Posted on March 10, 2016
As I stepped out of the car onto the deck of a near empty ferry making way across Penobscot Bay, the winter air was biting, yet clear and luminous. I looked back towards Camden where the mountains met the sea and I basked in the glow of a setting sun. Some find it odd that I would travel to our island home during the harshest season Down East Maine has to offer, but there is something about New England in the winter as the sun rides low in the sky, shadows are soft and long, and everything is bathed is a soft cool light. It is the magic that can slow time.
Artists have long attempted to capture the ether of that moment, when the sun’s light seems to fill every ion of the atmosphere. In the mid to late 19th century, a group labeled Luminists by John Baur of the Whitney Museum in the 1950’s, sought to capture more than the physical American landscape, but “the favor God cast upon it”; the goodness of a transcendental light that bathed this American landscape.
Robert Rosenblum, Professor of Fine Arts at NYU noted, “The unpopulated landscapes of Martin Johnson Heade or Fitz Hugh Lane may evoke peculiarly American myths and experiences of an awesomely vast, primeval terrain in which something akin to God casts immaterial rays upon land of blessed purity and innocence.”
These early Luminists, with their smooth, brush-less paintings paved the way for the Hudson River School. Known for their dramatic depictions of the American Wilderness, they were particularly interested in the interplay between clouds and light; where and how light moves. These artists would often create a quick sketch in the field, then retreat to their studio where they would meticulously render light, often depicting every spectrum of light within a single wave.
These paintings were the first contemplation of the American Domain philosophically as man spread out across the American continent. This was a place where human beings and nature coexisted; where poetic and artistic inspiration found no impediments; where man could abandon rationalism for emotion and feeling.
Frederick Church’s landscapes “rise like great cathedrals into the realms of light where the deity seems to reside“; a primordial image of American wholeness.
This is where Thomas Cole sought to find the ideal relationship between humanity and the all-powerful nature, and where Thomas Moran found nature as God’s refuge to the poet- hero, and the idea that by observing- by seeing, one will know God and truth.
For Albert Bierstadt, America was vast and full of possibilities- a popular sentiment that helped shape our Nation of brotherhood and humanity. These painters were the very representation Manifest Destiny.
They captured in huge panoramic canvases natural majesty during a time of American expansionism- searching for the balance of human expansion and the preservation of nature.
As American expansionism spread, so did these artists reaction to industrialization, pollution and attitudes towards Native Americans. They became our first environmentalists.
In Thomas Moran’s painting of Yellowstone we see the very manifestation of God in nature. We, as a people, were so touched by a landscape that embodied the American spirit of who we are that it helped to make Yellowstone our first national park.
As the Hudson River School gained notoriety (in fact, these artists were the rock stars of their time), paintings became bigger and bolder; more imaginative and more complex. However, it is the early artists such as Kensett (one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Fitz Hugh Lane, with their smooth brush stokes and simple compositions that have remained the most impactful on artists over time. By their clarity, we see a lasting influence on later artists.
We see the isolation and the soulfulness of the landscape; what John Ruskin had called, “measuring the moods of nature.”
The influence Luminism had on later artists such as John Singer Sargent, who sought to capture the luminosity of materials; or, Winslow Homer, where painting was not the answer, but the site of a constant and obsessive search, is evident. We can also see their influence on modern artist such as N.C. Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper through their studies of light. Rockwell Kent had said of his wanderings of the wilderness, “I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity.”
We see the influences of Martin Johnson Heade’s landscapes on Edward Hopper. The poet Mark Strand referenced the “emotional weight” of Hoppers work, noting that it lifted his painting “into the suggestive, quasi-mystical realm of meditation.”
Walter Wells said of Edward Hopper’s paintings, “Artist have the power to make us taste what we see, or hear what we feel, to give odorful color, melodious flavor, or a chill wind perceived as a wailing siren or a quivering blue light.”
Even today we see the legacy of the Luminists explorations with current artists such as Tom Curry in Maine and Dennis Blagg in Texas.
The Luminists of 150 yrs ago left us with a gift; the ability to see our own spirit in nature; a higher awareness of all that is beyond our understanding in which we find beauty. With that, we may find a compassion for nature and the environment that can make us stewards of the American landscape; now, and hopefully long into the future.