American Sublime at Tate Britain

Review by Rose Troughton/ | 25 February 2002
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Photo courtesy of Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago.

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823 - 1880) Hunter Mountain, Twilight, 1866.

American Sublime, at Tate Britain until May 19, reveals a group of wonderfully accomplished artists documenting the dwindling Utopia of the New World.

Edmund Burke, political thinker and compiler of Burke's Peerage, wrote in 1757 that "terror is in all cases whatsoever... the ruling principle of the sublime," and "the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature... is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror."

Two decades later the American Declaration of Independence was signed. A new country, with new aspirations, landscape and history was born.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Erving Wolf Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Erving Wolf, 1975. © 1992 The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819 - 1904) Approaching Thunderstorm, 1859.

The natural landscapes of America were spoken of with awe. A leading New Yorker observed in 1816 that: "this wild romantic and awful scenery is calculated to produce a corresponding impression on the imagination. The American Sublime is in the wild romantic and at the same time, in the awful."

Although American artists had come from a European heritage of Turner and Constable, Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain, they had the advantage of being able to paint with none of the associations or baggage of times past - of British castles, forts and abbeys.

Consequently they adapted and invigorated the established British style of landscape painting with fresh and new scenes of America and its wilderness as a kind of Arcadia, untouched by settlements and the Industrial Revolution.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Graeme Lorimer, 1975 Photo - Graydon Wood, 1993

Thomas Moran (1837 - 1926) The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, 1892 (reworked 1906.)

It is in the pictures by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church that the sense of the American Sublime is best understood.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) emigrated to the States in 1819 from Lancashire. His work fills the first few rooms of the exhibition with romantic and picturesque visions of America.

A conservative man, he fiercely opposed the expansionist President Andrew Jackson, who actively encouraged the colonisation of the American continent, the displacement of Native Americans (Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that forced America's true inhabitants to live west of the Mississippi River).

Nervous of the destruction caused by the railroads and tree-fellings carving their way through the wild and untamed landscape, Cole painted an Arcadian and untainted ideal of America.

‘Landscape with Tree Trunks’ is not a huge canvas like others in the exhibition, but it sums up the dilemma for Cole and his contemporaries: of having a style rooted in Turner and Constable but being on new territory with a different history.

His style of dramatic contrasts between light and dark is deeply typical of European fashions. This, and the image of a shattered tree-trunk after a terrible storm, are typical of Italian Baroque painter Rosa. What makes this painting American though is the Native American standing in full hunting garb, pointing up to the heavens.

The scale of this man against the gigantic mountainous landscape is typical of the awe and splendour these artists saw in nature. The russet foliage of autumn is typical of the vast forests of Maine. And the sublime elements are found in the trunk, which looks like it’s been shattered by lightning – its sharp jagged branches are lifeless, deadened by the terror of the raging storm.

It is also in the clouds that rumble off behind the mountains – the storm has passed and beyond is a fresh and new blue sky, the dawn of a new day.

Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund, Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Fund, Merril Fund, Beatrice W. Rogers Fund and Richard A. Manoogian Fund. © 1985, The Detroit Institute of Arts.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826 - 1900) Cotopaxi, 1862.

Another important artist in the show is Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), a pupil of Cole. He was able to paint the transient vision of a sunset in the wilderness, charged with a sense of divinity.

This tranquillity and flaming sky has an apocalyptic quality though – it could foretell the Civil War in 1861 (only a year after this painting was exhibited for the first time) where the tension between the industrialised states in the north and the slave states of the south blew up.

Church’s paintings are usually of twilight or the moment just before a great storm, and this gives them a portentous sense of America as dwindling Utopia.

© The National Gallery of Scotland

Frederic Edwin Church (1826 - 1900) Niagara Falls from the American Side, 1867.

A highlight of the exhibition is Church’s ‘Niagara Falls’, another sublime American example of the American Sublime. Where better does the beauty of nature come together so strongly with the fear and danger of death, where nature is further beyond human control?

This exhibition is fascinating: this genre of painting has rarely before been seen in Britain, nor has it held a prestigious place in the history of art. Some of the paintings could have probably been sold in junk shops 50 years ago; now they are hanging in the revamped Tate Britain.

The quality of the painting is exquisite, it is virtually impossible to see the brush strokes. American Sublime offers a valuable lesson into 19th-century history, and how artists create without 2000 years of artistic history baggage as reference.

Thanks to Rose Troughton of for this review.

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