The Theology of Landscape

“We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out is our own ignorance and folly.” Thomas Cole

By Dennis Raverty

Art history as it is practiced in both Europe and the United States is a very secular field of study — and this is true even among those scholars who specialize in the European old masters, like Michelangelo or Rembrandt; artists who deal directly with sacred or biblical content.

Nineteenth-century painters are said to have secularized Western art, but it is perhaps more sacralization than secularization in the case of landscape. A minor, formerly profane genre, landscape became elevated and sacralized by the Romantics, taking on lofty themes with a high moral tone and a transcendent gravitas formerly reserved for religious painting alone. In the United States, these Romantic landscapists are often referred to as the “Hudson River School,” a Romantic tendency evident over the course of two or three generations of artists. After falling out of favor for a while, appreciation for Hudson River School painting increased dramatically during the postwar period, when the alienated, Romantic abstractions of artists like Pollock and de Kooning created a new appetite for the sublime.

Although their paintings are now largely appreciated for their abstract beauty, when we examine the writings of the Hudson River artists, we see that they conceive of their work in moral and even mystical terms, as interpreters of divine revelation through nature. As painter Asher B. Durand put it, “The external appearance of this our dwelling place is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation.”

To many early 19th-century Protestants, revelation was not restricted to Scripture alone. Revelation was seen even in private experiences of God’s presence in nature, as in the thought of the later Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson muses: “We distinguish the announcements of the soul by the term Revelation. These are always attended by the emotion of the sublime.”

Landscape painting was to be “read,” in a narrative manner, as both a personal revelation to the artist and potentially the embodiment of God’s will for humankind. From a 21st-century perspective — from the other side of modernism with its emphasis on formal design — the overt literary quality of interpretation based on religious narrative may seem quaint and even strange, but it is how the artists thought and wrote about their work. My discussion of the following pieces seeks to follow the spirit of this type of Romantic, Protestant interpretive strategy.

The Oxbow, by Hudson River founder Thomas Cole, is a sublime landscape fraught with Romantic, narrative conflict. On the right of this very large, magisterial painting is the quirky natural, looping turn in the Hudson River in upstate New York, and a cultivated, verdant landscape with roads and farms, and even Hebrew letters in the patterns of green and tan in the distant hills, signifying the blessings of Providence, according to art historian Matthew Baigell.

By contrast, on the left side of the painting, the landscape becomes wild and overgrown, and a menacing storm approaches. This represents not only the Western frontier but also the spiritual and psychological frontiers of the wildness within each of us, what Freud would have called the id. Victorians viewed this wildness as an animalistic tendency, a vice that especially afflicted males, at least partly due to Adam’s original sin; women were widely considered morally superior to men.

Just to the left of the center the artist represents himself, a detail easily missed, even in the original. He has a portable easel and a canvas but is dressed rather formally for an artist working outdoors, with a long-tailed coat, a stovepipe hat, and what appears to be a bright red ascot. This representation as a fashionable gentleman may be to compensate for the fact that, despite his central placement, the artist stands on the west bank — the left-hand, wild side of the river.

Among the second generation of Hudson River artists is Sanford Robinson Gifford, usually classified with the Luminists, a subgroup among the Hudson River School who share an interest in the effects of light. In contrast to the clear, crystalline lucidity of the other Luminists, Gifford’s treatment of light is often filtered through hazy veils of moisture, which helps establish an overall tonal unity in the picture. At the same time, the sheer palpability of illuminated atmosphere creates a romantic evocation of light as a metaphor for the divine presence in nature.

Still later, Thomas Moran, among the last generation of the Hudson River School Romantics, sacralized the landscape in an engraved version of one of his paintings in the lavishly illustrated Picturesque America (1877). in the lower left stands a single figure that helps establish scale and situates the viewer before the grand and rugged terrain; he represents us.

A creek cascades down the mountain in a waterway strewn with broken trees and giant boulders. Following its zigzagging path upward, the creek leads back into deep space toward the towering mountaintop, the precipice of which may be glimpsed in the far distance. Like a vision arising above the clouds, the cross of snow at the top and center of the composition appears as the ultimate goal of the pilgrim in the foreground.

Taken as a metaphor for the spiritual journey of the Christian, the path upward to salvation presents a perilous journey, beset with natural encumbrances and dangers. The road to redemption will be difficult and arduous, and the goal may not be attainable. Even so, the true Romantic will still strive, against all odds.

In certain respects, Moran’s many versions of Holy Cross mountain mark the culmination in 19th-century American landscape of the highest aspirations of the (somewhat misguided) idea of Manifest Destiny as not only the civilization and taming of the wilderness, not only the spread of agriculture, industrialization and technology, not only the Christianization of the native peoples, but the active, natural benediction of God himself, manifest in this natural wonder.

The moral message of the engraving, taken as a whole, seems to be that the life-giving and redemptive waters of salvation flow freely from God above, but that the way upward toward the divine is a very challenging if not grueling task, requiring the pilgrim to be a sort of frontiersman of the spiritual wilderness, in search of a mystical Christ within. But this subjective, imminent God can also be found in nature, perceivable as an ambient presence, a hidden image of the divine encountered as the sublime in the natural world. The landscape then becomes a Romantic metaphor for the pilgrim’s earthly journey.

Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries. This article was first published in the October 11, 2022 issue of The Living Church, and can be viewed, with pictures, beginning on page 18 here.



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