Analysis, Blog

On Viewing American Art

Painting: Jasper Francis Cropsey, Autumn–On the Hudson River. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

American landscapes: I spot them two galleries away. I’m on the main floor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It’s my second visit and I still haven’t made it through the West building. On my first visit, the Rodin and Degas sculptures captured me on the first floor. This time, I came to see what was described to me as, “The only Da Vinci in the United States.” I spend a few moments there.

But the American landscapes are what hook me. I glimpse them just after passing a marble statue of Justice, holding a sword in one hand and an olive vine in the other.

The American landscape paintings catch me every time. For one, they’re massive. But what lures me in is that the landscape painters loved everything that I love about America.

The landscape painters loved everything that I love about America.

I live next to the Potomac river. When I walk down to the river at sunrise, the fuchsia pushing up through the clouds mesmerizes me. I’m like a house with all its doors and windows opened through which a swift breeze billows. I stop walking and feel suddenly rooted and in touch with reality. I can’t go anywhere else. I know who I am. I’m alive. Frenzied time resumes its slow, natural pace. Harmony rushes into the soul like rapids in a canyon.

This is what the late 19th and early 20th century painters capture. They capture the breath that hitches in your throat. They capture the swelling in your chest. They capture the blissful thoughtlessness of a mind suddenly cleared by light effusing thousands of miles across mountains flushed purple. They capture the spring floods of the Grand Canyon and the crushing weight of Niagara and the buffalo crossing a stream beneath the roiling, full clouds of an impending storm. These are clouds that I’ve seen, streams from which I’ve drunk, mountains that I’ve climbed.

I’m like a house with all its doors and windows opened and through which a swift breeze billows.

In the next gallery hangs a beardless portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Beside it are reproductions of photographs. In the photograph from 1860, the president is thin, but still carries a hope of youth. By 1865, pillows of sleeplessness buoy beneath his eyes, and crevices engrave his face.

To my left towers the massive platinated plaster Shaw memorial to the 54th Massachusetts regiment, one of the first African American regiments in the North. I recall the photographs I saw in my last visit: a trench outside Fredericksburg, VA. Fredericksburg, where I used to work in a translation agency. Fredericksburg, in my state that I love. The trenches of Fredericksburg, where an early photographer recorded a man shot in the head. He lies on his back, dead, his face permanently contorted in a shout of pain, covered in a web of blood. He was a Confederate soldier, but he didn’t look like a Confederate soldier. He looked like a man.

I rounded the corner into another gallery, and there the landscape met me. Light breaking on the Hudson River through a majestic autumn sky. My sunrise: the one that made me want to write something as beautiful and moving as that sunrise. The artist coaxed the radiance out of the oil paint, so that the landscape’s light appeared to emanate from within the ground. I’d seen that with my own eyes, and he’d captured it. This is my beautiful country: the land that I love; its beauty and tragedy twine together like vines on a trellis. As soon as I see the landscape, I cry. I try to make sure they’re polite tears; welling quickly, wiped quickly, welling again.

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