The American Landscape Tradition

By Erika Neenan

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Thomas Cole, Kaaterskill Falls, 1826

American landscape paintings from the 19th Century can often appear as mere depictions of a scene found in nature. However, brimming under the service of these works are political messages, religious philosophies, and historic insights into American expansionism.

Landscape emerged as a genre in American painting during the 19th Century. While there are predecessors in artists such as Francis Guy (1760–1820) and Thomas Birch (1779–1851), the true founder of the American landscape tradition is Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Cole’s earliest works, such as Kaaterskill Falls (1826), present the American landscape in a way that had never really been done before. He is not providing a topographical vista of an identifiable scene as an earlier artist would have done, but rather, Cole manipulates this popular tourist sight in order to paint nature as if we are the first humans to ever see this scene.

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Thomas Cole, The Consumption of the Empire, from the series The Course of Empire, 1833–1836

Later in his career, Cole began to use landscape as a way to express themes and allegories. The Course of Empire is a series of five paintings created between 1833 and 1836 that charts the rise and fall of an ancient civilization. While the series as a whole expresses a cyclical view of history, scholars have noted that the series likely reflects Cole’s own contemporary political views. Thomas Cole identified as a Whig. He believed that small, agricultural communities were the ideal society and ensured the safety of the Republic. Cole produced this work while Andrew Jackson was serving as the President of the United States. Jackson was a very controversial figure, who was absolutely detested by members of the Whig Party. Cole saw Andrew Jackson as a figure who was contributing to the rise of imperialism and endangering America. While this work may be read as an allegory, it also reflects Thomas Cole’s view that America was susceptible to imperialism—as brought on by figures like Andrew Jackson—and eventual decline.

Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) is another artist who infused deeper meanings into his landscape paintings. Durand encouraged the scientific study and reproduction of elements in nature.  While he created idealized, composed, landscapes, his representations of plants and trees are scientifically accurate. Durand introduced this detailed, scientific approach to landscape painting because he believed that the divine could be revealed through a close study of nature. This way of thinking was very much in line with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). As such, Durand is classified as a transcendentalist artist.

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Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, 1857

Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), who was the only student Thomas Cole ever instructed, includes both spiritual and political meanings within his works. Church painted epic landscapes that were massive in size. He first came to prominence with Niagara Falls, which is 40 x 90½ inches.  In addition to creating works that were large scale vistas, Church also provides the scientific details that are found in Durand’s works. Heart of the Andes, for example is a 5½ x 10 ft. painting of the Ecuadorian landscape that provides a view of the volcano Chimborazo. Not only is the work panoramic, but the clear, crisp painting shows the smallest of details in nature.

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Photograph of Heart of the Andes exhibited in 1864

Like Durand, Church is a transcendentalist artist who believed that by studying the details of nature, especially in Ecuador where there was such a variety of complex environmental observations to be made, that you could reflect on the divine plan of God and his creation. But there is also political meaning within this work. When Church exhibited Heart of the Andes in New York City he displayed portraits of the first three presidents of the United States above the work. During the 1840s America had added a vast amount of new territories to the nation and landscape paintings during the 1840s and 1850s must be understood within the historical context of Manifest Destiny. By exhibiting the portraits of the nations’ first presidents along with this painting, Church is making a statement that areas of South America should be considered as areas of expansion for the United States.

The next time you view an American landscape painting from the 19th Century do not think of it as just a representation of nature. Think of it as a key—a key to past religious and political beliefs, and a key to national character of that time.