Changing landscapes

Nineteenth century artists stirred the nation's interest in its vanishing wilderness.

Published January 14, 2007


Artists today aren't considered influential arbiters of popular thought and mass culture. Time was, they were. An exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art proves just how much.

"Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape" looks at how artists fueled a national craze in the 19th century to visit vanishing wildernesses through bucolic scenes captured on canvas and translated into prints published in books and periodicals.

They were canny, these men, understanding that in publicizing landscapes in the Adirondacks, Catskills, Maine, Niagara Falls and the Southwest, they were furthering their own careers, becoming famous enough to command high prices for the fine art they created along with their commercial work.

Their choice of romanticized landscapes coincided with the rise of recreational travel for the growing middle class. Travel was once a luxury enjoyed only by the very wealthy but in post-Civil War America, railroads began opening previously inaccessible areas to anyone with a few dollars for a ticket. Farmhouses taking a handful of boarders became large hotels catering to tourists. In 1850, for example, only a few rustic lodgings in the Adirondack Mountains were available but by 1875, an estimated 200 hotels and guest houses had opened. Niagara Falls was considered a natural wonder and national treasure since the 1830s but Church's monumental painting of it, exhibited at the 1866 Exposition Universelle in Paris, caused a sensation. Tourist numbers increased five-fold in the following years.

The irony of these developments - to accommodate the crowds required destroying the pristine landscape those crowds came to see - was not lost on many observers. To protect them, many areas eventually became state and national parks.

There are a few good paintings in this exhibition: Homer's bower of flowers in Girl Picking Apple Blossoms is not among his greatest works but is no less lovely for that. The question visitors to this exhibition might have is why do we get only tantalizing traces of these artists' work: Church's sketches of Niagara but not the big-money shot; prints and studies for Homer's iconic Snap the Whip but not the original; only Moran's watercolors and pen and ink drawings on hotel stationery? There are no works that demonstrate their gift for stirring a nation's pride in its own natural beauty and grandeur.

The answer is in the exhibition's origin, at New York's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which owns most of the works. The museum was founded in 1897 by the Hewitt sisters to complement the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Arts, a technical school started by their grandfather for working-class men and women wanting training in teaching and commercial art and design. The Hewitts weren't interested in collecting masterpieces. Their aim was to provide instructional aids, so they acquired or were given hundreds of the more informal or commercial works that could be studied and copied by students.

The value of these works to us is to see how the artist developed an idea. Church, for example, loved to paint sunsets, and the small oil paintings here are quick forays into sometimes garish colors he refined in his finished canvases.

Church, Homer and Moran were among the last of their line, artists who had a direct impact on public perception. Photography took over that role and it continues today to deliver images that define our world view.

But, briefly, these artists made history. And rewrote it.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

On exhibit

"Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape" is at the Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive, through April 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $6 seniors and military and $3 children over 6. (813) 274-8130 or www.TampaMuseum.com. A catalog of the exhibition is available at the Museum Store for $50.