The first thing the colonists in the New World saw, the stuff they had to define themselves against, was nature. A sense of the wilderness, promising or oppressive, was one of the chief shared signs of American identity, and it became a prime subject of the country’s art. “In the beginning,” wrote John Locke in the 17th century, “all the world was America.” It was not necessarily a reassuring thought, for America seemed very strange to its first European settlers, particularly the Puritans in New England. To them, its rocky coast and tangled woods were–in the expressive phrase used by one of them–“the Lord’s waste,” an unowned biblical desert full of strange beasts and savage half-men. However, although America produced no significant landscape painting or religious art during the 17th or 18th century, by the mid-19th century, landscape was the national religious symbol.
The artist who began this process was Thomas Cole (1801-48), a transplanted Englishman from the “dark Satanic mills” of the industrial Midlands. Cole’s clients were mainly from the rich Federalist “aristocracy,” whose members, offended by Jacksonian populism, wanted pastoral images of a pure American scene unsullied by the marks of getting and spending. Skeptical of progress, Cole painted the landscape as Arcadia, which served to spiritualize the past in a land without antique monuments. He loved the freshness of primal mountains and valleys–unpainted, unstereotyped, the traces of God’s hand in forming the world. America’s columns were trees, its forums were groves, and its invasive barbarian was the wrong sort of American, the developer, the Man with the Ax.
When Cole left on a trip to Italy, his friend William Cullen Bryant, nature poet and editor, urged him in a sonnet not to be seduced by the humanized, picturesque Europe–to “keep that earlier, wilder image bright.” After Cole’s early death, that image was to get wilder and brighter still in the work of his only pupil, Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). Descended from six generations of Yankee ministers and merchants, patriotic and deeply religious, Church inherited Cole’s belief in a style of landscape suffused with “a language strong, moral and imaginative.” His paintings–mostly of the Hudson Valley and vistas of South American grandeur–were greeted as both religious icons and triumphs of observation, fusing piety and science in one matrix. Church hit a peculiarly American vein of feeling: Romanticism without its European component of alienation and dread, a view of the universe in which God was in heaven and all was basically right with the world.
But for all the grandeur of its pictorial rhetoric, Church’s work didn’t fully express the hot idea of westward expansion within North America–the belief in Manifest Destiny. To convey the image of the Western landscape as glorious and triumphal, the Cinerama devices first used by Church were taken up by other painters, notably Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Thomas Moran (1837-1926).
The German-born Bierstadt made a hugely successful career on the insight that the landscapes beyond the Missouri made America unique among nations. His style was superdetailed, bombastic and almost obnoxiously grand, intended to knock your socks off with spectacle. In Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1867, his most extravagant anthem to Manifest Destiny, the covered wagons roll forward into a sunset of such splendor that it’s obvious God is beckoning them on, flooding their enterprise with metaphorical gold. Moran, the son of poor immigrant handweavers, was virtually self-trained as an artist but was a devotee of the great English landscapist J.M.W. Turner. He created the all-time Big American Painting, the climactic panorama of America’s years of Western expansion, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1893-1901.
There was another strand in American landscape painting, much less extroverted, equally meaningful. Later, it would be called Luminism, because it suppressed the physical exuberance of painting (texture, big strokes, dramatic contrast) in favor of calm, almost anonymous radiance. The Luminists–Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-65) and John Frederick Kensett (1816-72)–looked east, not west: toward the eternal frontier of the Atlantic, not the receding one of the wilderness. The mood of their work fitted perfectly with Emerson’s description of his own ecstatic merging with nature, when “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
After the turn of the century the Western superview, the spectacular landscape, migrated into movies: Thomas Moran lurks behind every stagecoach chase through Monument Valley. It was the more contemplative Luminist tradition that kept going, in altered forms, into 20th century painting, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Mark Rothko. The most compelling new lease on life that the sublime West got in the late 20th century was from earth art, done in the desert spaces themselves and thus, being hard to reach, known to its aficionados mainly through reproduction. One hundred ten miles southwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, is Walter de Maria’s peculiar masterpiece The Lightning Field, 1977: 400 glittering stainless-steel spikes in an empty valley, their tops forming a level rectangle like a fakir’s bed of nails one mile by one kilometer. The metal poles invite lightning strikes, which rarely happen; but this use of art to invoke the presence of Jehovah in the landscape is very much in the 19th century tradition.