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Landscape Paintings' Vitality Is as Big as All Outdoors

Art* American works depicted the birth of a nation and helped inspire creation of national parks.


PHILADELPHIA — Covered with rolling green hills, jagged mountains, crashing waterfalls and ominous gray clouds, the massive landscape paintings now on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts truly embody everything Edmund Burke captured in his treatise "On the Sublime and Beautiful."

In the work, the 18th century Irish intellectual defined sublime as huge, powerful, rough and ultimately frightening.

The Philadelphia show "American Sublime" features work from 10 American artists that was created between 1820 and 1880. The nearly 100 paintings are large in scale and scope. Huge canvases are all but overwhelmed by the big, glowing combinations of sea, earth and sky. The exhibit, the first to collect so many artists of the period, was coordinated by two British curators and originated in London at the Tate Britain, where it received rave reviews. The show is on view in Philadelphia through Aug. 25 and then goes to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Kim Sajet, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' deputy director, said the works broke from European traditions. "They didn't have the ruins, the medieval castles," she said. "Everything was untreated, unspoiled ... this idea of the birth of a new nation."

One of the first, "A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains," was painted by Thomas Cole in 1839. It shows autumnal forested land in front of a huge mountain, with a tiny white house against the trees.

In the foreground, chopped-down tree trunks show the influence of humans, Sajet said. However, she added, in the upper-left-hand corner heavy gray clouds are collecting, signifying the awesome power of nature.

This conflict between human beings and the wilderness appears throughout the works.

Further along, we see Frederic Edwin Church's panoramic painting of Niagara Falls, done in 1857. The long, narrow piece re-creates the turquoise and white water pounding over the rocks with a tiny row of trees and houses on the other side in the far distance.

Sajet said this, like other landscapes, was meant to be hung low and the viewer would have stood close to feel as though he or she were in the painting.

"You're standing at the precipice, ready to go over," she said.

The paintings are arranged to show the evolution of landscape art and the nation. The first section is titled "Wilderness," and the last is called "The Great West," for the final expanse of untouched land.

These works have been largely overlooked for years, Sajet said, because landscape painting was no longer popular in Europe at the time. European artists had finished with landscapes and were moving toward Impressionism; they saw these paintings as old-fashioned.

Subsequently, the art establishment continued to ignore this period. Most thought American art didn't become relevant until the 20th century with artists such as Jackson Pollock, said museum spokeswoman Hilary Pitts.

The final selections of the exhibit show the mountains of the West. The last painting is Thomas Moran's "Grand Canyon of the Colorado." The rough, red-tipped rocks are visible far into the distance, under a tiny strip of sky.

This and other paintings helped persuade Congress to create national parks, Sajet said. "Congress did not see the places, they saw the paintings."

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