Unreal Nature

June 13, 2017

Intruders Upon a Still Unpopulated Land

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… It is an experience that runs counter to the French sense of layered social history in a territory that has long been inhabited and civilized.

This is from ‘What is American about American Art?’ found in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (1999):

… even granting the obvious internationalism of so many artists who hold firm places in American biographical dictionaries, there is always the nagging question of whether their art does not somehow disclose a distinctively American inflection that would single it out from a multinational crowd. The question is relatively easy to answer in the case of such American classics as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.

[line break added] Both of them had experienced art in Paris — Homer on a ten-month visit in 1966-67, when he showed at the Paris world’s fair; and Eakins, in a more sustained and influential way, since he studied there between 1866 and 1869 with Jean-Léon Gérome and Léon Bonnat, two masters whose imprint can often be discerned in his work. In the case of Homer, paintings like Breezing Up and Northeaster might strike even Europeans as quintessentially American images of the salt-sprayed rigors of the North Atlantic coast, but other paintings of his beg revealing comparisons with their European counterparts.

[line break added] For example, his 1869 view of the salubrious beach resort at Long Branch, New Jersey (which, for chic, had been dubbed “the American Boulogne”), instantly recalls, in its tonic breeze and glare, the Channel coast scenes of vacationers painted by Monet and Boudin in the same decade. But, this said, we also intuit a very different mood in which even such a scene of overt pleasure and camaraderie reveals a bare and lonely emotional skeleton.

[line break added] The two fashion-plate ladies in the foreground, each with a parasol, are aligned in tandem but appear as strangely isolated from each other as the lone male figure on the cabin porch surrounded by drying linens; and the relationship of these figures to this place on the American continent, which juts out into the immensity of the ocean, is almost that of intruders upon a still uninviting and unpopulated land. It is an experience that runs counter to the French sense of layered social history in a territory that has long been inhabited and civilized.

[line break added] Moreover, the white intensity of the sunlight, rather than pulverizing and fusing figures and landscape, produces quite the opposite effect, starching clothing, hardening earth and grass, clarifying simple architectural shapes pitted against the rawness of nature. Looked at from an American rather than a European angle of vision, the feeling here is less akin to Monet than it is to Edward Hopper, whose figures, whether in city or country, similarly seem to intrude upon a bleak environment of blanching light and primitive geometric order.

Winslow Homer, Long Branch, New Jersey, 1869

As for Eakins, this dour mood of lonely human presences in an environment that reaches out to nowhere is equally apparent, especially in the company of French parallels. His 1873 painting of the Biglen brothers in a scull on the Schuykill River reveals in unexpected ways Eakins’s training with Gérome, who constructed many exotic boating scenes on the Nile with the same perspectival precision and photographic detail that characterize the quasi-scientific approach of Eakins to the facts of the seen world.


[line break added] But the American painter has turned these Orientalist travelogues into a scene of inwardness and solemnity in which each of the two scullers, brothers though they are, seems alone and in which the river and the far bank suggest such vast expanses of water and land that the few people we see recall early settlers on unfamiliar soil. Inevitably, Eakins’s boating scenes echo the many French paintings of the 1870s and 188s that depict sportily dressed men and women rowing on the Seine; but here, too, the Parisian mood of cheerful, breezy conviviality on a bustling waterway underlines the austere silence of Eakins’s American view.

Thomas Eakins, Biglen Brothers

[ … ]

… When we look at a painting by Rothko, we may well be reminded of many European masters, from Turner to the late Monet, but we also sense indigenous roots whose ancestry might take us not only to the realm of American Luminism but to such oddball visions of American eternity as provided in Elihu Vedder’s Memory.

[line break added] And when we look at Eric Fischl’s The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog, even though the painting finds its home in an international collection of contemporary art in London, we would be hard put to understand it without recalling the marine paintings of Winslow Homer in which the dramas of American nature and American passions are played against each other. Like American people, American art lives both at home and abroad.

Eric Fischl, The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog




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