Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on March 10, 2009 with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601 or through either this phone number or web address:
An American Celebration
by Martha R. Severens
The song that begins "My Country 'Tis of Thee" celebrates America while touching on such topics as liberty, loyalty, and bounty. In an exhibition largely drawn from the Museum's Southern Collection, the Greenville County Museum of Art explores similar themes in art of the American landscape. The chronological scope ranges from 1820 to 2004 and encompasses paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Included are representations of such natural wonders as Niagara Falls and Natural Bridge, Virginia, as well as views of mountains, coastline, and the built environment.
The first artists to depict the American landscape often accompanied exploration teams and their purpose was to document the terrain. Until the 1820s brought a greater acceptance of landscape painting, many painters relied on portraiture as their primary means of support. Such was the case with Alvan Fisher who often added figures to provide scale and anecdotal interest. Many of his approximately 400 landscapes include small figure groups, sometimes featuring picnicking couples or youths skating, although the motif Fisher seems to have favored most were fishermen, which served as a signature pun on the artist's last name.
This country's acclaimed landscape movement, the Hudson River School, is exemplified by several paintings in the exhibition. William C. A. Frerichs depicted a scene of wilderness comparable to Thomas Cole's portrayals of the Catskills, only Frerichs' locus was the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. In the years prior to the Civil War, Frerichs was an instructor at the nearby Greensboro Female College, and would make sketching forays into the hills in pursuit of scenery.
Thomas Addison Richards' The Edisto River, South Carolina, is a placid coastal scene. The foreground is open and welcoming, yet there is little trace of humankind. Richards seems particularly concerned with exotic vegetation, especially species associated with the South, specifically palms and Spanish moss. A native of London, he joined Sanford Robinson Gifford on sketching expeditions in the Catskills and Green Mountains, accounts of which he published in Appleton's Illustrated Hand-book of American Travel. Richards was also a champion of Southern scenery and he glowingly described Georgia in the following terms: "The upper part of the State abounds with romantic and picturesque views.... Nor is it alone in the upper part of the State that Nature has lavished her beauties. There are scenes of loveliness peculiar to the 'sunny South,' among green savannas and dense forests of the 'low country.'"
Years later another Northerner, Edward Gay, came south, but was less enthusiastic about what he encountered. His reason for traveling to South Carolina was personal -- to visit his daughter who lived in Hartsville, in the state's Pee Dee region. Gay had prospered as a landscape painter in New York State where he was a protégé of the painters William and James Hart of Albany. Accustomed to the rolling terrain of upstate New York, he found the area around Hartsville to be "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," and even labeled one sketch, "The River Styx, S.C." However, the Isle of Palms, a barrier island with unspoiled gentle dunes and tropical vegetation, provided subject matter more suited to his taste.
While Frerichs, Richards, and Gay rendered unspoiled nature, other painters in the exhibition deal with more modern themes of settlement, agriculture, and industrialization. Sidney Dickinson illustrates the transformation of one section of the city from agrarian to metropolitan in Outside Montgomery, Alabama. The foreground is severely rutted and eroded -- evidence perhaps of former cotton production, accompanied by rustic shacks in the middle ground. Nearby are an upscale dwelling and a church, and a large horizontal structure. Rising phantom-like in the background are silhouettes of tall buildings. While downtown Montgomery had a few such mini-skyscrapers by the mid-1920s, few residents today recognize this skyline as their city. In all likelihood, Dickinson painted a metaphorical view, rather than a literal one, that touches on the South's emergence from agrarian dependency to an urbanized and industrialized future, a transition that he observed on his visits to the region. An instructor at the Art Students League, Dickinson's first visit to Alabama was in 1917, when he went to rural Calhoun to assist his aunt at a school she had established for the education of area African Americans. He returned south on various occasions to execute portrait commissions.
The American city as a theme is addressed in other works depicting Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, Tallahassee, Florida, and New York, New York. While the paintings of Southern cities wrestle with the intrusions of modernity, Beauford Delaney's Washington Square calls to mind all the positive energy associated with urban life. In his boldly colorful and highly textured canvas, Delaney captures the character and verve of one of Manhattan's older neighborhoods. Recognizable landmarks such as Stanford White's triumphal arch, the central fountain, and Federal period houses serve to identify the idyllic and pastoral refuge located in the heart of Greenwich Village. It was near here that Delaney, a native of Knoxville, lived along side other artists and writers, many of whom befriended him. He frequented the park, often participating in the sidewalk art shows, or sketching quick portraits of passersby.
In the second half of the twentieth century two artists, Christo and Andrew Wyeth, employed landscape as a primary subject and reiterated its importance for establishing American identity. In very different ways, both refocus attention on the land; Christo accentuates the vast scale of America, while Wyeth celebrates the simplicity of farmyards.
An international figure, Christo has used such landmarks as the Pont Neuf in Paris, the Bundestag in Berlin, and most recently New York's Central Park as the focus of his conceptual art. In the American West, two projects, Valley Curtain and Running Fence, celebrated the extent and beauty of the countryside. In each case miles of fabric were erected and configured to redefine the contours of the landscape and the viewers' relationship to it.
Running Fence, a four-year-Iong project in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, paralleled the Great Wall as it rose and fell along the rolling hillsides north of San Francisco, finally intersecting with the Pacific Ocean. An impressively large undertaking, it extended more than twenty-four miles across the property of fifty-nine ranch owners. Unlike the solidity, durability, and permanence of the Chinese wall, Running Fence was delicate, fluid, and nonpermanent. Constructed of white nylon fabric suspended from steel cables, Christo's fence was flexible enough to waver in the breeze and was penetrable by cattle, wildlife, and passenger cars.
Working on a far more intimate scale, Andrew Wyeth paints the landscapes that he has traversed for decades. Born and raised in the small farming community of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Wyeth continues to reside there in a Revolutionary War period mill structure. Wyeth is revered and beloved by the public, and has been called "America's Painter." He delves into people's strong attachment to the land, and most of his images recall a gentler, quieter, and less harried time.
Free Rein demonstrates the full range of his mastery with the medium showing extensive drybrush technique in the foreground and looser extemporaneous handling in upper sections. The title, Free Rein, is metaphorical; as a child Wyeth was tutored at home and when his lessons were complete he roamed unhindered across the countryside, just like the galloping pale horse in the middle distance.
Another artist who has a penchant for the power of simplicity is Catherine Murphy. Her large-format painting, A Hole and A Pile, is an impressively precise rendering of the dirt, stones, and detritus left behind after a backhoe dug a hole in her yard. It's the kind of view that one sees everywhere and anywhere, yet Murphy has taken the time to explore its depths and make it heroic. Literally a landscape, she presents this slice of nature from above, cropped without a horizon line.
From William Frerichs' powerful wilderness vista through Delaney's vibrant cityscape, to Murphy's abstraction of minutiae, the Greenville Museum's exhibition, 'Tis of Thee, explores the evolving American landscape, and reminds viewers that it can be found in their own backyards.
1 William C. Richards, ed., Georgia Illustrated (Penfield, Ga., 1842), p. 1.
2 Richard G. Coker, Portrait of An American Painter: Edward Gay 1837
- 1928 (New York: Vantage Press
About the author
Martha Severens has been curator at Greenville County Museum of Art for over 15 years. She has also been curator at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, South Carolina). She holds a bachelor's degree from Wells College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, The Charleston Renaissance, and William Halsey. She has also written about David Hare, Alice Smith, and Andrew Wyeth.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 10, 2009, with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 10, 2009.
This article appeared in the July - August 2006 issue of
American Art Review and pertains
to an exhibition 'Tis of Thee, that was on view during the summer
of 2006 at the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions
for reprinting the above text.
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