The Heckscher Museum of Art Presents Mythic Landscapes of America

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The Heckscher Museum of Art Presents Mythic Landscapes of America
Thomas Moran, American, b. England, 1837-1926, Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. 1911. Oil on canvas. 20 x 30 in. August Heckscher Collection. Frame conserved by Eli Wilner & Co. in memory of Ronald G. Pisano, 2002. Accession number: 1959.118.

HUNTINGTON, NY.- This fall, The Heckscher Museum of Art is proud to open Mythic Landscapes of America. The exhibition, running from November 15, 2008, through January 4, 2009, will include works from The Heckscher’s strong collection of landscape paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as many contemporary pieces fitting the exhibition’s themes.

“This exhibition is the perfect example of The Heckscher Museum’s slogan – “Where Classic Meets Contemporary,” said The Heckscher Museum’s Executive Director Erik Neil. “While the exhibition focuses heavily on our collection of landscape painting, including works by artists of the Hudson River School and the American West, modern and contemporary pieces, both from our collection and borrowed for this exhibition, will also be presented. The broad scope of the works shown will illustrate the themes of this exhibition, and how they affected art over a great span of time. Issues such as the Real and the Ideal, man's relationship to nature, the spiritual in nature, and the disruption of the myth of an American Arcadia in the twentieth century will be explored.”

Landscape painting in America has often been about ideas of national identity and the uniqueness of the country. As a group, The Heckscher’s collection of 19th and early 20th century landscape paintings tend to emphasize the natural majesty of the country with a delicate balance of the Real and the Ideal. While many American painters had immigrated from or been trained in Europe, there is never any doubt that their works depict the New World. The forests are clearly American forests. Even at their most prosaic or topographical, the landscapes serve as sanctuaries for viewers. Nature is most often directly presented with little evidence of human activity. When human presence is recorded, the balance is weighted toward the power of Nature. Settlement and pastoral innocence achieve equilibrium in paintings like Parton's Hudson River at Poughkeepsie or Bricher's The Watch Tower. We view the scenes from a distance that instills calm and tranquility. While the works of men are present, they have not overwhelmed nature.

Despite the rapid industrialization of America in the 19th century, the image of a New Arcadia prevails. The paintings achieve the mythical even as they accurately represent the splendor of autumn foliage in the Northeast or the vastness of the Grand Canyon or the Alaskan Wilderness.The themes of silence and solitude appear repeatedly. In the Western works, there is no indication of conflict or strife. Thomas Moran's Hopi Village easily glides over the true history of Indian wars and forced migration. Instead, the breadth of the mountain landscapes and the dramatic atmospherics suggest an ideological grandeur. Similarly, Samuel Colman' s Ausable River and Asher B. Durand's Keene Valley offer a vision of natural harmony in the years of America's greatest turmoil, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Such paintings were a balm, or perhaps an evasion, for the ravaged country, a means to reach unity amidst great schism. There is undoubtedly something spiritual running through most of the works.

In the more modern images, there is still an attempt toward calmness or spirituality, although just as often there is a disruption of the myth. In works by Ed Ruscha and others, the commercial or industrial comes to dominate the landscape. Mass culture reconfigures the experience. American innocence has been lost, and we can no longer accept the straightforward myth of a unique Arcadia. Yet, there is still a wistful remembrance, if not a longing for that beauty.

Funding, in part, provided by Astoria Federal Savings.

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