Alfred Bierstadt’s 1870 painting, “The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak”, is an iconic representation of the American West whose formal properties tell a lot about the American landscape and also about the art of landscape painting in general.
“The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak” covers a lot of territory. In its center is an ice covered peak, and below that is a lake, and further in the foreground is an Indian settlement, with tepees under the trees or grouped out in the open and Indians congregating or moving their horses, all the bustle of a well organized community. The Indians are dressed so as to show that it is not warm in this part of the Rockies, but they are comfortable and so as civilized as a pre-literate society can be. There is an unimpeded view from the Indian camp across the lake to some waterfalls and then to the giant mountain behind. The unimpeded view is the key to the painting, more than its contrast of colors, the green of the trees and the land on the apron of the lake, the blue of the lake, and then the increasing white of the waterfalls and the mountain behind. The Indian community can consider itself nestled next to the lake, with nothing to fear from nature, because they have so many layers of separation between themselves and the uninhabitable mountain, that just a part of their scenery. The scene is welcoming. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a vista from your own front porch! That would not be the case if a viewer saw the area abundant in fog coming from the lake and the mountain, or if the Indian community were hidden behind a ridge that gave it some shelter from the weather. Maybe, at another time of year, the landscape would be more foreboding of what nature might have in store, but here it is not, and I think the unimpeded view accounts for that.
Other American artists, especially of the Hudson River School, which is where Bierstadt started out, adopt the same strategy. Sometimes, as in Thomas Cole’s “View From Mount Holyoke”, the artist looks out from his perch on a mountainside, to look down on his subject, which is a great plain through which cuts through a river with an oxbow bend. Sometimes, as in Asher Durant’s “Kindred Spirits”, it means that two illustrious friends (Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant) are standing on a ledge, not taking account of their precarious perch, to look out to where they can see crags and a waterfall and lush vegetation that is rendered in detail rather than in a patch of green. Sometimes it means looking down on a railroad, rather than a river, as it cuts its way across the cultivated plain. That is what happens in This unobstructed view is used by American artists even when they paint foreign landscapes. Frederic Church does the same thing in his panoramic and majestic “A View of the Andes”, the artist, not readily picked out from the wealth of vegetation and mountain ridges, but there nonetheless, on his bit of territory where he has set up his easel so that he can survey the enormity of what is in front of him as well as to his sides. The artist is not made small by his insignificant size; rather, he becomes the focal point of the picture because of everything he is taking in.
All this is very different from what the landscape had originally been: something seen out of the window of a Renaissance Italian house, as in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of an Old Man and a Young Boy”. The picture shows what might be a grandfather facing away from the window and looking lovingly at his grandson. But the eye of the viewer, however emotionally gripping may be that portrait, is drawn to that window and the giant vista, all the way to the sea and the mountains, that can be seen there, that vista clue to the infinities that lie beyond the walls of a house or the face of someone sitting for a portrait. Yes, the Renaissance Italian poets had seen mountains as magical, the places to seek spirituality, but it is Bierstadt who suggests that mountains are formidable in their own right, in their physical being, especially when they are the backdrop of civilization rather than the antagonist of civilization.
The same principle of organization found in.. is also in Giorgione’s “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which was painted in the early sixteenth century. The focus of the picture is on the right, where the shepherds kneel down before the baby Jesus, portrayed as living in a cave. The borders of the cave block out the view of the shepherds of the countryside down to the sea that can be seen from the point of view of the viewer of the painting, and so we can say that nature is blocked from view. Obstructing the view is a tease in that the artist does the long view with care, but as if only real viewers of the painting can see it. The long view is for them
The Dutch follow this Renaissance tradition of the obstructed landscape. Jacob Ruisdael in “Dunes” has his single figure walking between dunes as he moves along a road, his perspective different from the viewer’s in that the viewer can see the grass growing on the dunes while the subject of the painting does not. It is to be noted that Ruisdael does not follow this principle of the obstructed view when he is painting townscapes where there is an aerial point of view that allows the viewer to take in, as will the people in the picture, the long view that goes from an outlying house all the way back to the town behind. Poussin also follows the convention of the obstructed view in his paintings, the protagonist of the painting set too low to see the houses or the town or the mountains that are behind him.
But maybe the Americans are not doing anything particularly American by disclosing the long view to everyone. They might just have been engaged in the altered conventions of the landscape that took hold after the Renaissance. But that is not the case because the European landscape painters took other paths than the wholesale embracement of nature. The English landscape painters of the Nineteenth Century, for their part, do very few landscapes of note if one means by that attending to the shapes and colors and feelings engendered by contemplating wilderness. (They do do remarkable seascapes.) Rather, those landscapes that qualify as such, which include John Crome’s “Mousehold Moor, Norwich”, are hardly verfry string even though it is a landscape in that it portrays the contours of land and a certain state of greenery. For the most part, what Englishmen do rather than landscapes are genre paintings of pastoral nostalgia, such as the very famous (to Englishman) painting by John Constable, The Hay Wain”, where a wagon is crossing a river tgo a weird house, and is more a picture of provincial life, complete with a dog, than it is a landscape. The same is true of John Crome’s “Boys Bathing on the River Wensum, Norwich”, which may have some trees, but where the outdoors is not its subject.
The German landscape painters of the Nineteenth Century have a different problem. They do not want the landscape to be majestic while welcoming. They want it to be foreboding, and they use a number of methods to accomplish that. Caspar David Friedrich uses light and dark to make “Uttewalder Grund” foreboding, while he renders another landscape, “Landscape in the Riesengebirge” as less fearsome also through his choice of colors: a church in white stands in front of hills and behind a field, the painting full of swaths of green alternating with white. Most subtle is his treatment of a landscape in “The Wattzsman”. There are snowy peaks in the background while there is an ugly boulder in the foreground that looks vaguely human shaped that, because of the depressed point of view of the painting, blocks the view of the valley that stands between the mountain and the range of hills from which the scene is seen. You don’t want to be in any of these paintings; they are all eerie, which is a point of success if your purpose is to give them a romantic feeling of a place filled with spirits and danger of one sort or another.
A general point: It might seem awfully speculative to make a connection between a cultural hypothesis and a social structural hypothesis, which in this case is that the unimpeded view of nature in American landscapes is somehow connected to the American tendency to be positive about nature and, beyond that, optimistic about life, which are matters of national character. Max Weber did the same thing when he proposed the hypothesis, still controversial, that the cultural substance of Protestantism had something to do with capitalism becoming the dominating social structure of Northern Europe. There are always exceptions: European landscapes that are unobstructed, capitalist pockets before the Protestant Reformation. But nations (and continents) are very special kinds of entities. As I suggested in a previous post, “Territoriality”, people identify with the land and not just the culture of the nation in which they live, and so it is reasonable to think that how the way a place looks and how people take to look at it, is going to have an influence on how the nation itself gets constructed. We live in a nation that goes “from sea to shining sea” and, as I am suggesting, we are not afraid to look at and engage with nature. It used to be that America was symbolized by the harvesting of fields of grain, then by smokestack cities, then by suburbia, and perhaps now by football stadia and social media, which I would take to be a falloff. So my explanation for American exceptionalism may be a stretch, but some hypothesis of this sort is what we are all drawn to make.