There are nearly two dozen artists represented in Nature and the American Vision. Learn about a few of them here.
Albert Bierstadt, one of the most famous members of the Hudson River School, also became one of the most-traveled American artists of his time. He emigrated from Germany to Massachusetts in 1832 at just two years of age. His romantic sensibility was instilled during a return to Europe for four years of study in the 1850s and, soon after his return to America, he headed west for the first time to the Rocky Mountains and beyond with a surveying party. His 1873 work Donner Lake from the Summit, commissioned by Collis P. Huntington, might not have yielded what Huntington intended. While the transcontinental railroad is in the painting, the celebration puts nature at center stage rather than human achievement. Originally Bierstadt’s Donner Lake from the Summit had been titled Sunrise on the Sierras, but being a savvy businessman, Bierstadt knew people would more likely be drawn to see his painting if the title evoked the infamous Donner Party.
Frederic Edwin Church
Born the son of a wealthy businessman in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1826, Frederic Edwin Church’s artistic talent (with a little help from family connections) led to his being accepted as the first student of Thomas Cole. Church’s early career produced landscape paintings based upon his travels around New York state and New England, some with the moralistic tone of his teacher but others with a more straightforward documentary style. Inspired by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Church made two trips to South America in the 1850s and produced a series of paintings that evoked the diverse climate and vast terrain of the equatorial region, including several of the inactive volcano, Cayambe. In these stunning paintings, he combined his personal experience with the visual opulence expressed in Humboldt’s opinions on landscape painting, which to him “requires for its development a large number of various and direct impressions.”
Image: Matthew Brady (American, 1823-1896) Frederic E. Church, ca. 1860. Daguerreotype. Library of Congress.
Often called the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole emigrated from England to the United States in 1819 at the age of 17. Cole, a largely self-taught artist, was inspired by the American wilderness to produce romantic landscapes filled with the drama of weather and seasons. Cole’s paintings were based upon sketches he made while traveling; he was one of the first artists to follow the somewhat uncharted course of the Hudson River into the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains. While his sudden death in 1848 left a hole in the American artistic community, Nature and the American Vision culminates in a rare presentation of Cole’s epic The Course of Empire. The five-painting series depicts the rise and fall of civilization and makes its Milwaukee debut after a six-month presentation at the Louvre in Paris.
Image: Matthew Brady (American, 1823-1896) Thomas Cole, 1844/48. Daguerreotype. Library of Congress.
Martin Johnson Heade
Although his landscapes share this interest with the artists of the Hudson River School, and he was a friend of a number of “these movement artists,” Martin Johnson Heade does not fit easily into the idealized and drama-filled output of his fellow artists. Instead, his landscapes are eerie in their precision and ominous in their use of atmosphere, reflecting a very personal approach to the subject matter. He traveled to South America a number of times and painted a series of close-up examinations of plants and animals, hybrids of still life and landscape that create the uncanny impression that these are living characters enacting roles on nature’s stage. Although orchids were of scholarly and popular interest in the nineteenth century, critics rarely mentioned Heade’s numerous orchid-and-hummingbird subjects, probably because of the plant’s sexual connotations and the bird’s role in the flower’s reproductive process.
Louisa Davis Minot
Only recently has Louisa David Minot been identified as the artist of this painting of Niagara Falls, signed only Minot, making her one of the United States’ more prominent early female artists. The daughter of the solicitor-general of Massachusetts, Minot lived in Boston with her husband and five children. Although there is no known documentation of her artistic training, Minot wrote an essay called “Sketches of Scenery on the Niagara River” for the North American Review in July 1815, which captures her reaction as a tourist to the area. The terrible beauty of the waterfall comes across in her writing just as effectively as in her painting. She wrote: “The earth trembled as the torrent of the falls poured from a great height. The air filled with a mighty tumult of foam and wind. It was some time before I could command my pencil.”