From picture postcards of far flung places to the scenery beyond a strategically placed window in a beach house, we are all, it seems, predisposed to framing our views.
Narrowing our frame of reference and deciding on what to focus in the landscape is, in a way, what it means to be innately human — and that portion of the whole which captures our imagination puts into context a picture that ultimately defines our beliefs, sensibilities and perception about the world around us.
Opening this weekend at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton is “American Landscapes: Treasures from the Parrish Art Museum.” Included in the exhibit will be 50 paintings from the museum’s permanent collection — landscapes that represent a wide range of time periods and artistic styles. Many of these paintings are being shown for the first time in many years.
“In the museum’s current configuration, it’s difficult to show the permanent collection,” says Alicia Longwell, the museum’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator, Art and Education. “It’s been almost eight years since we’ve shown a lot of these works.”
“It’s nice to look at them again.”
The exhibit covers a century and a half of American landscape painting, starting with a circa 1820 work entitled “Fishing Boats” by Thomas Birch and ending with “At Sands Point #16” a 1985 painting by Jennifer Bartlett. While styles and sensibilities may have changed in the years between the oldest and newest works in the show, what has not changed is the artist’s involvement in putting the landscapes in context.
‘I’m fascinated by how artists look at the natural world,” notes Longwell. “They tell a story. It’s about framing a view — and getting it to a manageable component. All the artists do this.”
Longwell notes that in the late 18th century, long before photography, it was fashionable for painters — amateurs and professionals alike — to carry around a small tinted convex mirror. After turning their back on the view, they would hold the mirror up and use it to reflect the beautiful scene behind them and define the borders of their paintings.
“The idea was one of perspective,” Longwell explains.
We all do this, notes Longwell, though the act of defining the view is not one that is always necessarily literal — especially for artists. Capturing reality is not necessarily the goal in art, evoking an emotion or memory through a landscape can be just as valid and powerful.
For example, in the 1870s, Edward Lamson Henry’s landscapes were often inspired not by his own view, but that of American history. In “The Old Dutch Church, Bruynswick” he looks at an earlier era.
“Henry looked back. It was 1876, the centennial, and there was a big colonial movement,” says Longwell. “He painted oftentimes near the Shawangunks [in upstate New York] and would paint people in colonial costumes. He loved the architectural details of the period — he was using it in ways not so literal.”
Likewise, the preservation of a fading view is evident in a circa 1880 painting created closer to home by Samuel Colman, “Farmyard, East Hampton, Long Island.” Even then, industrialization was edging out the rural places, particularly on the East Coast. Just as artists today capture the rural East End scenes that are disappearing, so too did Colman preserve a way of life that, even in his day, was becoming rarer and rarer.
Landscape painting has a long and storied history on the East End, but this show isn’t just about East End landscapes. Rather it’s a historical trajectory of the genre and also on view will be paintings from the Hudson River School and work by post Civil War American artists who studied in Europe. William Merritt Chase himself was sent to France by a group of St. Louis businessmen who gave him $2,100 to study there.
“Chase said, ‘I’d rather go to Europe than heaven,” notes Longwell.
And although many American artists including Chase, John Henry Twachtman and Frederick Childe Hassam spent time in Europe, they remained distinctly American in their approach — never truly adopting the painting styles that were then popular overseas.
“They really used tonalism — sunlight and sunsets were very popular subjects,” says Longwell. “Americans by and large didn’t take up the scientific aspects of impressionism’s optical effects. What they did absorb was outdoor themes and things like juxtaposition of two colors. Twachtman and Chase were called impressionists, but they were not really.”
As the 20th century dawned and artistic styles evolved, so too did landscape painting. Included in the exhibit are works by Irving Ramsey Wiles and Edith Mitchell Prellwitz — two members of the Peconic artist’s colony on the North Fork at the turn of last century and modernist paintings by Joan Sloan and John Marin that feature more urban landscapes. Works from after the mid-point of the 20th century by painters like Fairfield Porter, Jane Wilson and Jane Freilicher reflect a changing aesthetic, created, as they were, with abstract expressionism as the artistic backdrop of the day.
“They were painting in radically different ways — they were figurative in the day of abstract expressionism,” explains Longwell. “But they still brought it to their work, with Porter offering whole passages of abstraction.”
Just as artists have expanded on their ability to show us what’s in — and sometimes what’s not in — the landscape, so too has our own vision been honed to recognize what we might otherwise have missed had it not been for their art. For example, in April Gornik’s 1983 piece “Light Before Heat,” the resulting image is not so much that of a recognizable locale as it is an experiential memory — perhaps the feeling of dawn preceding a sweltering summer day. These are the landscapes that involve far more than our sense of sight.
“Sometimes when I’m on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, I’ll see how light hits the water and think, ‘That’s an April Gornik,’” says Longwell. “It’s how she’s framed our way of looking at nature. I do believe artists frame our way of looking at nature and make us appreciate it so much more.”
“American Landscapes: Treasures from the Parrish Art Museum,” opens on Saturday, September 26 with a reception and “Talking Landscape” conversation at 6 p.m. featuring painters Jennifer Bartlett, April Gornik, and Will Cotton and moderated by Parrish director Terrie Sultan and Alicia Longwell. At 7 p.m., painter Jane Wilson signs copies of her new book, “Jane Wilson: Horizons.” Admission is $7 (free for members). The show will be on view at The Parrish (25 Job’s Lane, Southampton) through November 29. Call 283-2118 for more information on the exhibit.
Top: April Gornik’s “Light Before Heat,” 1983, 66” x 132”