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Landscape Painting in America

Digital History TOPIC ID 39

During the nineteenth century, landscape paintings dominated American painting.

During the colonial era, two competing conceptions of the natural environment prevail. The New England Puritans regarded wilderness as a place of savagery and as a source of temptation that needed to conquered and civilized. Colonists south of New England, in contrast, viewed wilderness as a garden that could flourish if properly cultivated.

The Romantic movement of the late eighteenth century celebrated the "sublime," the intense quasi-religious emotions of awe, terror, and wonder that can be evoked by the immensity, the power, and the grandeur of nature. In a reaction against urban and industrial growth, thinkers such as the American Transcendentalists considered nature a place where individuals could overcome alienation, achieve wholeness, and commune with the divine.

After the Civil War, nfluential artists associated America's westward movement with progress. Many regarded untamed nature as symbolic of American national identity; and stressed the essential harmony between wilderness and such innovations as the railroad and industry.

After 1900, many artists began to reject picturesque, pastoral landscapes and instead focused on gritty urban scenes or on abstract art. Landscape paintings mainly became the preserve of regionalists. Still, a number of modernist artists did turn to the Western landscape for inspiration.

Some artists, like John Marin, drew on cubism and expressionism to portray the Western landscape. But the most influential 20th century artist of the Western landscapewas Georgia O'Keeffe. Her art remained in the representational tradition favored by Western artists, yet it was clearly modern art. Her paintings sought to capture the West's majesty and transcendence. Her paintings distilled the Western landscape into its fundamental elements, creating works of dramatic simplicity. Her paintings feature vivid, evocative colors and offer fresh new ways of viewing the environment. Her paintings translate earth, water, and sky into geometric bands of color and light. They present a stirring yet highly personal vision of the magnificence of a vast landscape.

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