Masterpieces of American Landscape Painting
Historically, the relationship between Americans and nature has been complex. For Native Americans, reverence for the spirit of the land is deeply embedded in the culture. For the first European settlers, survival meant claiming, taming, and cultivating the land around them. For subsequent generations, the American continent became a place for discovery, for new beginnings, for economic expansion and harvesting vast natural resources. More recently, we’ve come to regard natural settings as places for play, respite, renewal, and conservation. However, a tension persists, even today, between enjoyment and exploitation of the American landscape.
Painters, too, have responded to America’s scenery in different ways, influenced by current events, technological advancements, and artistic traditions. This exhibition of 48 paintings from the outstanding collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston provides an overview of the history of landscape painting in the United States and intriguing views of the country’s natural beauty. While the exhibition focuses on historical views of the American landscape, it also offers an opportunity to consider how we can protect and preserve it for future generations.
See how great artists have
celebrated the beauty of nature
and captured its essential role in
the American experience.
Featured are the works of many of America’s greatest painters—Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Johnson Heade, George Inness, Winslow Homer, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and others.
In the early 19th century, the unique beauty of the American land became associated by artists with the hope and promise of the new nation in political, economic, and cultural terms. The unspoiled wilderness was seen as a paradise—untouched by civilization, a fresh start for humankind. Painters of the Hudson River School, led by Thomas Cole, believed that nature could provide a spiritual experience or convey allegorical themes. These beautiful images celebrate distinct natural features, weather, and light, but they also allude to the artists’ ambivalence about encroaching settlements, rising tourism, and the impact of these on native cultures.
In the late 19th century, American painters became less focused on specificity of place in favor of experimenting with new approaches. George Inness emphasized mood while exploring color and light. In his mature work, Winslow Homer investigated the struggles of man with nature and the power of nature itself. Other painters absorbed the lessons of the French Impressionists. Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf combined the brilliant color and light, loose brushstrokes, and informal subject matter with traditional training in figure drawing to create a distinctly American Impressionism. As the 20th century began, Impressionism dominated American painting, but many artists continued to explore innovative styles. Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe, for instance, pushed Modernism towards new levels of abstraction. In addition to its unique physical attributes, the rich and complicated range of issues involving American landscape continued to challenge and inspire artists. Each painter adapted the subject to suit individual ends—be it stylistic, iconographic, scientific, or a combination. From the celebration of its natural wonders to a vehicle with which to explore abstraction, the American landscape has provided rewarding material for artists for more than two centuries.