The forgotten call of the American wild

An exhibition at Tate Britain proves that the idea of the sublime in American landscape painting is still powerfully resonant. So why aren?t its 19th-century exponents better known?
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American Sublime, the Tate Britain exhibition of 99 works of the 19th-century American landscape painters, carries on from the Hudson River School (originally a contemporary critic's derisive term), to the Luminists, to the artists of western exploration – the creators of the first American genre, landscape painting. The idea of the sublime as the handiwork of God manifested in the natural landscape underlay the creative energy of the time. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1836 essay "Nature" wrote that "the inevitable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common". Henry David Thoreau, delivering his Harvard graduation address the next year, said that rather than working for six days and resting on the seventh, one should work one day and leave six free to admire the "sublime revelations of nature".

The North American continent's massive and awe-inspiring wilderness – a wilderness of extraordinary diversity – moved people deeply. Thomas Jefferson, gazing at the natural stone bridge on his estate found that it was "the most sublime of Nature's works... the rapture is truly indescribable". In Cole's 1827-28 Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the stone arch through which Adam and Eve stumble strongly suggests this arch.

Many of the 19th-century paintings show a golden luminosity, even when the geography is located in arid regions with famously clear air. There is in them, as well an aching quality of tristesse, perhaps that intangible something that Alfred Kazin refers to as "the rueful American note" – Paradise fated for spoliation. Thomas Cole wrote to his patron, Luman Reed, in 1836, that "...they are cutting down all the trees in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye. This throws quite a gloom over my spring anticipations. Tell this to Durand – not that I wish to give him pain, but that I want him to join me in maledictions on all dollar-godded utilitarians." The idea of the sublime lingers today in the thoughts of environmentalists who never have seen the old wild country but know that it was there. These paintings are the proof.

Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River school, born in Lancashire in 1801, emigrated with his family to the upper Ohio valley in 1818. A daguerreotype shows him with a cadaverous face and pomaded hair artfully arranged to cover his balding head.

In 1825, Cole discovered the Catskill mountains and was encouraged when three of his early paintings of cliffs, gorges and storm clouds provoked great interest in the art community. Traditionally, landscape painting was regarded as inferior to history painting. It was Cole's transcendental aim to show that landscape painting was a way of apprehending the Creator. The hallmarks of his work were panoramic vistas, luminous, light-filled air and muscular skies, humans reduced to the size of insects. His subject matter was picturesque or sublime, didactic or morally uplifting, as in his great allegorical series.

Although Cole was given to Grand Theatre effects, he was capable of more subtle moral lessons. A popular subject for sermons was the Willey Disaster of 1826. The Willey family who lived in the house below Crawford Notch in New Hampshire, knew the danger of landslides and had planned an escape route. One night they awoke to the terrible rumble of cascading rocks. They rushed outdoors, away from the house, and all were killed. The house escaped damage. Cole visited the site in 1828 and wrote movingly of the tragedy in his journal. In 1839 he painted A View in the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch), the work thought to be a before-the-fact reference to this infamous event.

Asher Durand, the frail seventh of 11 children, was not much use on the family farm. At the age of 16, he was apprenticed to Peter Maverick, an engraver in Newark, New Jersey. Eventually, Durand became Maverick's partner, but they broke up following a quarrel over a commission to engrave the Declaration of Independence which Durand had accepted without consulting Maverick. Durand completed the exacting job, which made his reputation as the finest US engraver.

Gradually his interests shifted toward painting, and by 1835, with the encouragement of Luman Reed, he put the burin aside and took up the brush. He was a friend of Cole, who, on a trip to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks, converted him to landscape painting. A few years later, on borrowed money, Durand made the Grand Tour with John Kensett and his crowd.

Durand, sometimes unfairly called a bucolic cow-painter, is known for his brilliant plein air studies as well as the finished paintings. His work, his fidelity to leaf and rock, echoed the precision of his engravings. He rarely combined geographic elements into a painterly representation of nature, but faithfully reported in paint what he saw. He wrote frequently on painting, and his articles in The Crayon, the art magazine of the day, influenced many young painters.

Kindred Spirits is his best-known work, a commemorative portrait of his friend Thomas Cole (d 1848) standing on a thrusting rock with nature poet William Cullen Bryant. Here, two landscapes are combined (Cole often did the same) – Kaaterskill Clove and Kaaterskill Falls. A fallen tree in the foreground is a hallmark of Hudson River painting, but it is also reminiscent of the fallen trees depicted on New England gravestones.

An 1867 carte de visite of Frederick Kensett at the height of his career shows a stout fellow with mussy hair and short beard, wearing watch-chain and spats, and holding a malacca stick. In his early life, Kensett worked an unhappy stint as an engraver of tiny vignette bed-pieces in his father's shop. He applied for a job with Asher Durand, then the best-known American engraver, but didn't get it. Contemporaries described his diligence at work and often mentioned his sunny personality.

In 1840, in the company of friends (including Asher Durand), he sailed for England, where his grandmother and uncle lived in Hampton Courts. He went on to Paris for work, study and gallery-gadding, and here began to drift from engraving to painting. In 1843, his grandmother died and he stayed in England for the next two years, then back to Paris and on to Italy. During these travels, he met and became friends with many American painters.

In New York again in 1847, he set up a studio which became an artists' gathering place. Arts, letters, club-life, celebrities and amusements, a close association with the Academy of Design, and political lobbying on behalf of artists made up Kensett's life. He was one of the founding trustees of the Metropolitan Museum, as well as a bon vivant and a popular painter. Throughout his life, he enjoyed steady sales of his work, evocative and charming scenes linked to the new tourism. Travellers could – and did – cry out when they came upon a particularly felicitous bit of scenery, "A Kensett!"

Over time, Kensett's paintings moved steadily toward subtle, compressed and asymmetric compositions, almost abstract, that stressed silvery calm rather than thrilling scenery. The final body of paintings became known as "The Last Summer's Work", now considered his finest pictures. The Tate exhibit includes two of these – Passing off of the Storm, and Eaton's Neck, Long Island.

He died at the age of 56 from the effects of pneumonia, contracted after a futile effort to rescue a woman who had somehow fallen from her carriage into a cold ocean inlet. After his death, the paintings went to the Metropolitan Museum but languished in storerooms for more than 100 years, before they were rediscovered and restored, along with the artist's importance, which for some critics surpasses the grander names of the period.

Martin Johnson Heade (born Heed in 1819) is perhaps the most interesting of these painters, and the least known. Until his rediscovery in the 1940s, Heade and his work were almost invisible. An 1841 portrait shows a young man with clear eyes gazing upward, his hair already in retreat. In a photograph 60 years later, the white-mustached Heade sits in a wicker rocker at an open window framed by an exuberant Florida vines. He wears a straw boater.

The oldest of a family of 17 children, Heade knew when he was a boy that he wanted to be a painter, and, surprisingly, was encouraged by his farmer-lumberman father. He was apprenticed to a Quaker neighbour, the American primitive Edward Hicks (The Peaceable Kingdom). Only a few of Heade's early paintings are known, most of them stiff and awkward portraits. Sometime in the 1840s, his father sent him to Europe. He visited France and England, and spent two years in Rome. A few of his portraits from the 1850s survive, several of them competent and successful. But it was the period when landscape painting was all the rage, and his painting interests veered to that genre.

Heade had a roving disposition and throughout his life travelled extensively. He was an odd, reclusive man, quixotic and impulsive, with no head for business. He set up for work in the 10th Street Studio Building alongside Frederick Church, Sanford Gifford, Kensett and Albert Bierstadt. Although something of a loner, Heade became and remained a close friend of Church. One of Heade's first paintings in his new digs was the 1859 work Approaching Thunder Storm, also known as The Coming Storm. No one – not critic, public or artist, save Church (and he was condescending) – paid much attention to this or Heade's later work.

At first, Heade did the traditional summer field trips to the White Mountains, Lake George and Maine, though his desultory and sporadic sketches rarely formed the basis of later paintings. He did paint a powerful Lake George scene more or less from the same vantage point as Kensett's more famous work, but Heade's vision was of disturbing intensity, not to the taste of the times.

Then, in his forties, he shifted his focus to a place that he made his own through more than 100 paintings of the same subject: the Newburyport salt marshes, which, as his biographer Stebbins says, were "his wilderness and his Niagara". This humble, Thoreau-like subject, with its stacks of marsh hay, ever-changing light and sky, totally absorbed him. By now, he resembled a marsh bird himself: thin, stalk-legged, bald-pated. The horizontal shape of his idiosyncratic paintings, emphasised by cigar-shaped clouds, became nearly a trademark.

Heade seems to have painted for himself, repeating studies to solve problems of light and effect, then moving on to different subjects – marsh studies, marine paintings, approaching storms, humming birds, orchids, magnolias. Alone of the major 19th-century American artists, he was both landscape and still-life painter.

Throughout his life, Heade enjoyed bird-shooting and fishing. Reports of good sport drew him to Florida in 1883. He liked St Augustine and the Florida marshes, and he made a connection with the wealthy Henry Morrison Flagler, who became Heade's late and only patron. Flagler paid Heade handsome prices for dozens of his paintings of Florida subjects, though apparently the painter managed the money badly.

In 1883, the 64-year-old Heade bought a house in St Augustine and astonished his old friend Church by marrying for the first time. In his remaining years Heade seemed almost happy, riding his bicycle, painting, coaxing hummingbirds to sit on his finger. A few years before the end, he wrote in a letter (one of many to the sporting magazine Forest and Stream), "I have had my day, and all I ask is to be let alone". He died in 1885, but only in recent years has he, in fact, had his day.

Albert Bierstadt is the hero of a classic rags-to-riches story. He was born in Germany in 1830, the son of a cooper. His parents moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was two years old. From his early youth he was a go-getter, ambitious, blessed with energy and talent. When he was 21 he gave lessons in monochrome painting (though he himself had barely mastered the rudiments), and charged admission to showings of projected images whose chief novelty was their huge size. With the money he earned this way he went to Düsseldorf for three busy years, observing and talking with the more-solvent students attending the art academy. Back in New Bedford he set up an exhibition of his and others' paintings, and charged admission. The exhibit was not a financial success, but it did catch the attention of artists and art dealers. Bierstadt was already thinking he might go West. In the spring of 1859, attaching himself to an expedition led by FW Lander, he made his first trip to the Rocky Mountains. It was the beginning of a phenomenal career.

On his return he started painting enormous Western scenes that slaked, but did not satisfy, the public's thirst for images of the West. The most important painting from this trip was his 1863 work The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, 6ft by 10ft, to commemorate the Civil War death of FW Lander. (Bierstadt paid $300 for a substitute to take his place when he was drafted.) He sent the painting to Boston where the crowding public paid to see it.

The California landscape photographs of Carleton Watkins went on exhibit in New York in 1862 and may have served as the goad that sent Bierstadt out again, to Yosemite in California and up the coast to Oregon Territory.

Bierstadt appropriated the Rockies and the far west as his subject matter. He was the right man at the right time. The Manifest Destiny movement gripped Americans. Most people regarded the plains, forests and mountains west of the Missouri River as seductively empty, despite the highly visible presence of nomadic Indian inhabitants. Most believed it was the destiny of white, Christian Americans to seize, settle and civilise this waiting country. Bierstadt, as the prime interpreter of the West through his "Great Pictures" (single large canvases that travelled from city to city on exhibit to a paying public), spoke that nationalistic language. When The Domes of the Yosemite appeared, a newspaper urged people to see the painting: "They will feel the world is progressing and the Americans are a great people."

The British railroad entrepreneur James McHenry bought The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, for the record sum of $25,000 in 1865, a sale that catapulted Bierstadt to the front rank of American painters. Now he moved in the highest social circles. But even as his prices soared and fame increased, critics were ripping at his flanks. Several said his paintings were little more than "vulgar, scenic art", which pleased popular taste. They noted the painter's avidity for monetary gain and disapproved of his "showmanship".

Bierstadt must have thought the money would flow forever. In 1865, he built a mansion overlooking the Hudson and aped the lifestyle of his millionaire patrons. But within a few years, clouds were gathering in his sky. His monopoly of the west was being challenged by the work of Thomas Moran. The crash of 1869 shrivelled the purses of the wealthy and affected his own shaky finances. Clarence King, heading the US Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel, remarked that Bierstadt's Yosemite paintings were unrelated to geological reality. Finally, there was some rather underhanded manipulation by Bierstadt in placing pictures in a federal government building, and in the new Corcoran Gallery.

In the 1870s, interest in Bierstadt's work was on the wane. Selection committees increasingly declined his massive paintings, while critics used the words "meretricious" and "carelessly executed". Once the critics got their knives into Bierstadt, they never put them away. By 1880, when Bierstadt should have been in his prime, he was repeating old themes. His day, like that of the buffalo, had passed. Only in recent years have his works been once more appreciated.

Bierstadt's emotional paintings of the west showed melodramatic vistas of mountains and torn skies at a time when people wanted badly to know what the west looked like; he gave them an American Eden. Then, after the American Civil War, as settlers, miners, railroad workers and buffalo hunters flooded into the region, Bierstadt's paintings preserved the central myth that the primal wilderness still existed somewhere in the American West.

Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900) was regarded as the greatest American painter during his lifetime. A quarter of the paintings in the Tate exhibit are the works of Church. He was born into a solid Connecticut business family and became the only pupil Thomas Cole ever accepted.

Church's lifetime coincided with a keen public interest in science, especially geology, and, like Durand, Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey and other painters, he read geological texts. (An art critic, seeing Cropsey's Greenwood Lake, said he recognised the setting from the rocks, "familiar to all who have wandered along the Passaic".) The mid-19th century was a period of yeasty intellectual ferment, when ideas of art, science and religion cross-pollinated. Everyone read Ruskin. Americans smarted with feelings of cultural inferiority, and public libraries, lyceums, herbaria, museums, travelling panoramas and public lectures fed their interest in self-improvement and morally uplifting instruction. As early as 1840, the geologist Charles Lyell used paintings to illustrate his lectures. Until Lyell and his followers, geology seemed sermons in stone, the visible history of the God-made natural world – the six days of creation, the Great Deluge, the finite species. Now, unsettling discoveries came pell-mell.

Church worked in this atmosphere of discovery and education, and early on gave himself all the rare sights of the world as subject matter – art could be more than descriptive; it could be instructive. His clear, rational approach and astonishingly accurate memory for details of rock and leaf confounded contemporaries. Naturalistic fidelity was the solid base of Church's paintings. He was, in a sense, a scientific painter: he taught Americans about icebergs, volcanoes, the tropics; he taught botany, geology, geography and the effects of altitude on plants.

At the same time as Church and Bierstadt were turning out immensely large paintings, there was a counter-movement of artists who made small paintings with subtle colour effects – the Luminist school, so-named in the 1850s. The major painters of this group were Sanford Gifford, Martin Johnson Heade, John Kensett and Fitz Hugh Lane.

By the 1860s, Americans were becoming aware of the destruction of the wilderness. A nascent conservationist movement began. In 1868, Thoreau made a plea for "national preserves in which the bear and the panther, and even some of the hunter race may still exist, and not be civilised off the face of the earth – not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration mid our own true recreation". The first National Park, Yellowstone, was named in 1872, a year after Thomas Moran first painted the region's geological wonders.

Gifford's 1866 work Hunter Mountain, Twilight, shows the desolation of a clear-cut valley. James W Pinchot, a wealthy merchant, bought this painting and became a close friend of Gifford, even naming his oldest son after the artist. That son, Gifford Pinchot, became, in 1902, the first chief of the Bureau of Forestry and a lead- er of the conservation movement.

In 1838, Colonel John James Abert headed the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, a branch of the military charged to explore and map the country, the so-called Great Reconnaissance, hand-maid of Manifest Destiny. Formal expeditions surveyed and described the wilderness, and personnel included specialists in botany, geology, zoology, paleontology and, eventually, painters and photographers.

Sanford Gifford and photographer William Henry Jackson came along on FV Hayden's 1870 expedition through Wyoming Territory. The next year, Hayden explored Yellowstone, again with WH Jackson. This time, Thomas Moran was the expedition painter. Moran's first trip to Yellowstone taught him indelible first-hand lessons in dynamic landscape shaping through geological forces. It was as if he had been given new eyes that could penetrate time and rock. Henceforth, all of his paintings illustrated geological forces at work, and few reviews failed to mention his accuracy.

Moran chose John Ruskin (Modern Painters) as his guide, and through Ruskin, Turner for his approach to nature and art. He took Ruskin's advice to make an intense field-study of natural forms. Moran copied and poured over Turner's work, making trips to England to look at the paintings. It is a pity that of the three great paintings that came out of Moran's travels in the west – The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, The Chasm of the Colorado, and The Mountain of the Holy Cross – none are included in this exhibit. Moran's Western work – he was, after Bierstadt, the major painter of the region – is represented here by only two paintings.

But again, the mood of the century was shifting. In the last decades, geology, through its own discoveries, had separated from both natural history and religion, and become the work of scientists, not interested amateurs. The literature became complex and arcane. The mineral cabinets of the well-to-do went to second-hand shops. Gradually the spiritual connection with the natural world evaporated. Subjectivity (painting) took a back seat to objectivity (photography). The first murmurings of the phrase "art for art's sake" grew louder. The west produced a new crop of millionaires – cattlemen, miners, railroad barons – but, as John Durand, the son of Asher Durand remarked, they "...begin to buy French pictures left and right".

American Sublime. Supported by GlaxoSmithKline. Foundation sponsor: The Henry Luce Foundation. At Tate Britain, London (020-7887 8008, 21 Feb-19 May