Published on Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Art Leads the Way West
The Art Work of Frederic Edwin Church
and George Caleb Bingham
By Michael T. Pizzolato
It was nearly a century before television and some century and a half before the Internet. The telephone was but a simmering, infant of an idea in the mind of man, and the best way to communicate across cities and towns back then was by telegraph.
Manifest Destiny, for good or ill, had brought bustling commerce and factional conflict to an expanding American landscape. Savvy political campaigns promoted politicians and issues. New towns springing up on the push westward had produced a population in need of all forms of promotion, publicity and entertainment.
But commerce, politics, and the population needed a messenger.
And so, artists of the time-fueled by the events of history, a religious awe of nature, and the mere desire to entertain-took their place among the media moguls of the day.
The Industrial Revolution had produced railroads, mines and factories, while the Enlightenment elevated science and reason, and war advanced medicine.
But art was taking an opposing direction with a global movement called Romanticism, which placed value on spirituality and emotion over cold machinery and stoical science.
Within this movement was a decidedly American painting tradition of landscape art called the Hudson River School. It was in this setting that the work of Frederic Edwin Church found a place in hearts and minds of Americans.
Painted on a large canvas (40x64 in.), Church's work, Twilight in the Wilderness (Fig.1) inspired all the awe and emotion that an image of nature can capture. The artist sought to convey a sense of spirituality in his landscapes, and he succeeded.
The power of Twilight (1860), published in a time of impending war, is in its' placid yet stirring portrayal of nature.
Americans taming the continental U.S. had encountered waterfalls, mountains, prairies and canyons, splendid visions of heaven on earth that evoked almost sacred emotions and affirmed the faith that helped them endure harsh frontier life.
So a landscape painting this powerful spoke to the soul in almost the same way.
It even entertained as well. Church, like many artists of the day, charged money for people to enjoy his paintings in a panorama exhibit, much as we would a movie today.
Another artist of the time was not unlike a modern-day journalist or historian. George Caleb Bingham covered politics and history in his home state of Missouri-and did it with his paintbrush.
Bingham painted works about the gradual disappearance of the Osage Indian from his home state, the expanse of trade on the Missouri River, and the inter-racial mixing of French trappers and Native American women.
A state representative and a founder of the Whig Party, he also made political art that was often used to sway voters on many a heated political issue of the day.
Bingham's work, Daniel Boone leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap (Fig. 2), is a history painting which portrays an idealized event of some 70 years before it was painted.
The artist placed Boone in the well-lit center of the work, a leader bathed in the light of Manifest Destiny, which lithographs of this painting promoted at the time. He leads the group of settlers from darkness and into the light, yet more darkness-the uncertainties of making a new life in the West-lay ahead of them as featured on the painting's right.
The positioning of Daniel Boone leading the woman's horse is similar to the Biblical story of Joseph leading Mary on a donkey, a metaphor for the Christian faith pioneers needed in such troublesome times. The dog, too, is a symbol of faith.
The nearly opposing colors of red and yellow in the painting, along with the damaged trees, may suggest that nature for the settlers (where weather is harsh, food is trapped, and land is cleared) is a force to be overcome.
And while Bingham's pragmatic view of nature as a challenge contrasts with Church's view as awe and inspiration, both depict a nature where faith, whether religious or spiritual, uplifts in hardship.
Consequently, both of these painters not only gave us an imaginative glimpse at frontier life but also inspired faith and entertained, promoted commerce and observed politics.
More importantly, art of the time-then as now-was a vital media messenger as well as a witness to history's events.
- Framing America, A Social History of American Art, by Frances K. Pohl. © 2002, Thames and Hudson, New York, NY.
- The West in the Age of Industrialism and Imperialism, Sarah Lyons Watts, Professor, Department of History, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC. http://www.wfu.edu/~watts/w04_industr.html.
Michael T. Pizzolato is the Associate Editor in charge of the Art Department at The Western Online and is also the graphic designer for the site. He recently earned a bachelor's degree in art and journalism from Louisiana State University in Shreveport. He also works as a free-lance sportswriter for The Shreveport Times.