Forty-five outstanding American landscape paintings from the 19th century on view at LACMA

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Forty-five outstanding American landscape paintings from the 19th century on view at LACMA
Frederic Edwin Church, Cayambe, 1858.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Drawn entirely from the premier collection of The New-York Historical Society, Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School features forty-five outstanding American landscape paintings from the nineteenth-century. Among the artists represented in the exhibition are the heroes of the American landscape movement: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Albert Bierstadt, among others. Also included are lesser-known artists, some of whom helped the American landscape achieve recognition through the new democratic medium of prints and portfolios.

Arranged thematically by place, the exhibition is designed as a grand tour of the American landscape. The full range of the exhibition demonstrates that the movement extends beyond the Hudson River, with work by artists who reflect both realistic and romantic attitudes toward nature in scenes of New England, the American West, and even to South America.

The exhibition culminates with Thomas Cole’s masterpiece, the five large-scale paintings that constitute The Course of Empire (1834–36), a visual feast and meditation about civilization and the potential challenges facing the young country.

Originating high in the Adirondack Mountains, the Hudson River served as a vital military and commercial waterway, commanded over the centuries by Native Americans, the Dutch, and then the English until the American Revolution. Such associations enriched the visually evocative terrain of the Hudson River Valley and New England, producing schools of painting and literature grounded in specific scenery and history. Hudson River School artists would eventually seek inspiration farther from home, in places such as California's Yosemite Valley and the Andes in South America.

Artists of the Hudson River School used traditional techniques to create large, scenic landscapes that evoked a sense of adventure while documenting a vast new territory, including natural wonders, forests, commanding mountain ranges, roaring rivers, and miles of rich land for agriculture. As this notion became popular, national and local pride stimulated the development of an American Grand Tour, celebrating a medley of sites knows for their picturesque and sublime qualities.

Exhibition Highlights Nature and the American Vision is organized thematically and illuminates the locations that attracted artists and travelers. The paintings in this exhibition demonstrate the power of landscape imagery as a narrative device that conveys ideas about nature and culture.

Thomas Cole, The Course of the Empire (c. 1834–36)
Painted by one of the leading artists of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole examines the cyclical pattern of history in his famous series The Course of the Empire. Drawn from Cole's imagination around 1829, the series comprises five paintings, each depicting a successive stage of a growing civilization: savage, the Arcadian or pastoral, consummation, destruction, and desolation. The Course of Empire presented a theory of history that was considered by many to be a cautionary narrative for the new nation.

Louisa Davis Minot, Niagara Falls (1818)
Tourists began traveling to Niagara Falls after the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal. The site had attracted a number of artists long before, including Minot—one of the rare female artists associated with the Hudson River School. The artist’s work exploited an aesthetic concept known as the sublime, in which works are meant to stimulate in the viewer a sense of awe and fear of the overwhelming power of nature depicted on a grand scale.

Frederic Edwin Church, Cayambe (1858)
This painting embodies Church’s personal experience of the tropical sublime during his time in Ecuador. The moon rises, yet the scene is bathed in the light of the setting sun; the tropical heat suggested in the foreground vegetation is countered by the snowcapped, cloud-shrouded peak of the inactive volcano in the distance. Church composed the South American scene in accordance with traditional European landscape formats; however, his inclusion of exotic palm trees would have baffled most of the North American public.

Albert Bierstadt, Donner Lake from the Summit (1873) Bierstadt was commissioned by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. His painting speaks to two national memories: the ill-fated Donner party—settlers trapped in the High Sierras by the onset of winter in 1846—and the transcontinental railroad. The size of the painting and its vista convey the grandeur of the American land; the course of civilization is evidenced by the felled trees in the foreground, and God's blessing is implied by the sunlit heavens.

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