American landscapes make for some sublime paintings

Story by Jack Foley

American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880

A major exhibition of 'revelatory, epic landscapes painted in 19th-century America' opens at Tate Britain on February 21, which will reveal how American artists built dramatically on the achievements of European Romantics such as JMW Turner.

Entitled American Sublime, the exhibition will feature work which has rarely been scarcely seen outside the United States.

Inspired by the huge range and splendour of the American landscape, artists such as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt (his work is featured above and below) and Frederic Edwin Church painted the wonders of the continent, from the Hudson River Valley and the Niagara Falls in the east, to the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and the Yellowstone and Yosemite valleys in the west.

According to Tate Britain's informative website, the artists' canvases often 'reflect in scale and drama the subjects they depict and many can be seen as the ultimate expressions of the eighteenth-century aesthetic concept of the sublime - defined by the thinker Edmund Burke as an effect productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling'.

American Sublime consists of about 90 paintings - all oils - many of them awesomely large canvases. There will also be smaller-scale works and oil sketches.

Organised in a series of themed sections the exhibition concentrates on the classic period of the Hudson River School (as Cole, Church and their followers are known) from 1820-1880, beginning with Cole, whose Landscape with Tree Trunks is a founding masterpiece of the American sublime. The exhibition will follow Cole's pursuit of 'a higher style of landscape' and his despair at the rapid transformation of the scenery caused by industrialisation, which led to the apocalyptic series The Course of Empire charting the rise and fall of an imaginary nation.

The central importance of religion in American culture is reflected in Church's vision of American nature as a manifestation of the divine, exemplified in his Twilight in the Wilderness. More intimate aspects of the new landscape art are seen in the small serene Hudson subjects of John Frederick Kensett, the elegiac twilit calms of Fitz Hugh Lane and the brooding New England coasts and meadows of Martin Johnson Heade.

With the discovery of the far West, grand scale re-appears in the often huge paintings of the Rockies, Yellowstone and Colorado by Bierstadt (pictured right, Hetch Hetchy Canyon, oil on canvas, 1875) and Thomas Moran, and these bring the exhibition to a dramatic conclusion.

The exhibition is organised by Andrew Wilton, Keeper and Senior Research Fellow at Tate who has researched and published extensively on Romantic landscape, particularly Turner. He is assisted by Dr Tim Barringer, Assistant Professor in History of Art at Yale University, who has specialised in Victorian art. Essays by Wilton and Barringer will feature in a fully illustrated catalogue.

Foundation sponsor: The Henry Luce Foundation
Tate Britain: 21 February - May 19, 2002
Open daily 10.00-17.50 Last admission 17.00
Admission £8 (Concessions £6, family ticket £22)

Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG
Main information: 020 7887 8000
Recorded information: 020 7887 8008