The current exhibition: The Small but Sublime: Intimate Views by Durand, Bierdstadt and Inness features a two-room of small or medium sized American landscape paintings. Grouping paintings by their sizes is not a common curatorial perspective for exhibitions.
American landscape paintings were not born with intimate scale. Like the new nation’s ambition and its abundant wildness, six or eight feet canvases are a trademark of Hudson River School paintings. From the past auction observation, Bierdstadt or Cropsey quite often used small canvases for sketches. (One example can be seen from Shuptrine Fine Art.)
In the Brooklyn Museum, A Storm in the Rocky Mountain by Bierdstadt is the center piece in the landscape room. It does have the jaw-dropping “wow” effect, but as Barbara Novak has written in her book “Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875”, it creates the simultaneous intimacy and distancing at the same time. My experience tends to be more on the distancing side. The grand panorama with balance, beauty and vibrancy are taken from a God point of view. The painters behind the canvases, thus become the messengers of the God or to some extent God himself, that remove the possible immediacy of communication with humble visitors.
But when Hudson River School painters came to sketches, they were looser and more painterly-minded. In Bierdstadt’s medium sized forest painting in the exhibition, the brush strokes and the application of paints are visible. (One would seldom notice execution-wise techniques when in front of a six-foot painting because there are so much excitement to explore!) Bierdstadt’s forest scene is humanized with a couple (barely entering the scene) and an almost unrecognizable deer. The trees are painted with such extraordinary efficiency that they are shown both suggestively in the sense of volume and minute green-scale and in needed detail to differentiate the front layer from the back.
After the Civil War, canvases scaled down, partly because paintings had become integrated with home decoration and partly because the taste began to favor a more intimate and romantic style. George Inness’ sunset painting reminds me of Fuji Velva film, a special color pallet with muted orange, green and red, which is more a nostalgia recalling of rare gold moments of nature in one’s mind than a candid capture of strong colors subdued by northeast mist.
My surprise came from two paintings in the exhibition. One is from DeWitt Clinton Boutelle. His meticulous rendering of a water fall is filled with mystery and wonder, probably nothing is more appropriately descriptive than J. R. R. Tolkein’s poems about Lothlórien, a dream elfland from Lord of the Rings. Though it is only a little bit bigger than a regular 8×11 paper, it is so inviting that my eyes were drawn into the water that owns both wetness and coolness in such a retreat.
The other surprise came from the only female painter presented in this exhibition – Mary Moran. The small painting on board does not capture natural New Jersey; instead it focuses on the urbanization. The city skyline, with the bright white building under the sun and black soot and smoke from the chimneys is placed in the center of the plein air painting. The foreground is still marshy and untainted by human nature except probably serving Mary as her stand point. But the light effect was very much like her husband Thomas Moran, a dramatic sky mixed with cloud phenomenon, sharp edges of definite light gradually transitions into soft fading that unifies different colors. The remote city, though brightly lit, loses its detail in the misty white.
Was that what Mary saw or what she romanticized? Different viewers may have different opinions about what it meant for a landscape painting that speaks about the city. But I found it intriguing. Along the NJ transit railroad, the marsh wetland of New Jersey is still like what was depicted in the painting, except now the iconic mid and lower Manhattan skylines cast a strong contrast in between sky and lowland. The charms of city living approach the greatest when the mystery around it has not fully resolved; but the completeness of such a living depends on the experienced contrast that would not be fulfilled without living on modestly quiet countryside.