February 12, 2011

Against American Exceptionalism: Australian and Danish 19th Century Landscape Painting

Eugen von Guérard, Mount Kosciusko (detail), ca 1864, oil on canvas, 26 x 45 1/2 inches.

For many years, American painting was not well thought of or even known. I believe that when I was in college in the late 1960s, much American 19th century painting was just coming to light. Books such as Barbara Novak's Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875 were important in establishing a philosophical and artistic context for the work. Luminism was defined as a peculiarly American painting style. But really, it's not; I disagree with Novak who calls it "one of the most truly indigenous styles in the history of American art". Looking at the paintings in this post, we can see many of the characteristics of Luminism: clarity and precision of form, still calm light, planar composition. Although American painting can be said to have been influenced by the limner folk art tradition, there also was a linear, closed-form style in European art. As much as I love American landscape painting, I have seen very beautiful work from other countries, especially Australia and Denmark, which makes me wary of over-celebrating my own country's art.

The painting above by the Australian artist Eugen von Guérard has a more dramatic subject than usual for a luminist, but it fits the description in other ways. Like other artists of the colonial period in Australia, he was from elsewhere, and as a student in Dusseldorf was probably influenced by the ideas of German romanticism as practiced by Casper David Friedrich. He was the most exciting of the Australian artists that I was introduced to when on a trip there about 20 years ago.

Eugen von Guérard, Larra, 1857, oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 22 inches.

Von Guérard's work was not all sublime landscape; other paintings showed homesteads in a broad sweep of land, with a mood closer to that of modest Luminist scenes. The foreground seems very close to the marsh paintings of Martin Johnson Heade.

Nicholas Chevalier, Mount Arapiles and the Mitre Rock, 1863, oil on canvas,
30 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches.

This painting by Nicholas Chevalier, a Russian artist educated in Europe who lived in Australia for several years, reminds me a great deal of American painters of the west such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. And no wonder, Bierstadt was German born, and studied in Dusseldorf in the 1850s.

John Glover, My Harvest Home, 1835, oil on canvas, 30 x 46 inches.

John Glover was a successful British artist who emigrated to Tasmania in later life. I love the golden light in this painting, its feeling of fecundity and peace. It has an almost primitive quality in the form that reminds me of American itinerant painters' views of homesteads.

Mary Morton Allport, Telopea punctata, from the mountain pass above Barrett's Mill, ca 1840, watercolor, 19 1/4 x 15 inches.

One of the few women professional artists in Australia, Allport was educated in England. In this interesting work, she sets a native flower against a grand landscape of gum trees and distant hills. Also using this format of flower with landscape was the American painter Martin Johnson Heade in some later works.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Porta Angelica and Part of the Vatican, 1813, oil on canvas, 12 1/2 x 16 1/4 inches.

Thirty or so years ago I travelled to Copenhagen, where I was thrilled to learn about Danish "Golden Age" painting. Eckersberg, who studied for a time with Jacques-Louis David in Paris, was considered the founder of the Golden Age. He painted landscape and the figure, all with a classical sensibility: clear form, brilliant light, carefully balanced compositions. This work also reminds me of the clarity and light of the paintings of early Corot, which were made later.

Christen Købke, One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle, ca 1834-35, oil on canvas, 69 5/8 x 63 3/4 inches.

Købke may be my favorite of the Danish painters; his sense of air and light and touch are marvelous. This painting is one of the few large works that he completed. Like the American luminists, most of his paintings are modest in size and sensitively describe the people and world around him.

Constantin Hansen, View in Rome, 1839, 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches.

This is a wonderful little study by Hansen, with refined touch and brilliant quality of light.

Carl Dahl, View of Larsen Square, near Copenhagen Harbor, ca. 1840, oil on canvas, 21 5/8 x 27 3/4 inches.

Dahl was considered a minor artist of the Danish Golden age. He was an associate of Eckersberg and specialized in marine paintings. I love this view of the harbor, with its crystalline form and beautifully composed space, the curve of the water being echoed in the sky. I even like the solemn deep key in the color, which has the objects feeling weighty and solid.

Johan Thomas Lundbye, Autumn Landscape: Hankehøj near Vallekide, 1847, oil on canvas, 14 1/4 x 16 7/8 inches.

This lovely landscape, modest yet celebratory of the ordinary Danish countryside, is typical of the work of Lundbye. It is classically composed, with a touch of the romantic in the depiction of clouds and foliage, and in its pastoral vision. But there is still a precision and stillness in the light and in the details, so this could be an American Luminist painting. I believe we should always see our American painters in a wider context; it enriches them, it enriches us.

If you are interested further, here are catalogs of this work that are available:
Eugen von Guérard
The Colonial Image: Australian Painting 1800-1880
The Golden Age of Danish Painting This is a catalog from an exhibition at LACMA and the Met in 1994.


  1. That excitement over the re-discovery of many genres of 19th-C American painting in the 1960s resulted in claims that these were distinctively American expressions, if not unique. That, as you rightly suggest, just isn't true. Europe provided the models, and comparing the best of, say, Thomas Cole to Casper David Friedrich shows me that Cole was rarely able to capture the sublime mysticism he sought. The best northern European painters went beyond topography, using landscape as the door to take you elsewhere.

  2. Richard, I think you've made the perfect point: that enthusiasm for the newly discovered work led to excessive claims. I agree that Thomas Cole often falls short in his aims, but Frederick Church aimed for and achieved a sense of the sublime, and some of Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane's landscapes, in their quiet contemplativeness, reach a spiritual dimension.

  3. Exceptional post. Grand heavenly filled vistas in the heart of winter changes the pulse of the breath. Especially pleased to see the painting by Allport with the focus on the flower over the magnificent scene. Also love the hay wagon of Glover. You could write a book, Altoon.

  4. Thanks, Maggie; they are wonderful paintings, aren't they? I think I'll skip the book, though.

  5. thanks for the Monday morning tour, Altoon,

  6. Perhaps Novack did not look to other influences as did many of the Luminists. What was exceptional was the depiction of the American landscape not the style. I love the Christen Købke painting that I had the pleasure to see in Copenhagen. Thanks for all your work on this wonderful site.

  7. glad you enjoyed the tour, rappel.

    deesha, it means a lot to me that you and others appreciate what I'm doing with this blog. As for Novak, she is a well respected art historian and knows the influences backwards and forwards. I believe the case was as reader Robert pointed out, excitement leading to extravagant claims. Isn't Købke a terrific artist! I think I may do another post in future on Danish Golden Age figure painting, because so much of it was terrific, including Købke's work.

  8. Altoon- thanks so much for this post. Some VERY good paintings you've chosen to show us, and new to me.

  9. I'm on the bandwagon Altoon: really interesting. In an odd way, some of these works remind me of those by the 20 C Canadian artists, The Group of Seven.

  10. Philip, isn't it amazing how so much good art is unknown to most of us?
    Julie, I understand the reference to the Group of Seven, as very good artists generally unknown in the US.

  11. A quick note on the posting of Eugen von Guérard. As you know, he was German (Vienna 1811, died London 1902) and worked in Australia 1852-82. Studying in Dusseldorf in the 1840's he absorbed that academy's style, marked by its evolution from Romanticism to a new almost scientific Realism for which it became famous. Dusseldorf students exported the style to America - as has already been mentioned , by Bierstadt, and Cole and various members of the Hudson School. Von Guerard became its' most important representative in Australia. Interesting to compare other forms of German Romanticism, all showing clear regional differences. The Northern German Romanticism of CD Friedrich, who studied at the Dresden Art Academy,a generation earlier, is often cited as an influence on von Guerard in Australia as well, although the 2 regions and their forms of Romanticism have little in common.
    I love the blog, and the discussions it stimulates.

    1. Karin, thanks for the expansion on the background of von Guérard's work. It is good to have it since I tend to be brief in my remarks.
      I'm pleased that you enjoy the blog.