Thursday, August 6, 2009

The American landscape painting tradition.

John Singleton Copley. 1737 - 1815 all images this page from

I received this comment last night:

This is off topic (kittens and frame toning) but you mentioned that Edward Seago saw himself as working within the English landscape tradition and it got me thinking that I would love to read a blog post on how you see the "American landscape tradition," especially how it developed over the 20th century to today and who you personally consider the most important artists in this regard. Just a thought.

That is a great question. My working concept for this blog was to write down the things you need to know to be a painter. An understanding of the history of our nations art is certainly a "must have". I have deliberately sought to be an American painter. Although I do love the Dutch and a lot of other European landscape ( Constable, Corot) I am particularly fond of American painting. Not just because it is our own but because it IS special. It will take me about a week to do this I think, so here goes. I am going to have to set the stage with the generation before.In order to understand the American tradition we will have to cover a lot of ground.

The first American painters of any note were not landscape painters but portrait painters. Particularly several associated with Boston, the "Athens of America". The two are John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart. Colonial Boston was a merchants and seafarers town and the fortunes built in those days wanted a record of their faces. They were not so much looking for art as a record of themselves. They did get art however.

Copley was born to Irish parents in Boston and grew up in his family's tobacco shop, on Long Wharf. His youthful portrait of his brother with a squirrel was exhibited in London and made his reputation. He had a knack for realistic portraiture that led wealthy patrons to commission his work. He painted many of the important Bostonians of the era.

Here is John Hancock and below is John Quincy Adams. Remember America was a colony of England so Copley was a British painter.

Although he painted many of the leaders of the revolution Copley was apolitical himself. Copley's portraiture made him an excellent income in Boston and he married the daughter of a wealthy agent of the East India company, who was by the way the recipient merchant of the tea thrown into the water at the Boston tea party.
He traveled to Rome to study painting and then to England where he ultimately settled for the rest of his life. In those days if you made it in the colonies you went to England to capitalize on it. Below, Mrs Jerathmael Bowers.

Copley made a painting on arrival in England called Watson and the Shark which is one of the greatest pieces of early American painting.

He made three versions of this painting but the original is in the National Gallery of art in Washington DC. His later career was less successful and he died deeply in debt and lamenting the sale of his Beacon hill estate for which he believed he was underpaid as the buyers were aware of that the statehouse was to be built there and he was not.

I have a workshop to teach in the morning so I will close at that.
I will return tomorrow and continue this thread with a post on Gilbert Stuart.


DennyHollandStudio said...

Always informative posts. I remember seeing Watson and the Shark in a book my mother owned when I was a child. It terrified me,but it also held some sort of magical hold over me because I would keep coming back to it. I'm sure that image was instrumental in my pathway to becoming a painter. Thank you, Stape!

Gregory Becker said...

I have seen the shark painting in person. It looks beautiful. The water looks like it could spill. It really puts you in the water with that shark.
I used to live in Baltimore. (I wish I still did) My wife and I used to go to the National Gallery once a month. I miss it.

willek said...

I was always taken with Watson and the Shark, but I have also been unimpressed with the lubberlyness of the boat the people are in and the unrealistic representation of the shark. Those lips, etc. I always put it off to artistic license but I was surprised that someone who would put all that effort into the rest of it would skimp on in those areas in an age when boats of different types were commonly known.

outorbs= You know, those eyes, the kind aliens have, on stalks coming our of their foreheads.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Some museum recently showed Watson and the shark, Homers Gulf Stream and Danian Hirsts shark in the same room.

Stapleton Kearns said...

have seen it too. There are a lot of good Copleys here in Boston

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hate boats, they sink.You are right about the shark, you would think he could just get one and lay it out in the yard to study.

Steve Pero said...

For my birthday this week, my loving hubby took me to the Currier Museum in Manchester. (pronounced Manchestah) My husband is not an art person, so this was real love on his part. They have some good paintings at the Currier. But it was a trip going with my husband, who entertained himself in the European room (labeled with a large "European" over the door) by walking around saying "European!" "No, I'm not! I was, but I'm not now!"
We got yelled at by the guard, but not for that. I was merely pointing at some brushwork, and the over-zealous security guard was sure I was going to poke the painting. They followed us around through the whole museum the rest of the day, because we were obviously ruffians. They had some good American painters, including a Copley (on topic here) Sargent, Hopper, Wyeth, Phelps, Thayer (local to us here in the Monadnock region) and others I am not smart enough to recognize.
They also made a good sandwich in the museum cafe.
"hyphi" Greek greeting.

Unknown said...

oops, for that last comment, I was channeling my husband Steve. I shall now identify myself.

Chris said...

Just glad for the history lesson. It seems to me that however and why ever we paint, we're either consciously or unconsciously approaching it through some kind of working notion about what's been done before and what's worth doing now and why. At least I find that I am. So for me it's becoming increasingly important to understand the wider context and history of landscape art and what it's meant to the culture I'm part of. Thank you, Stape!

labrown said...
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Anonymous said...

I apologize in advance if this comment bores you guys to tears, but apparently, the expressions of the sailors in the boat were modeled from a book of engravings of facial expressions published after a lecture by French academician Charles Le Brun in 1688. There is book by Jennifer Montagu which I think is now out of print, called "The Expression of the Passions." Possibly none of which is terribly interesting to landscape painters, except that Le Brun did recognize the impotance of color and setting in helping viewers to understand emotion within a painting.