Then and Now: A Changing Relationship between Artist and Landscape

The reading, Wilderness and the American Mind, introduces some of the earliest and most influential landscape painters of the New World.  The reading discusses such artists as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, and describes the beginning of a new relationship between the artist and the landscape.  One artist in particular, Thomas Moran, exhibits this relationship as he “used huge canvases and dazzling colors in an effort to express his emotions” (p. 83).

Moran’s paintings not only acted as visual representations of the natural world in order to communicate the importance of wilderness, but also seem to act as works that display the artist’s emotional responses to such landscapes.  For example, Moran’s painting, “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone,” offers a somewhat all-encompassing view of the landscape in order to visually communicate as many aspects of the landscape as possible.

For those that cannot be there in person, Moran includes as much of the landscape as possible, from the waterfall, to the steep, craggy rock faces, to the dark valley of forest that seems to exist directly below the viewer’s feet.  Moran guides the viewer’s eye on a journey from the vast horizon of an endless sky and mountain ridges, down to a valley through a rushing waterfall, and back up the sides of the steep mountains whose landscape alternates between one of tall trees and one of large, unyielding rocks that point the viewer back to the horizon. Although Moran’s painting is meant to offer an accurate representation of a natural scene, it also possesses a particularly emotive quality that may lead the viewer to question the existence of such a place. Although any painting is bound to possess some level of subjectivity and may not be trusted as completely accurate, Moran seems to go a step further through the style he chooses to employ.  Moran’s style seems to rely on the power of suggestion.  Instead of literally painting the entire picture for you, he blends color and texture in a way that suggests a certain terrain, but does not map out the landscape in complete detail.  For example, in “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone,” particularly in the upper right-hand side of the painting, Moran uses a blend of colors such as orange, red, brown, purple, and beige to create a smooth, almost flowing mountain-side that looks more like water than land.  This style pervades the entire painting, and although it is still obviously a representation of a natural landscape, the viewer may begin to question the existence of such a dream-like place.  Moran’s lack of detail and push of personal aesthetic style may mark a point in time where the artist begins to depict the landscape as experience as opposed to merely place.

After realizing this particular quality in Moran’s work, I began to think about his work in relation to contemporary landscape painters, and also in the context of what he was doing around the time he was creating work.  First of all, as we read in, The American Wilderness, Moran was part of a Yellowstone expedition where his art was used to campaign for the establishment of the Yellowstone National Park.  Also, the reading notes that he traveled with the landscape photographer, William H. Jackson.  With this in mind, I began to connect Moran’s style with a shift in painting that came with the development of photography.  As Moran traveled with a photographer who was capturing actual representations of the landscape, Moran may have felt more of a freedom to not only represent the natural landscape, but also to incorporate an expressive quality in order to create an experience, not just an image.  Moran does not have to replicate a place, but may instead attempt to depict a personal experience.

Furthermore, the quality of Moran’s work led me to think about contemporary landscape paintings, and how many painters today take an impressionistic or somewhat abstract approach to landscape painting.  One example of such contemporary landscape painting may be seen in Ken Bushe’s work, particularly in his painting, “The Millpond.”

Although this piece is abstract, it still represents aspects of the original landscape. However, it seems to be a representation of the artist’s internal experience with the natural world as opposed to a mere reflection of exterior world itself.  The dramatic contrast between the first major American landscape painters and contemporary landscape painting not only offers commentary on how art has evolved, but also on how our experiences with the natural world have changed as well.  The vastly obscured, yet powerfully emotive imagery of much of contemporary landscape painting may represent our current conflicting relationship with nature. We are no longer trying to merely record its existence, but are also trying to understand where and how we exist in relation to our natural surroundings.



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