The other week, the Secret Victorianist left behind the cold of New York to visit the West Coast of the US for the first time. Although much of my visit was spent basking in the sun in Santa Monica and Malibu, there was still time to soak up some nineteenth-century culture and, ironically, to learn about a group of artists who immortalised the landscape here in the East.
|'The Course of Empire: The Savage State', Thomas Cole|
A special exhibition at LACMA - “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School” - displays forty five landscape paintings from the New-York Historical Society collection by renowned nineteenth-century artists including Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Albert Bierstadt.
|'The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State', Thomas Cole|
The paintings are beautiful representations of an unspoiled and idealised American landscape and give a wonderful insight into the American Grand Tour, which unlike its European equivalent, focussed on natural, not manmade wonders. It as an artistic movement grappling with how to best create a national identity – borrowing from the landscapes which appear in Italian art and from Romantic styles of composition, while at the same time highlighting America’s difference, its vastness, its beauty, and the continuance of its Native peoples.
|'The Course of Empire: The Consummation', Thomas Cole|
This last concern can seem a bit uncomfortable when viewing the exhibition. In a collection largely devoid of human subjects, the inclusion of Native Americans in the occasional examples of portraiture can feel colonial and is a forcible reminder of how much has changed in terms of how this country is populated, as well as in how the landscape surrounding New York has changed.
|'The Course of Empire: Destruction', Thomas Cole|
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a wonderful series of five paintings by Thomas Cole entitled The Course of Empire (1834-6), which offers an insight into another concern which has been a preoccupation in American culture, from nineteenth-century art and literature up until late twentieth-century and contemporary apocalyptic disaster movies. Cole’s paintings trace the patterns of rise and fall in civilisations – savagery giving way to an Arcadian pastoral existence, followed by the consummation of empire, its violent destruction and finally the desolation which follows.
|'The Course of Empire: Desolation', Thomas Cole|
That America’s ascendency can – like other great empires - only end with a violent overthrow is a powerful idea and the series also suggests doubt as to whether romanticising America in the way this art movement does is not in some ways a contributory factor towards its eventual decline. The self-consciousness with which Cole raises this concern in these paintings is also in some ways reminiscent of Victorian approaches to literary epics (which I’ve dealt with previously).
|Inside the exhibition|
The exhibition is running at LACMA until June 7th with tickets priced at $25. If you’re in LA it’s well worth a visit (even if it’s not a rainy day).
|The Secret Victorianist at LACMA|