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Blog about the studio, life and travels of visual artist Carly Drew.

Filtering by Tag: Thomas Moran

Washington, DC

Carly Drew

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In February we went to Washington, DC for a hot minute for a little museum hopping, eat some good Eastern European food along with a little vodka tasting. This time of year in DC is pretty magical, the winter light creates gold casts over the marble buildings and the long shadows magnify the aura of mystery in a city so steeped in history. There also aren't a lot of people that willingly brave the chilly air to walk and see the sights, so the city is nice and bare in comparison to other times of the year. 

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Once again I got to see a few Hudson River School paintings by both Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Bierstadt was the first one we ran into at the Smithsonian American Museum of Art, titled "Among the Sierra Nevada, California" and then shortly after I found another in the National Gallery of Art called "Mount Corcoran." I'll be honest in that I'm not a huge fan of Beristadt's paintings or personality. His trees always feel a bit clunky, the paintings a touch overworked and he was never the most humble of beings (for example he renamed "Mount Corcoran" to impress the banker William Corcoran [nga.gov]), but I do have to admire his skill in creating light effects.

In this case though I was less interested in his biography and more interested in the compositional parallels between the two paintings mentioned above. The similarities are indicative of how artists in that time would compile multiple studies of the same or different locations into the same composition. Bierstadt was a huge proponent of not only sketching and painting studies of his subjects, but also photographing them and more specifically using sterographs to heighten the depth of space. [Jensen] As is typical with many artists today, he would then bring these materials back to his studio and evaluate how they could be turned into paintings. 

Both works take place in the Sierra Nevada, which naturally gives them the same flora, fauna and geological basis. On top of this there are repeated elements that feel almost formulaic when you look at some of his other work. The sweeping curve of the lake around the right side of the composition is one of those things, it leads the viewer back to a stand of trees and up into the sheer rock faces in the distance. The animals that pepper the shoreline are also similar in placement and purpose. He also adds in excessively dramatic clouds and lighting to each of the scenes for maximum impact. I think this formulaic approach versus a legitimate study of the weather patterns, geology or realistic characteristics of that specific place is often where I get lost with the Hudson River School and particularly Bierstadt. There is such a thing as too much perfection and too much fantasy, the sickly sweetness that caused the derision of this type of work for decades couldn't help but be a biting taste in my mouth once I had the opportunity to study these works more in depth. 

 

 

On the other hand is one of my favorite Hudson River painters, Thomas Moran. I find Moran to be a bit more analytical and downt to earth than Bierstadt (not to say Bierstadt didn't observe the landscape, he just did it with a different, more grandiose focus). When he traveled Moran would tirelessly study the different effects of weather, geological formations the characteristics of specific places. He was less concerned with mishmashing multiple viewpoints and would often only shift the weather or lighting of a scene. Similar to Bierstadt he worked from extensive sketches and photos, but he also chose to work from memory and the feeling of the place more so than anything. This could be due in part to his influence from Turner, but I've always been fascinated by the process of intense study and ultimately the inclusion of memory into the work. Maybe this is why I've always been drawn to Moran, or it could be all of the umber and red dirt, who knows, either way anytime I see his work in person I get an inexplicably strong pull of connection to it. This is now the second time this has happened, the first was at Crystal Bridges back in November last year, and I spent an exceptionally long amount of time analyzing this amazing set of Thomas Moran paintings in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Seeing these three works was by far the highlight of my trip. 

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The last find was a small Andrew Wyeth painting of a window with a curtain billowing through that showed off his attention to detail. Again similar to the "Pentecost" work that I discussed in this post, it's a painting of a simple moment in time that has a maximum impact.

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Thomas Moran & the Hudson River School

Carly Drew

Thomas Moran,  Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn,  1862. 

Thomas Moran, Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn, 1862. 

In the previous posts I discussed my first impressions of the museum and talked about my experience at the Picturing the Americas symposium, but in this one I'm changing it up a bit and talking about one painting in particular, Thomas Moran's Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn. During my four days at the museum I circled back to this piece about 20 times and it was without a doubt one of the works I was drawn to most at Crystal Bridges.

This post got away from me a little bit. I originally set out to talk about the Hudson River painters, but instead found myself contemplating the true power of an image. At first glance Moran's painting seems like just another moutain beautiful view of the Appalachians. A predictably foggy morning that resembles every other painting and photo you find of these mountains, but there was an undeniable magnetism with this work. It's a similar view to what I've seen hundreds, if not thousands of times. In a flash all of those memories and personal history interlaced with a painting loaded with so much context and meaning. It was the most real and sublime experience, I've ever had with a work of art. 

There is something to be said for the simple power of place in a work. Even though this painting is a little over 150 years old, there are so many resemblances to home for me that feel familiar, but also leave me awestruck in a way I hadn't been for a long while. Over the years as an art student you realize that not many people feel the paintings of the Hudson River Valley are relevant today. Part of that is true, as can be said of any artist that made work in the past, because history never lives in the present. Part of that is also false, becuase history still plays a credible role in the way we live our lives everyday and propel ourselves forward. For me I've always admired their work, theres not doubt its technically solid and showcases the beauty of the land, but it also has a strong political connotations, personal history and was a founding movement for American art. Several strong traits that should never be discounted. So why is it that so many people can't seem to get past this nagging feeling that these images are done? That they are trite, over wrought and something that any contemporary artist should shy away from in their own work? This is not to say that in the canon of art history they have been downplayed in any way, but as an influence and lineage for contemporary artists its sometimes hard to link back to that particular movement. It's like there is a gap or they are on a pedestal that is out of reach and can't be touched. 

Obviously this is a lie. If you paint any landscape in North America you reference these painters in some way and link onto a tradition that has defined this country like no other. This is what I was thinking about while sitting on that bench in the museum, coming about as close to some type of meditation as I ever will. It was then I came to the realization that it's not the Hudson River School's paintings that we have a problem with, it's the percieved idealism that feels tired and outdated. The idea of perfection in a place has become so loaded, there are moments we can't get past them. This idealism is what most people associate with the Hudson River School, so its easy to see why they have acheived both canonical status and notoriety in the art world. I mean they are partly to blame for the rise of Thomas Kinkade, someone that unabashedly took what these painters were trying to accomplish and turned it into something without any semblance to reality. Creating a distorted, absurd and sickly sweet idealistic fantasy.

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The Hudson River School was more than ideal in their work though and I think that's what a lot of people miss. These painters were depicting the way a nation was growing, spearheaded an entire shift in political symbolism to nature, bolstered the attachment of religion to the natural world, the changes in the landscape due to natural resource consumption, had a strong voice in land politics and were a cause for conservation movement. They took all of those ideas and added to them the strength in depicting places that were also steeped in personal history. You can feel the care and the reverence in the way the works are painted and there is no denying it. The power of place is real in these images, they are testaments to a specific time and intentions. This is what most people grab onto without realizing it and is what makes us feel the work versus just seeing the work.

Beauty in the form of idealism is long gone in contemporary art circles, we are all but numb to it and in some ways that is a good thing. Making work today is much different than it was 150 years ago, audience included. People can get an implied sense of sublime from any image on an iPad, iPhone or what have you. It's been oversensitized and so when we really get hit in the face with an artwork or moment in real life its hard to actually enjoy it, or hell even recognize it. It's something you've seen too times, but havent really paid attention to. As a landscape artist today it's my job to make people stop and take notice. I have chosen to still make beautiful, sublime images reflcting back on what the Hudson River painters set out to do, but my images are almost the reverse in intention. My goal is not nation building, I work with a strong sense of place and personal history at the forefront. It's to show the strength, humor and turmoil of living a rural life in places today. To look at how technology, changes in resource and land politics have deeply personal impacts. It's to bring attention to these forgotten or unnoticed moments of sublime in everyday life. It's linking back to the American landscape tradition, while redefining it at the same time...making it mine and mucking it up a bit. So when I look at the Thomas Moran piece above I see more than the beauty of the landscape, I see a charged image full of intention, one which I graciously nod back in the work I have chosen to make.