Masterpieces

Paintings and Graphic Arts  

Landscape

Throughout the 19th century, many of the most gifted American painters dedicated themselves to representing the spectacular landscapes of the remote, unsettled West. The monumental landscapes of the Hudson River School are among the most iconic American paintings of the 19th century. Yet the grand landscapes of the 1850s and ‘60s are not represented in French national collections, with one notable exception - Thomas Cole’s The Cross in the Wilderness, purchased in 1975. This can be explained in part by the fact that landscapes were not a collecting priority of the French state during these years. In addition, the frequently huge and unwieldy Hudson River canvases, imbued with strong nationalist connotations, were produced for and marketed primarily to domestic patrons.

Throughout the colonial period and the first half of the 19th century, American artists working in Paris tended not to produce landscape views, preferring to work in other genres. It was not until the later 19th century that such artists began to produce landscapes of high quality. There were sound institutional reasons for this preference. Landscape painting, historically viewed as a minor genre, had never held a prominent place in the French tradition. Around the mid-19th century, tastes began to change; French critics and collectors began to ascribe more value to landscape. This reassessment was influenced by the works of Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, Pierre-Étienne Rousseau and other artists of the Barbizon school, who painted nature with a vigourous realism previously unknown in French art.

In the 1870s, several prominent American artists began to paint large-scale urban views in Paris and other French cities. Frank Meyers Boggs specialized in harbour views and street scenes such as the 1883 The Port at Isigny, Calvados. This painting, like most of his large canvases, is notable for its even lighting and precise rendering of detail. In contrast to the practice of many contemporaries who painted easel-size portraits in the open air, Boggs’ highly finished canvases were usually worked up in the studio from outdoor sketches.

Boggs was one of the few American artists of this period who preferred to concentrate on views of urban life. American Impressionists were drawn to landscape in a way that their expatriate predecessors had not been, but they tended to gravitate to more pastoral settings. Artists such as Theodore Robinson, Lila Cabot Perry and Frederick Carl Frieseke produced sunlit outdoor scenes of villages, gardens and seacoasts, congregating in artists’ colonies that provided access to picturesque locales. Thomas Alexander Harrison, another painter of this period, was best known for his seascapes. Harrison was influenced by the painters of the Symbolist school, and many of his paintings, like Moonlit Seascape of 1892, are suffused with a sense of allegorical depth.