What is it about the landscape that fascinates painters so? While the landscape is not a uniquely American tradition, it has played a special role in American art. America’s geographical wonders have always provided artists with a bountiful variety of subjects from the East Coast to the West. For example, in the mid-19th century, the painters of the Hudson River School captured the magical light of the eastern mountains. Painters like Thomas Moran explored and painted the wilder areas of this country. Early on, Moran painted around Lake Superior, and from there, he went on to paint the great landscapes of the West, including Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.
Moran and the other artists who captured the beauty of this country also played a significant role in helping to preserve its most magnificent areas. The art they sent back East helped inspire the creation of the early National Parks. To this day, many of our National Parks honor the vital role of art through artist-in-residency programs.
American landscape painters have also been inspired by artistic fashion in Europe. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many American painters traveled to France, where they were inspired by Monet and the other Impressionists. Upon returning to the US, they helped create a uniquely American version of Impressionism: painterly and colorful, yet faithful to subject and experience. Notable American Impressionist painters include Indiana’s T.C. Steele, Wisconsin’s Theodore Robinson, and California’s William Wendt.
As the 20th century wound on, artists gained more freedom in their approach to painting and took on more diverse styles—landscape painting included. Abstraction, in particular, became increasingly popular, and New York began to play a bigger role in the global art world. However, not all artists found abstraction to be a satisfying means of expression, nor did they feel that New York was the only place in America to create art. The mid-20th century also saw the growth of Regionalism through artists such as Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. While these artists may not have focused exclusively on landscapes, it was their work that carried the American landscape forward.
Fairfield Porter is another painter who rejected pure abstraction, and his style can be seen as influential to some of the work in this collection. Though he was a realist, Porter included decidedly abstract elements in his work, using abstract shapes to portray trees, shadows, and other landscape features. He also echoed the abstract painters of the day by de-emphasizing three-dimensional space within the picture frame. His work looks flat, yet his colors are so true to life they create an interesting dynamic between the abstract and realistic elements.
Even as styles diversified during the 20th century, one theme continued to unify artists of the landscape: a love for the land and the desire to evoke the memories we have from our experience in nature. Whether painting en plein aire or in the studio, whether abstractly, painterly or more symbolically, artists of the landscape all seem to have a deep reverence for the earth—a spiritual connection.
The work in this collection represents a diversity of styles and disciplines. Some of the characteristics that make these works special are the use of rhythm, the importance of color, and the role of painterly abstraction. I am intrigued, in particular, by the linocut prints of William Hays. His work has some of the two-dimensional quality of Fairfield Porter. Look at Migration, in which he captures the essence of spring’s light and creates the sense of a fresh spring breeze through his patterns of line.
The paintings of Janice Sugg also catch my attention, work that is decidedly more abstract. Notice her use of bold shapes to create strong, abstract compositions that still echo the landscape.
There is something about spring that creates a sense of urgency for the landscape painter. It isn’t just the return of warmth—though it is far more enjoyable to paint outside when you aren’t fighting to stay warm. With spring comes the burning desire to paint out in nature, rather than from sketches and photographs in the studio, and to feel the fresh breeze and smell the fragrances of rejuvenation. There is a craving to capture the colors of spring—tender greens, subtle pinks, fresh blues, cheerful oranges, sunny yellows, delicate purples—colors just as fleeting as fall’s color show. Out in nature, spring is a special time to paint and a vibrant season to capture. With this collection, we welcome the return of spring and reacquaint ourselves with nature.