Friday, December 26, 2008

Illustrating the Mountains, II

Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Those words are images of thoughts refin'd,
Is my soul's a pleasure; and sure it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

-John Keats, Sonnet to Solitude

I’ve been looking for the story to be told about visual images of the Southern Appalachians in the late nineteenth century. I’m not sure I’ve found the story, but I’ve found a starting point for it.

The story begins far from the Southern Appalachians. The scene is Asher Brown Durand’s Kindred Spirits, painted in 1849. The painting was commissioned as a tribute to the artist Thomas Cole, who had died from pneumonia in 1848. In the painting, Cole is pictured along with his friend, the poet William Cullen Bryant.

During his career, Cole's work included naturalistic American and European views, Gothic fantasies, religious allegories, and classicized pastorals. His body of writing consisted of detailed journals, poems, and an influential essay on American scenery. Asher Durand and Frederic Church were two of the artists whose careers Cole had fostered.

Among William Cullen Bryant’s many writings was perhaps the most beloved and quoted poem in nineteenth century America, Thanatopsis.

In Kindred Spirits, Bryant and Cole stand together on a rocky crag overlooking wild scenery of the Catskill Mountains in New York. In describing the scene, one reviewer said:

Not only are the two men meant to be seen as kindred spirits representing the brotherly-like love in the new nation, but the two men are meant as well to be seen as kindred spirits with the natural world spreading out around them like an amphitheater.

Kindred Spirits helped define the Hudson River School of painting. In 2005, it sold at auction for more than $35 million, a record price for an American painting.

William Cullen Bryant went on to edit a massive two-volume set, Picturesque America; or, the Land We Live In. Published in 1874, it was a groundbreaking work containing descriptions of scenic places and superb engravings based on the work of noted artists. The books created enduring and influential popular images of the some of the nation’s most famous scenic spots.

Amazon has early editions of Picturesque America, but be prepared to pay somewhere around $1,500 for it. In his preface, Bryant claimed that the scenery of Europe had become too familiar a subject for landscape painters, in contrast with the inexhaustible abundance of America:

Art sighs to carry her conquests into new realms. On our continent, and within the limits of our Republic, she finds them—primitive forests, in which the huge trunks of a past generation of trees lie mouldering in the shade of their aged descendants; mountains and valleys, gorges and rivers, and tracts of sea-coast, which the foot of the artist has never trod; and glens murmuring with water-falls which his ear has never heard. Thousands of charming nooks are waiting to yield their beauty to the pencil of the first comer.

The book includes illustrations by the English-born artist Harry Fenn, and they are among his best work.

One example is an engraving of Chimney Rock in the Hickory Nut Gorge southeast of Asheville. Shown here are the hand-colored and black-and-white versions of Fenn’s illustration.

Picturesque America shaped the mental images that readers associated with places like Hickory Nut Gorge. The illustrations also inspired subsequent artists. Frederick Ferdinand Schafer almost certainly based his Chimney Rock painting [below] on the Fenn engraving.

Their connections to the Southern Appalachians, if any, were marginal. But the careers of Cole, Durand and Bryant did have an impact on the popular perceptions of the American landscape as presented in the written word and visual art. One commentator concluded:

[They] were crucial in the formation of 19th-century American artistic taste and attitudes toward the natural world... All three viewed the unspoiled American landscape as a great moral teacher.

I was going to close with a few lines from Thanatopsis, the meditation on death that William Cullen Bryant wrote at age 19. But why edit a masterpiece? Here’s the entire poem:

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;--
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
Comes a still voice--Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourish'd thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock,
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world--with kings,
The powerful of the earth--the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribb'd and ancient as the sun,--the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods; rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, pour'd round all,
Old Ocean's grey and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.--Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound
Save his own dashings--yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep--the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest: and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favourite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men,
The youth in life's green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

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