This thing often happens when I go to museums. There’s so much to see, I’m usually in a city with a million other things to do, and I get tired of standing. So as I walk from painting to painting, I’ll often pause at a piece that really grabs me, stop in wonder for a moment, and then move on. I did this a lot during my time in Paris. And it’s not just that museums like the Louvre or Orsay are too big–it’s something else. Really looking at a painting is tiring work, and also, I’m not very good at it. Besides, there’s this rush I get from letting my initial impression of a masterpiece hit me, and then moving on to the next one.
Today I went to the National Gallery in DC. I wanted to check out the American landscape paintings.
The map I picked up confused me, so I spent a while wandering around looking for Room 64, the home of “American Landscape and Genre Paintings.” On my way, I walked through an exhibit on the history of photography. I paused for a second in front of an Ansel Adams of Yosemite’s Half Dome, but moved on.
Eventually I made my way to Room 64. The first painting I saw was Cole’s The Notch of the White Mountains.
Here was what I had come to see. I had briefly discussed this painting in a class at Middlebury, but it’s true: in order to really appreciate a painting, you need to see it in person (and so I must apologize for the crappy reproductions I found online).
Eventually, I moved on. The next painting that drew me in was Asher Durand’s Pastoral Landscape:
I started making connections between the room’s paintings. They were all painted during the mid-19th century and were mostly of landscapes. I noticed that almost all of them show mountains towering over forests or farmland.
But I got really got excited when I detected a certain awkwardness in a lot of them. In Cole’s Notch of the White Mountains, for example, the main subject is riding his horse through the colorful wild landscape, and yet there are stumps that appear to be freshly sawed in the foreground. The subject’s frontiersmanship seems a little out of place in a forest that has just been logged.
The awkwardness is more pronounced in George Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley. In this painting, the central subject is lounging in front of a logged forest that has a rail way going through it.
The subject, with his holdout tree, is out of his element. He seems to be assuming a position of someone in the wilderness, lounging to admire a beautiful natural landscape. And yet he is looking out on the symbol of industrial progress–the railroad.
Before going to the museum today, I had spent a little time in a class at Middlebury talking about the question of how the Hudson River Valley School painters addressed industrialization. I came out of the class a little confused, but generally thinking that Thomas Cole and others were skeptical of “progress.”
As I walked around the room, I began to appreciate the extent to which these artists were struggling with the question of whether or not industrial advancement would be destructive. So I think these paintings can be seen as the visualization of these artists working through one of the essential question of their (and our) time, the question of whether “progress” can corrode our relationship with the natural world. Ultimately, these artists are too sophisticated and honest to offer any easy answers.
Even the painting that seemed to provide the most explicit critique of industrialization is quite complicated: in Lackawamma Valley, there is certainly the awkwardness of the logging, but one must also consider how a third of the painting is taken up by healthy forests, and that the piece is aesthetically pleasing as a whole. Meanwhile, Durand’s Pastoral Landscape is as idyllic as it gets, and yet its message is unclear. Is Durand saying that this pastoral ideal still exists or that it is a thing of the past?
I walked around Room 64 again. I remembered how at the end of my time in Paris, I started to change my approach to museums. One of my best museum experiences was at the Orangerie–I stared at one of Monet’s Water Lilies for half an hour. In my last week in Paris, I spent another 30 minutes on Géricault’s Radeau De La Méduse. When I really focused on these paintings in Paris, I was able to better verbalize what these paintings “meant.” But there’s always this incompleteness that comes with trying to explain a painting. To me, Le Radeau De La Méduse tells a story of human resilience and faith, and yet that “analysis” (or even a more sophisticated one) leaves so much out.
I returned to thinking about the mountains in the landscape paintings. The looming mountains are most dramatic in Bierstadt’s Lake Lucerne, which I think is the most complex painting in the room:
And what do these mountains mean? Well, my interpretation is that they’re a suggestion that there’s something larger and more enduring than then question of technological progress.
I left Room 64 wiped out and restless. It’s definitely easier to go for quantity in museums and walk through as many rooms as possible. Besides, the security guard in the room kept staring at me.
As I left, I had gained an intellectual appreciation for the complexity of these paintings and perhaps I had even taken away an overall “message” through the recurring theme of the mountains.
But really, I could have spent a lot more time looking at these paintings. I could also continue writing about these paintings for a while. Even this experience of just beginning to really look at and think about thirteen paintings is not something I make enough time to do. It’s also not the type of thing people generally do much anymore (assuming people once did make time for art).
Lingering in Room 64 was awkward for both me and the security guard. But there was something about those mountains. Perhaps something enduring.