Hood Quarterly, summer 2003
Mark Mitchell, Luce Curatorial Assistant for American Art
As America celebrated its first centennial in 1876, the nation and its art stood at a crossroads, still recovering from the Civil War while at the dawn of the nation’s Gilded Age. Founded in 1871, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum today remains a uniquely preserved historic center for the study of American art of the Centennial era. The Athenaeum’s collection, donated by its founder, Vermont Governor Horace Fairbanks, and his family, is an enduring tribute to the range and ambition of American art at this watershed in the nation’s history. Three major landscapes from the Athenaeum’s collection on display at the Hood Museum of Art until September 2003 challenge our expectations of post–Civil War landscape painting and illuminate the ongoing competition among artists to chart the future course of American painting.
Since before the nation’s founding, the depiction of the American landscape has been fraught with political, philosophical, and religious significance. In the landscape, American artists found a subject matter that both distinguished their art from that of their European peers and asserted a coherent national identity. As the century progressed, American artists, including the three artists represented in the Athenaeum’s loans, strove to update and embellish that early aesthetic, recognizing the landscape as both a quintessentially American subject and a symbol of the republic.
Jasper Cropsey’s lyrical paean Autumn on the Ramapo River (1876) harks back to an earlier, romantic approach, in which evocation of sentiment amid the glory of an idealized America was paramount. Cropsey’s work updates that tradition in both scale and color, portraying an amorous couple in a vast, lavishly autumnal forest interior.
For Sanford Gifford in his light-filled panorama The Views from South Mountain, Catskills (1873), the depiction of landscape is devotional. Divine light permeates the scene, filling it with color and reaching expansively in all directions. Gifford’s faith persisted in the face of Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, a treatise that shook the foundations of American religious and artistic thought.
In contrast, Worthington Whittredge’s On the Plains, Colorado (1872) is a crystalline, nearly photographic rendering of the western landscape. Whittredge’s objectivity and specificity of detail participated in the more cosmopolitan realist aesthetics that he learned as a student in Europe. Of these three artists, Whittredge proved the most influential, anticipating the rush to European modernism that took hold of American artists by the 1880s. In these three paintings, we see American artistic ideals in ferment, not a predictable succession of styles but rather a hotly contested field of ideas and identities.
Integrated into the Hood’s American art collection on display in the Sack Gallery, the Athenaeum’s paintings demarcate and dramatize a historical watershed in American history. The Athenaeum’s loans offer visitors to the Hood the opportunity to examine the significance of that division for themselves, both by examining the paintings and by considering their relationship to landscapes by Thomas Doughty, Samuel Lancaster Gerry, Abbott Thayer, and Willard Metcalf in the Hood’s permanent collection. The opportunity to study works from both collections in the same gallery is exceptional and should not be missed by any admirer of American art.