"Myth & Grandeur: California Landscapes, 1864-1900" is the title of the current exhibition at Pomona College in Claremont, but the first impression of the show is not awesome splendor. Lofty peaks and sweeping vistas aside, the paintings in the main gallery radiate a rather homey sense of optimism.
Thumbnail-size figures that punctuate most of the canvases may be dwarfed by the land and dazzled by its beauty, in the spirit of 19th-Century romanticism, but they do not seem threatened by an untamed wilderness. And why should they? These open-ended views of the West roll out a limitless future while embracing a pioneering spirit. It's as if the little people in the paintings sit in a nice, warm nest that has a view of forever.
A whimsical impression of a genre known for its love affair with the sublime, but this domestic twist is the result of such clear-cut factors as composition and chiaroscuro. The comforting "nest" effect comes from light centers of interest, almost invariably staged at topographical low points: a sparkling lake, horseback riders on a trail through the woods, cattle in a stream, a log cabin at the base of a mountain, Indians around a fire.
Such artists as William Keith and Thomas Hill frame glowing vignettes with soaring trees or mountain ranges that may fade into lavender silhouettes. The smallness-of-man, bigness-of-nature theme is all over the place in pictures that nonetheless offer endless opportunities to the little fellows depicted. If perfection isn't here, it's surely around the next curve, over the next mountain or shining down from the heavens. Just as American Indian baskets contain a trail for spirits to escape, these paintings offer a road to fulfillment.
There's a repetitive aspect to these landscapes--all borrowed from California collections--but there's also variation and a striking evolution from expansive optimism to melancholy reflection. Curator Kay Koeninger has focused on three themes, "National Destiny," "Wilderness Preserved" and "The End of the Frontier," while presenting a roughly chronological progression of Western romantic landscape painting.
"National Destiny," the first section, reflects the attitude that it was inevitable for America to conquer and assimilate its wilderness. Americans identified with grand frontiers even as they did their best to domesticate them. By the mid-19th Century, as the frontier retreated to the Pacific, a fledgling environmental movement warned that preservation was essential if this identity was to be more than a myth.
Yellowstone was established as the first national park in 1872. Eight years earlier, Yosemite Valley had been given to the State of California through a federal grant. Artists found Yosemite irresistible, as we see in Hill's paintings of Bridal Veil Falls and James David Smillie's depiction of swirling rock patterns in "The Domes."
The shift from idealistic consumption of the land to responsible preservation is subtle in the first two segments of "Myth & Grandeur." But when we arrive at "The End of the Frontier" section, there's no question that a profound change has occurred. Palettes darken, pathways to redemption are closed off and a ruminative mood prevails. Now sunsets predict the death of light. When a branch falls across a waterfall in Julian Walbridge Rix's "California River Sunset," it symbolizes a fence, a barrier or decay.
Charles Rollo Peters takes the melancholy sense of loss to an extreme in murky, primitive-looking nocturnal scenes where a little round moon sheds no light on shadowy landscapes.
The exhibition, at Montgomery Gallery (to Oct. 18), launches a year of centennial activities celebrating the founding of Pomona College in 1887. Returning to a genre of art that was popular at that time but subsequently fell from favor, "Myth & Grandeur" also marks a renewed appreciation for old landscapes that invite fresh interpretation. The gallery is open daily, 1-5 p.m.