POUGHKEEPSIE, NY—This summer the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center presents an opportunity to view changing depictions of the American landscape as rendered by artists of the Hudson River School through modernists of the 20th century. Of the many rarely or never shown paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints in Nature in America: Taming the Landscape, 42 of the 44 works are drawn from the Art Center’s permanent collection. Patricia Phagan, the Art Center’s Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings, curates the exhibition, which will be on view from June 29 through August 26, 2012.
Nature in America includes works by Thomas Cole, George Inness, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Andrew Dasburg, and Ernest Fiene, as well as painters Aaron Draper Shattuck, Milton Avery, and Oscar Bluemner, photographers Frank Jay Haynes, Edward Steichen, and Ansel Adams, and many others. The exhibition will explore three major phases in thought toward and representation of landscape through the two world wars.
Gallery One: The Young Nation: Domesticating the Wild
The first gallery of the exhibition will offer an opportunity to see how some of the artists of the Hudson River School as well as early Western photographers viewed America, which was at that time largely wilderness. Phagan noted that “young landscape artists tended to see a wild land with sublime vistas, immense topographical features, and intense expressions of moods.”
Painter Thomas Cole in his “Essay on American Scenery” in 1835 noted that the most prominent feature of the country’s Eden-like land was this predominant wildness, almost primeval in relation to Europe’s centuries-old cultivated landscape, but disappearing fast to the ax. He pointed out those parts of nature that especially fascinated—such as the mountains, lakes, and waterfalls—and did so with emotional, spiritual words that connect with his fervent oils.
Phagan noted that, for Cole, “art could improve upon the fascinating wildness of America by giving it more picturesque variety and contrast, and making it even more theatrical. In doing so, he and his followers in the Hudson River School often made composite views of scenery in their more finished works, with brooding mountains and cliffs, gentle rivers, stormy skies and fiery sunsets, and rocky, weather-battered islands and coasts.”
Like the artists of the English landscape tradition who came before them, these American painters were swept up in the search not only for the picturesque but for the dramatic, awe-inspiring sublime in nature, aesthetic theories formed in England decades before and popularized through newspapers, books, and trips abroad. American photographers applied the search for the sublime as well. In the frontier West, they echoed this aesthetic when they documented magnificent mountain chains stitched with new railroad tracks or recorded the astonishing terrain of Yellowstone National Park.
In addition to Cole, the artists represented in this section will include Thomas Doughty, William Hart, Frank Jay Haynes, William Henry Jackson, Jervis McEntee, Charles Herbert Moore, Alexander Robertson, Andrew Joseph Russell, Aaron Draper Shattuck, James Smillie, William T. Russell Smith, Seneca Ray Stoddard, and Carleton E. Watkins.
Gallery Two: After the Civil War: Softening the Face of Nature
In the second gallery, Phagan highlights landscape artists who began to look at nature differently, with the “lofty poetry that characterized so many paintings of the Hudson River School gradually softening and becoming more personal.”
Around the time of the Civil War and for decades afterwards, many painters, printmakers, and photographers in the United States preferred creating up-close, private moments in a civilized nature that they made atmospheric and intimate, with growing emphasis on strong passages and veils of color. For instance, Phagan noted that when George Inness came back from Europe in the 1850s, he began to favor the calm, informal landscape style of Théodore Rousseau and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, artists of the Barbizon School whose pigment-laden canvases appeared airy and brilliant with light. His quiet landscapes in turn influenced several American artists, and paved the way for the Tonalist movement of poetic landscape oils, watercolors, prints, and photographs ultimately inspired by the fog-shrouded, tinted views of London by American expatriate James McNeill Whistler.
At the same time, American artists working abroad in Munich, Brittany, and elsewhere embraced the immediacy of painting outdoor scenes (en plein air) and brought this way of working back to America. All of this experimentation led many American painters in the 1880s and afterwards to embrace the luminous and color-saturated approaches of the French Impressionists.
In addition to Inness, artists represented in this gallery include Milton Avery, Ralph A. Blakelock, Henry Farrer, Daniel Garber, William Morris Hunt, John Francis Murphy, Harry Coswell Rubincam, James David Smillie, Edward Steichen, Abbott H. Thayer, Dwight William Tryon, John Henry Twachtman, and Henry Wolf.
Gallery Three: The Progressive Era through the World Wars: Breaking Nature Apart
The final shift represented in this exhibition occurred in early-20th-century America during a period of reformist politics and new ideas in the arts. American artists were inspired by the art of Matisse, Picasso, and other European modernists, and began to fragment nature, singling out its curves, planes, masses of colors, rhythmic lines, and fecund energy. For instance, Phagan noted that painters such as Arthur Dove and John Marin, in the circle around gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, made vital modern landscapes inspired by the local scene.
The Woodstock Art Colony—its artists ferrying back and forth from New York—rendered the valleys and lanes around this upstate New York area with lilting shapes and patterns as seen in the work of Andrew Dasburg and Ernest Fiene. Broadly speaking, during the first half of the 20th century, American artists of all allegiances began making stronger use of patterns, planes, colors, and rhythmic lines in their views of the land.
In addition to Dasburg, Dove, Fiene, and Marin, artists included in this section include Ansel Adams, Oscar Bluemner, Andreas Feininger, Rosella Hartman, Fairfield Porter, Grant Wood, and William Zorach.
Nature in America is sponsored by the Evelyn Metzger Exhibition Fund.
Opening Event: Twilight Party
Friday, June 29 at 7:00pm
Hildegarde Krause Baker ’11 Sculpture Garden at the Art Center
Enjoy live music and refreshments in the redesigned Hildegarde Krause Baker ’11 Sculpture Garden. Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings, will lead visitors on a tour of the exhibition.
About the Curator
Patricia Phagan is the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. She is in charge of more than 10,000 works in the permanent collection, including the Magoon Collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English watercolors, drawings, and prints. As a curator of prints and drawings for over twenty years, she has organized a number of exhibitions, including Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England; British Watercolors from the West Foundation Collection; The Transmission of Fame: Italian Renaissance Prints; and REMBRANDT: Treasures from the Rembrandt House, Amsterdam. In addition to the catalogue that accompanied the Rowlandson exhibition, Phagan has edited numerous catalogues on European and American prints and drawings and written widely, including the article, “Drawings at Vassar to ‘Illustrate the Loftiest Principles and Refine the Most Delighted Hearts,’” published in Master Drawings (Summer 2004). She earned her Ph.D. in Art History from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2000 with a dissertation on American political cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 18,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. The Art Center is wheelchair accessible. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.