During the mid-1800s, as American explorers and pioneers were pushed into the frontier with a sense of Manifest Destiny, a collection of dedicated artists set out to chronicle the magnificent beauty of the young United States. In an era before photography, these talented painters of The Hudson River School would become the eyes of citizens wondering what the continent held.
Through May 8, 2016, the freshly remodeled and expanded Milwaukee Art Museum explores these brilliant nature painters with the exhibit, Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School. Organized with the New York Historical Society, the assembled paintings present an overview of talent that emerged while painting the landscape of upstate New York before spreading out across the country.
Thomas Cole founded the school of painters around 1825, with friend Asher Durand joining in the work. By the 1840s, the second phase of the movement was producing brilliant landscapes with Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford and Albert Bierstadt emerging as its leaders.
The latter is a favorite for Dan Madigan, painter, collagist and our resident art history commentator.
“Bierstadt was always one of my favorites,” Madigan says. “He’s a great narrative painter.”
“He once said, ‘The magnificent beauty of the natural world is a manifestation of the mysterious natural laws that will be forever obscured from us.’ This quote — this brilliant summation of the majesty of the planet we inhabit — speaks to how Bierstadt saw the world.”
“If you were to look at, study or scrutinize his work, you would see that Bierstadt’s words were the precise verbalization of his personal visualization of the wonders he saw around him. Bierstadt was a landscape painter of great renown. His technical skills were nonpareil. His emotional impact seen in at totality of his output is stunning — the tonality of his individual pieces masterfully rendered.”
Madigan describes Bierstadt as the emotional bridge between Romantic painter William Turner and Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh.
“It was the powerful imagery that he captured and conveyed in a distinct manner that created a strong visual narrative,” Madigan explains. “If you were to look at some of Bierstadt’s more famous pieces, you could feel the majestic allure that the unsullied lands had on him.”
“His compositions are like mysterious stories that are either unraveling before us or resolving after we have left, for his take on the landscapes he paints is that of a voyeur — someone looking into the landscape instead of being part of it. This separation of viewer and subject creates a forced intimacy within the overall piece. Many of his pieces do not have humans within them, hence this German-born artist envisioned the America he came to adore as a pristine Eden – a virginal land full of awe and natural grandeur not yet inhabited by man and all that man brings with him.”
The Milwaukee Art Museum presentation is extensive and thorough — spreading through multiple galleries in the institution’s special exhibit space. In an era in which contemporary art often relies more on concept than execution, it’s endlessly refreshing to review countless paintings executed with such skill, craftsmanship, and dedication to authenticity.