are small, anonymous, and inconsequential, except as they provide a context for the largeness of the nature around them. The exceptions occur when the figures are, as Baker says, “one with Nature.” In a painting by Sanford Robinson Gifford, for example, a monk appears in silhouette. From his hilltop perch he gazes down at St. Peter’s basilica. It is a small sublime moment for a man of faith communing with nature.

It might be said that the divine is combined with the sublime in George Loring Brown’s version of “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness.” Brown’s figures not only acquire a larger identity, but also a religiosity. Baker explains that Brown’s wilderness is a hospitable one that welcomes the saintly ascetic. Saint John sought this place, Baker explains, as the ultimate refuge. It was a place where he could simply hang out and eschew human contact. What could be more sublime?

The Sublime Landscape, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia. 215-972-7642. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through August 1.

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