The American Land
We’re going to look at four paintings of American landscapes. As we see each one, ask
yourself, “What kind of place is this? And is it like or not like the others?
When you see each of the four scenes, try to figure out what is the attitude of Americans
toward the land—or at least the attitude of the artist?
And most fun, we’ll try to discover what clues the painters are giving us to what we’re
supposed to think.
[Thomas Cole, Romantic Landscape]
All of these American landscapes were painted in the half-century between 1825 and
1875. This was the period, 50 years after the American Revolution, when Americans
were most interested in seeing the American land in art.
Look closely for a minute at the scene. It’s only about 22 inches wide, but it seems larger.
What kind of place is this? What kind of land? Take a few seconds to think of a couple of
words that describe this scene.
How would you feel… if you woke up… and found yourself there?
People often describe this view as “wild” or “rugged.” Some people have called it
“beautiful,” others “frightening.” All those words can apply, but how you respond to the
scene may depend on how comfortable you are in a wilderness. It is beautiful, but it can
This is the earliest of our four pictures, dating from about 1826. The painter was Thomas
Cole. Cole was the leader of a movement that we recognize as creating the first American
style of painting. We call it the Hudson River School, named after the Hudson River
region of New York State. I think you can see that Cole found nature awe-inspiring. He
also interpreted nature as reflecting the hand of God and was reverential toward the
If you look closely at the upper left corner… above the mountain peak… you may be able
to see faintly painted rays of light that give the scene a spiritual feeling. If you’ve read
about the Transcendentalist American writers of the same time, such as Emerson or
Thoreau, you can think of Cole seeing spirituality reflected in nature as similar to the
writers’ philosophy that nature reveals truths beyond down-to-earth reality.
How does Cole create his view of a majestic American wilderness? An essential feature
is the distant mountain peak. It rises high above the horizon, far back in the distance.
Look at the sky. Other than the rays of light at the left…, most of the sky is dominated by
dark clouds that make the scene dramatic.
One other trick Cole often used was to place a dead tree in the foreground… close to the
observer’s point of view. The dead tree adds to the wild sensation of the scene. It’s a
reminder that nature holds the promise of both life and death.
One last and important symbolic presence in the scene is that of humanity. Where are the
people? How much do they occupy this land? And what kind of people are they?
You may not have noticed them at first because their presence is so small compared to
the whole scene. And they are American Indians, the first inhabitants of the New York
and New England wilderness that was already being developed by European Americans
in Cole’s time. Their presence confirms the fact that this is America, a different place
than the European landscapes that were Cole’s first models. Cole’s vision of the pure
American landscape has been called an American Garden of Eden, unspoiled and perfect.
Keep Thomas Cole’s wild America in mind and compare it to the next scene.
Jasper Cropsey, Eagle Cliff, Franconia Notch, New Hampshire
Jasper Cropsey saw the paintings of Thomas Cole. Let’s decide if this picture by Cropsey
shows the same kind of American landscape scene as Cole or if it has differences. First,
think of the words you used to describe the Cole scene. Would you use them for this one?
What are some others that might apply?
How is this painting like Cole’s picture?
It has a distant peak…. Also dead trees…. Also like Cole’s picture, it’s put together—
composed—like a poem, with carefully positioned details such as logs and rocks in the
front…, something going on in the middle…, and a view that leads your eye far back into
What do you notice that was not in Cole’s painting? What are some signs that this is a
more developed place?
There’s a house…, built of recently cut trees and a garden…, planted with cabbages and
What is the role of people here, and who are they?
There are more of them. They are larger in the composition. They live here, and they are
European Americans except for one American Indian at the front talking to the settler.
This is still the American wilderness, but we have begun to tame it and to change it.
Part of the fun of Cropsey’s painting is looking very close to discover things going on
you didn’t notice at first.
The picture is titled Eagle Cliff, Franconia Notch, New Hampshire. The rounded hill
above the cabin is the “eagle…,” and the needle-shaped rock that sticks up to the left of
the eagle is called the “eaglet,” or baby eagle.
In the dooryard is a little girl playing with chicks…. Just to the right is her sister…,
carrying water from the river. And in the distance, toward the base of the cliffs are
domestic cattle…. We’re not in the American Garden of Eden any more. This is now a
land that Americans are proud to own--because they have begun to use it.
Cropsey’s painting is about 30 years after Cole’s, and the last two we will see are both
about 20 years later than that.
Albert Bierstadt, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite
Albert Bierstadt was born about 30 years after Thomas Cole and emigrated from
Germany as a small child. This painting of the 1870s is near the end of the great age of
American landscape art. Look at the top…, the middle…, and the bottom…. You may
find some elements you’ve seen in the other two pictures. Would you say that this scene
is more like the first one, Cole’s pure wilderness, or Cropsey’s domesticated landscape?
We have the mountains, dead trees, and carefully composed foreground details of Hudson
River School art, but here there are no humans present. Fifty years after Cole’s landscape,
Americans were still interested in the grandeur of wilderness. There is one big difference
form Cole’s painting, though. This is not the Eastern landscape most Americans knew at
the time. Bierstadt was one of the first pioneering artists to go west in search of new
scenes to paint. His travels required more than you might think. It was still a rough trip to
cross the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Bierstadt, in fact, went with a
government survey expedition in the year before the Civil War.
The monuments of nature Bierstadt saw there and then painted make it understandable
why he would give Americans a new version of the American Eden. The mountains were
far higher and more awesome than any in the East. This scene, painted from sketches
after the artist returned to the East, shows a recognizable site, a certain waterfall in
Yosemite National Park in California. It’s named Bridal Veil Falls because when the
wind blows the water, it appears as a delicate curtain, like a bride’s veil. Paintings such as
this were the first views in color and of any size that Easterners had of the surprising
western mountains. A writer for a New York newspaper wrote to assure his readers that
they couldn’t be real and were exaggerations of an artist’s imagination. Yosemite has
been considered so beautiful and so important for American pride of place that it became
the first of our national parks. Painters were important in making the rest of the country
aware of the great and different land to the west.
Our last scene dates from about the same time as Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls.
Winslow Homer, Weaning the Calf
Winslow Homer is one of the best-known American painters of the1800s. He painted
outdoor scenes, but this one is fundamentally different from the ones we have seen so far.
What are some words you could use to describe this scene?
This painting really isn’t about landscape at all. It’s about people—in this case, a scene of
daily life on an American farm. Where are the awe-inspiring mountains that were a
source of national pride and that made earlier artists think of spiritual significance in
nature? The largest features are no longer mountains but are the man-made haystacks.
The landscape becomes a setting for human life. Even in such an ordinary scene, Homer
manages to create a little drama and uses nature to do it. The boy struggling to hold the
calf away from its mother, for weaning the young animal, is in the shadow. The cow in
the background… is in brilliant sunlight. If you look closely at the rope, you may be able
to see that it is frayed…. We don’t know if it will break or not. You might see this as an
element of human struggle to tame nature as represented in a domestic animal.
Although the spirit is different, Homer makes his picture with some of the same
techniques as earlier artists—light and spots of color.
Let’s summarize what we discovered about American attitudes toward the land in the
four paintings. In Cole’s and Cropsey’s visions, America evolves from pure wilderness to
wilderness tamed. Half a century later, Bierstadt and Homer document the continuing
value Americans placed on both visions of the American land—as natural wilderness to
be revered and as natural resource to be put to use.