Art Prospectus - American Studies @ The University of Virginia

Paul Volpe
February 26, 2002
ARTH 958 – 19th Century American Painting
Paper Prospectus:
“Transcendentalism and Western Landscape Paining”
The 19th century was one of emergence for American culture. Ralph Waldo
Emerson in his essay “The American Scholar” asserted the importance for American
writers, artists and thinkers to break from the European tradition and develop unique and
independent ideas. American landscape painters manifested this through their faith that
the “nature of the New World” would exceed the “culture of the Old.” They were not
alone in turning to nature for help in developing an American art. In New England during
the 1830s a group of intellectuals who would later be known as the transcendentalists
were meeting to discuss their ideas on nature, God and beauty. While there is not one set
of beliefs common to all the transcendentalists, the fundamental principles were based on
the idea of an immanent God whose divinity was present in man and nature. Influenced
by Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, the transcendentalists also focused on the ideas of the
sublime in nature and the importance of solitude and self-reliance.
The fascination with nature and God by 19th century America is also seen in the
work of the American landscape painters. They seemed acutely interested in the union of
religion, art and nature and their western landscapes demonstrate on canvas the notions
put forth by the transcendental writers in New England. They shared Thoreau’s view that
by going into nature in a solitary way and painting it, they would create an original
experience with it and become closer to God. The landscape painters followed the
transcendental ideal of God’s immanence and traded the traditional notion that in art,
nature represented God, for an aesthetic demonstration of God’s presence in nature
through art.
Transcending differences in geography and medium, there is a special and
important connection between the transcendental writers of New England and the
painters of western landscapes. In one of her footnotes to Nature and Culture Barbara
Novak suggests that Emerson could be the ‘unofficial spokesman’ for the American
landscapists since his ideas on nature and God are “manifest in the landscape paintings.”
Using as a foundation the two primary transcendentalist texts, Emerson’s “Nature” and
Thoreau’s Walden, I hope to demonstrate the influence of these writings on (or
connection to) the western landscapes. I would like to use specific works of Bierstadt,
Church and Moran to demonstrate the presence of the transcendentalist philosophy by
focusing on several of their “quiet images.” Finally, primary sources like letters and
journals will help reveal attitudes of nature and God inherent to both schools, while
examining critical reception of the work (from that period) will give further insight into
the public’s acceptance or rejection of these ideals. I plan to demonstrate that the attitude
towards nature at the middle of the 19th century created momentum for a new movement
of art based on the ideals of the transcendentalists.
Preliminary Bibliography
Baigell, Matthew. Albert Bierstadt. New York : Watson-Guptill, 1981.
Burke, Edmund. A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime
and beautiful. Oxford [England] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1990.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The essential writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New
York : Modern Library, 2000.
Fryxell, Fritiof. Thomas Moran, explorer in search of beauty. East Hampton, N.Y.,
East Hampton Free Library, 1958.
Conron, John. The American landscape; a critical anthology of prose and poetry.
New York, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Goetzmann, William H. The West of the imagination. New York : Norton, 1986.
Kelly, Franklin. Frederic Edwin Church and the national landscape. Washington,
D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
Huth, Hans. Nature and the American : three centuries of changing attitudes.
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Boston : Beacon Press, c1997.