It was in their landscape that American artists reshaped a European idea of the sublimeby Geoff Dyer / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
‘Aurora Borealis’ by Frederic Edwin Church
The sublime is no longer what it used to be, but there’s no need to get nostalgic. In 1757, Burke used the term to include whatever would “excite ideas of pain or danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible.” Kant amended this principle of “delightful horror” to denote something requiring “a transcendent scale of reference… a greatness comparable to itself alone.” Partly because the landscapes suggestive of that original terror have been rendered familiar by the history of art, that older Gothic-tinged patina has worn away and the word has come to connote serenity, a feeling of boundlessness. As Wallace Stevens put it in “The American Sublime”:
One grows used to the weather, The landscape and that; And the sublime comes down To the spirit itself, The spirit and space, The empty spirit In vacant space.
Stevens’ poem is not mentioned in the exhibition or the catalogue, but “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880” at Tate Britain (until May 19th) reveals how the transition began to be made. It’s a breathtaking show. All the more so because many of the artists in it tended, until recently, to be seen as second-rate-important in the history of American painting, but minor figures compared with the European masters: Claude, Friedrich, Martin, Constable, Turner. Artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole have considerable reputations, but the critical consensus was summed up in 1979 by the art historian, Hugh Honour, who felt that “few of these American views of mountains and deep and gloomy woods depart very far from the formula for depicting sublime prospects established in the 18th century.” “American Sublime” rehabilitates these painters by showing the diverse ways in which individual talents adapted these formulae to the raw challenge of landscape in the new world.
For Thomas Cole, writing in 1835, “the painter of American scenery” could exult in the way that virgin forests and waterfalls “had been preserved untouched from the time of creation for his heaven-favoured pencil”-but that pencil often made them look distinctly European. One of the first paintings in the show, Asher B Durand’s The American Wilderness, looks like brambly English countryside. It could have been painted in Herefordshire. Jasper Francis Cropsey’s view of Starrucca Viaduct recalls the ruined aqueducts of the Roman campagna. Claude may-in Stevens’ words-have “been dead a long time” but there…