Essay about Visions of America

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Visions of America

The importance of American landscape painting in the nineteenth century extended far beyond the borders of the art world. The nineteenth century in America was a paradoxical time in which great nationalism and “enormous self-confidence and optimism” merged with growing disunity (Wilmerding 54), and the glow of “progress” was inextricably tied to the destruction of the majestic landscape that was a source of American identity and pride. Landscape painters at this time were faced with the difficult task of reconciling these conflicting aspects of American culture and identity. Their paintings blend physical descriptions of the American land with cultural descriptions of the American national identity.

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As Novak goes on to point out, this elevation of landscape painting eased America’s fear that the country’s lack of classical culture prevented its art from standing up to that of Europe. Cole himself, while describing a new definition of the sublime, describes as well the shift in America from valuing history to valuing the sense of possibility manifested in the land: He who stands on Mount Albano and looks down on ancient Rome, has his mind peopled with the gigantic association of the storied past; but he who stands on the mounds of the West, may experience the emotion of the sublime, but it is the sublimity of a shoreless ocean un-islanded by the recorded deeds of man. (Cole, from “Essay on American Scenery,” quoted in “Themes from Nature” 61)

Fig 1. Thomas Cole, Landscape with Tree Trunks, 1825.

Landscape with Tree Trunks is an example of Cole’s vision of the American land. This work, with its rich palette and swirling dark storm clouds, has all the seriousness and monumentality of a history painting. Dramatic light effects play upon the lone tree in the foreground, drawing the eye. Thus the tree, or nature itself, rather than figures from the Bible or classical antiquity, is the subject of this work. The vast and majestic landscape of the painting is awe-inspiring, making the work a visual example of the new American

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