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Small but Sublime: Intimate Views by Durand, Bierstadt and Inness

March 19 - June 15, 2009


The first in the Finding Series -- a new initiative that will highlight the depth and breadth of the Museum's acclaimed collection of American art -- this exhibition identifies a superb selection of modestly scaled, beautifully painted landscapes from the second half of the nineteenth century. Many have not been on public display for decades. Comprised primarily of oil paintings, but also including dazzling watercolors and two remarkable sketchbooks, Small but Sublime consists of powerful images by such celebrated artists as Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt and George Inness.

Although nineteenth-century landscape painters built their reputations through large and impressive canvases, they also produced small-scale works for display in the newly decorated interiors of Victorian homes. Bierstadt's Lake at Franconia Notch, White Mountains, ca. 1860s (fig. 1) is a superb example of a modestly sized piece that nevertheless successfully captures the grandeur of the rugged peaks. Brilliantly evoking the beauty and tranquility of pristine nature, this canvas dramatically presents a wilderness scene that symbolized an American paradise to nineteenth-century audiences. In Bierstadt's mesmerizing image, a solitary deer bears witness to the splendor of the mountains, and the utter stillness of the scene creates a contemplative mood of peaceful serenity.

While Bierstadt presents a wilderness view, Inness created civilized and cultivated landscapes. Delaware Valley before the Storm, ca. 1864-65 (fig. 2) is a vast, sweeping panorama in which the diminutive figures and buildings embedded in the fertile fields underscore the continual interaction between man and the natural world. Inness focuses on the theme of mutability, depicting the changeable weather conditions of dramatic storm clouds. Painted while he was living in Eagleswood, near Perth Amboy, New Jersey, this work is imbued with a sense of spirituality and harmony. The artist's mellow hues of muted oranges, greens and browns establish a mood of serenity and nostalgia. In Inness' interpretation, autumn evokes oncoming decay and death, a prelude to the inevitability of winter.

The assembled pictures, when viewed collectively, present the varied approaches to landscape, while also underscoring the changes in interpretation wrought by the subtle but profound shifts in artistic and social attitudes toward nature. These landscapes both served as a vehicle for expressing national identity and intense pride in the sublime wonders of the American land, and also enabled artists' to convey their subjective reaction to nature, particularly in poetic, spiritual and mystical visions that translate and transform the natural environment.

-- Holly Pyne Connor, Ph.D.
Curator of 19th-Century American Art


(above: Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), Jersey Meadows with a Fisherman, 1877, Oil on canvas, 13 5/8 x 26 1/2 inches, Frame: 19 3/8 x 32 1/4 inches. Purchase 1946 Sophronia Anderson Bequest Fund  46.156


(above: Mary Nimmo Moran (1842-1899), View of Newark from the Meadows, circa 1879, Oil on wood, 8 1/4 x 16 inches, Frame: 12 1/2 x 20 1/2 inches. Gift of Allen McIntoch 1956  56.171

(above: Albert Bierstadt, Lake at Franconia Notch, White Mountains, ca. 1860s, oil on paper, Gift of Dr. J. Ackerman Coles, 1926 26.1165


Resource Library editor's note

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Richard Squires, The Newark Museum, for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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