January 29, 2008
Art exhibit spotlights tourism in America with paintings of Church, Homer, Moran
In the 19th century, wealthy American scions took the "Grand Tour" for the sights they couldn't see at home: the Louvre in Paris, the canals of Venice and the ruins of Pompeii. But the United States had sights to see, tooones Europe couldn't match: Yosemite, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
Then the mass media came into the picture. Through magazines, newspapers and guidebooks, 19th-century artists and publishers began selling America to the Americans. By the second half of the century, incomes and leisure increased for the middle classes. Scenic touring was launched as a business. Not only were the Adirondacks was more affordable than Berlin, but the railroad and steamship companies were opening the nation's previously inaccessible regions to visitors. What had been the purview of the privileged classesa vacationnow became accessible to the middle class.
"Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape," on exhibit at the Cantor Arts Center's Pigott Family Gallery from Jan. 30 to May 4, is the first museum exhibition to explore the work of three singular and influential artists in the context of tourism and the development of American landscape painting.
These and other landscape artists pioneered the quest for sublime sites as they sought to convey on paper and canvas a divine presence in the marvels of nature. As they worked, the artists recorded, romanticized, edited and sometimes embellished views that became iconic.
Millions of vacationers trudged in their footsteps to the Hudson River Valley, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, the Maine coast and Yellowstone as the newly created mass media featured the works of these painters and helped to communicate the idea of scenic travel.
By promoting the idea of America as a land of natural purity and beauty, these painters helped forge the nation's sense of itself, even as they fueled Americans' wanderlust. Church (1826-1900) was instrumental in the Hudson River School of landscape painters. Though committed to the natural sciences, he was also unfailingly concerned with the spiritual dimension of his works. Boston-born Homer (1836-1910) is best known for his seascapes; his interpretations of man stoically confronting the elements gained an enthusiastic critical reception (one eminent painter commented that his works had an "integrity of nature"). The work of Moran (1837-1926), whose vision of the majestic Western landscape was illustrated by his paintings and his pencil and watercolor sketches, is considered critical to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Mount Moran in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park was named for him.
Even as they painted, however, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Pristine landscapes were already disappearing into urban blight. Nevertheless, the public, as well as artists, continued to seek virgin wilderness areas for an imagined Virgilian "picturesque" world of pastoral beauty and virtuous simplicity.
In those years, few saw the inherent contradiction: The increasing numbers of sightseers stampeding the pristine wilderness were bringing the very commercialization and development the tourists hoped to escape. For example, by 1850 somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 tourists visited Niagara annually out of a total U.S. population of 23 million. A single natural wonder, such as Niagara, required an array of secondary attractions to support and entertain the visitors over a weekend visit or longer.
"Tourism and the American Landscape" includes 70 painted sketches, studio paintings and drawings. It also includes about 65 works of decorative art, books, stereographs, railroad brochures and other pieces. A 200-page illustrated book, with essays by the exhibition curators and two additional scholars, accompanies the exhibition, which was organized by the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the owner of more than 10,000 American paintings, drawings, prints and photographs. More than 2,000 of those works are by Churchmaking the museum the largest collection of his work in the world.
The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Thursday hours extended to 8 p.m. Admission is free. Docents lead free tours of "Tourism and the American Landscape" on Thursdays at 12:15 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.