INHABITED LANDSCAPES

One of the most venerable and widely accepted fallacies concerning the history of American art is the belief, common for more than a century, that landscape painting did not exist on these shores until the appearance, during the 1820s, of the Hudson River School. Like most errors, this conclusion contains a grain of truth, but the grain has been enlarged as if seen through a microscope.

The earliest-known American paintings were created in the 1660s. From this date on past the end of the eighteenth century, official thought all over the Western world was concentrated on man in his social aspects. Accepted philosophy did not find God in Nature, but saw Him standing apart, judging nature. To be untamed was synonymous with being evil. Humanity was not admissible into a drawing room or into heaven until it had been made over by correct religious principle, polite breeding, and wise aristocratic government. Nature too needed editing, came to its own when modified into a formal garden.

The highest form of art, it was generally agreed, was "historical painting," the organization on canvas of figure compositions illustrative, according to refined mental principles of human heroism, piety, or grandeur. Although portraiture was also dedicated to the glorification of social man, it was not considered part of the grand tradition because it could go only a short distance toward the "ideal" without loss of that essential factor, likeness. However, it was the most lucrative of modes and thus widely practiced.

Landscape painting lacked official philosophical support, the more so the more it revealed the world uncorrected by human taste. Thus, in his celebrated Discourses, Sir Joshua Reynolds attacked Rubens for reproducing "the accidents of nature," preferred Claude for being "convinced that taking nature as he found it seldom produced beauty." Applying the same generalizing principles as the historical painters,

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Art in America, 42, No. 2 ( May 1954), 106-11.

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