Home > American Art (general), Artists > Local and Specific: How Painters Created Modern Lanscapes (by Looking in their Own Backyards)

Local and Specific: How Painters Created Modern Lanscapes (by Looking in their Own Backyards)

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“Local and specific” refers to the post-Hudson River School focus away from grandiose and Sublime imagery of America’s wilderness toward specific areas of the landscape: quiet, intimate corners of land with which the artist is personally familiar. The most intimate landscape was both more informal and less composed.

In his outstanding study of Connecticut impressionism, Charles Eldredge (“Connecticut Impressionists: The Spirit of Place,” Art in America, October1974) explained the phenomenon as a move from a religious-based, cosmic approach of landscape painting to a more personal expression. Nature came to be seen more as a recreational area than a “natural church.” Rather than contemplating the infinite, one seemed to prefer stepping into a quiet, unassuming piece of land, similar to what the Barbizon School painters had depicted not far from Paris.

American landscape painters had to forget the format of the historical landscape and the artificiality of the Picturesque and the Sublime, concepts that delighted eighteenth-century British aesthetic theorists. Although impressionism had its technical origins in France, it seemed to be the logical choice for a modern American landscape art. It was most suitable for a regional or local orientation because the impressionist “takes intimate views of nature . . . . His attitude toward nature is a personal one.” (Garland, 1894, pp. 103-04). Art no longer had to be cosmopolitan; in fact, regional art appeared to be stronger, more sincere, and more valid. As Garland (p. 54) said, “individual expression is the aim,” as opposed to the feelings of the reader or viewer.

Bill Gerdts (American Impressionism, 1984, p. 201) stresses how complex the relationship is between regionalism and impressionism in American art. Part of it was timing: the height of impressionism’s popularity in America in the late 1890s coincided with the development of regional schools. At any rate, regionalism, such as that produced in Brown County, Indiana, was challenged by modernist critics. For example in 1931, C. J. Bulliet of the Chicago Daily News declared that the seventh Hoosier Salon was “still akin in spirit to the old family album that persists as an ornament of Hoosier rustic homes.” Unlike Hamlin Garland, Bulliet found that sincere representations of Indiana’s “rustic fields [and] wooded slopes do not necessarily make great art.”

Regionalism and American Scene painting, however, would flourish through the decade, when local and specific-oriented art was sanctioned by government art programs. Nothing could be more appropriate to decorate local post offices than imagery regarded as authentic to a particular region. Artists were to depict “scenes of local historical and economic development [and] their art mirrored existing regional patterns.” (Marlene Park and Gerald E. Markowitz, Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal, 1984, p. 68). Yet this art became unfashionable, just as Church’s grand panoramas did in the late 1890s.

Alas, under the domineering spirit of European modernism, it became irrelevant what region (or country) an artist was from, as cosmopolitanism replaced nationalism and regionalism became “unsophisticated” within the international art forum.

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