"American Landscape, American Vision:

The Cycle of the Seasons in Cultural and Historical Perspective"


Michael Kammen

Cornell University


Northwestern University Center for the Humanities Colloquium Series

November 28, 2001



I would like to start with a painting that should be familiar to all of you. It's Chagall, Marc Chagall, an unordinarily moving captivating painting. This was intended to be viewed in direct sunlight because the way the light plays on the tens of thousands, I think the hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of glass and marble and granite that make up the composition.


The four seasons, or seasonality, regulated and profoundly affected how people lived. It meant for instance that at this time of year, in October and November ... gathering food provisions, storing them away very carefully, to ensure that there are opportunities to eat in the harshness of winter. We take for granted that there is food throughout the year -- Texas, California, all parts of the world. We now have what I call a flattened attitude in what they make in human experience. The seasons are much less meaningful for us, and thus landscapes would be much less common in contemporary art, modern art. That turned out not to be the case, and I'll try to communicate to you that in the final quarter of the twentieth century, there is an extraordinary renaissance, especially in this country and I'd like to concentrate on that, a renaissance that really starts with four seasons downtown.


Chagall mentioned one or two interesting points. If you recall seeing Monet's haystacks in the Art Institute -- they have haystacks that he did 1890-1891. He actually did about 20. What he did was observe a haystack not from his studio ... but from a studio a little farther back on his property. He liked to observe it at different seasons of the year, different times of they day. He didn't call it four seasons of wheat. He was most interested in atmospheric changes, and that's what he tried to show by painting the melting snow, white snow on the stacks, sunset or daybreak or high noon or late summer, so on. Similarly, Chagall hoped that the play of light on his work would affect people, intrigue people in the same way.


There had been continuity, and we'll go through some of the ways Americans have thought about, written about and envisioned the four seasons. I'm going to focus on the last quarter of the 19th century, and then touch base with middle of the twentieth century, and then move forward to the last quarter of the 20th century in order to emphasize the changes in American attitude toward the seasons and how they should be represented and what the large American think about the seasons.


When .... was given a commission to plan central park late in the 1850s, one of his vivid concerns was how some of the vistas in Central Park would appear in different seasons of the year. In the end of the 19th century, the Columbia exhibition, held in Chicago over a period of more than half a year. Of more than four hundred works of art by American painters, fully a quarter were seasonal paintings, so seasonal art by the late 19th century was a very important component. The majority Americans still lived rural lives, agrarian lives, lived in small rustic regions. They were quite practical, they were deft with meteorology. They were familiar with the labors of the ... with a term that moves back to the middle ages when any number of books were hand lettered and hand painting illustrating not only how people worship, spectacular version of those books of ours that emphasize seasonality. Americans were unaware of the traditional typography, because a poem called "The Four Seasons," first published in 1786 as Winter, etc.


Poem began as one called the "Natural Beatitudes." American tradition: Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac, published long extracts. Thomas Jefferson copied long extracts, etc., the whole country still colonies, after independence, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, wood cut illustrations that you see as traditional. Americans were familiar and carried over these traditions.


How did Americans in the mid-19th century envision and think about the seasons? A literary specialist who specializes on Thoreau's journals noted that a propensity to ask questions and to perceive the landscape as a series of illustrations.


In 1852, in the summer of 1852, Thoreau wrote the following in his journal: "At this season, we don't regard the larger features of the landscape as in the spring, we do in the spring, but are absorbed in details. I should have not have so much to say, but one is ... bewildered by the variety of objects." The point that I think he illustrates so well is that we think and we observe the features of the landscape in different ways in different seasons of the year.


In the next generation John Burrows who is familiar Thoreau's (contemporary) who was far more popular than Thoreau. Thoreau's books did not sell in his own lifetime. John Burrows is the most beloved American naturalist from the late 70s and early 80s. Of the things that spring relished, Burrows published a collection of essays called Time and Seasons, published in 1886, a very loving account of spring. He says, "I can devour a series of landscapes at a time in the spring because in the springtime there are so many good changes." In another widely acclaimed essay, Burrows claimed he wanted to show what the bird is in landscape and in the seasons.


Writers like Thoreau and John Burrows and other naturalists felt very strongly that they were painting more fully and with greater complexity than artists could. That leads me to point out a very interesting conception from the late nineteenth century. The writers, almost without exception, call attention to the very positive way to the way the importance of the wild their work uses endlessly and Americanizes.  While this involved elements of nature, of grit, of challenge, of preservation, so the most famous quotation at this point from Henry David Thoreau ... wild, salvation is rural, and what gives a direct echo of that is all beautiful state and county almanacs published in 1889, with the gospel of speculation. This familiar frame of conversation of the wild let to legislation to save the Adirondacks, very much a large group in the later 19th century. But artists painted the forests with landscapes that invariably presented the landscapes not as wild but as controlled. Looking at America's art from the later nineteenth century, with Currier and Ives.


Currier and Ives strike us as being stereotypically American and they certainly were, in many ways, but they did at least seven or eight different sets of the four seasons. This is the very earliest set, called American Country Life. It was so popular that they painted more sets over the years. The first is called May morning, Summer Evening on the left, October afternoon and Pleasures of the Winter. You'll notice in October afternoon, it's rather subtle, he uses yellow for the woody shrubs, and you'll notice there are only hints of yellow, but there's no brilliance to the foliage, which is typical. There schools of this, but none associating with American light changes at the time. Currier and Ives were still very derivative, and only well into the second half of the nineteenth century, when disciples of Thomas Cole, who had such an impact on the Hudson River Valley School -- these disciples began to highlight American art in a variety of ways.


Jasper Cropsey was most active from later 1840s to the later 1880s. Cropsey was mostly associated with Thomas Cole. In about 1847, Cole did a very famous painting, "Autumn on the Hudson," and the person who bought that painting by Cole was so pleased with it that he commissioned three other artists to do three other paintings. ... did autumn, Cropsey did spring and .... specialized in winter themes. There's reasons to believe -- it was written up in the American press -- there's reason to believe that that set was the inspiration for a great deal of American landscape art during the latter half of the 19th century.


Here we have one of the twelve different sets of the seasons that Jasper Cropsey did. Only three or four of them have survived. This set is someone unusual because all the others that have survived and all the ones we know about from newspaper records -- were only situated in various American venues. But in this set, one of the most beautiful which he did late in his life, he set spring in Italy and summer in England, and autumn on a river with the typical brilliance of green foliage that is immediately evocative and almost seems derivative of Thomas Cole's scene which is up right now in the Art Institute, and then winter situated in Switzerland. It's the only international set that he did.


To give you another example of landscape painting in the late nineteenth century, Dwight Tyron did this set in 1892-1893. What is particularly interesting about these landscapes is that first of all they are anything but wild. There is that contrast between how the artists portray them and how the writers portray them. They're a great deal more seasoned to the landscape artists of Europe during the last nineteenth century. Notice the gender breakdown of labor, men threshing wheat in the background, women wandering and gathering it in the foreground. It seems to be dating before influences of European descent arrived, the land was untouched, no one was living here, and of course that is untrue.


There are some important things that American writers and artists shared in common during the late nineteenth century and I want to emphasize this because it changed the dynamic of the late twentieth century. What they shared in common was the emphasis upon distinctive Americanization of the native landscape. National chauvinism really was a common denominator for them. Art above all praised and highlighted that the country was more beautiful and dramatic than Europe, and when we get to this point things change. Cole, whose work had been admired, remained far more popular than European romantics, sold far more copies. The Americans turned against Cole, saying he had no idea about the emergence and how spectacularly beautiful the American land was, how superior it was. From Thoreau onward, there is a rejection of Thomas Cole.


In another contrast, European writers and artists tended to depict winter as harsh, trying, and strenuous. In America, on the other, they depicted winter in a very benign way, James Lowell published a long 30 page essay depicting the beauty of the first snowfall, etc. It's a very benign vision of winter coming from both artists and writers.


At the very end of the nineteenth century, there was a fascination with painting on glass, and so John Lafarge in a set of windows on Lake George. It's interesting to observe that even though the late-19th-century American painters were Chauvinists, it's important to note that they all lived and studied in Europe at sometime, and they all enjoyed their time in Europe. There's an interesting contrast in them and Americans who went to Europe in the early 20th century and discovered they didn't like the styles.


We fast forward in the 20th century and find that writers continue to feel words offer a greater opportunity for complexity than painting. Leopoldt(sp) wrote to a friend, "When you paint a picture, you are conveying one idea, not all the ideas about a particular landscape." In that regard, art and writing went off in different directions.


The most prominent American naturalists were concerned with making ethical judgments; that adds a new dimension. We also find a closer dimension now between artists and writers. A piece from 1949, a good example of experimentation in landscape in the 20th century. It's one of his most intimate. Winter is snowy, behind the branches, autumn, then summer, and in the background spring, with flowers.


An artist named Birchfield (sp) read Thoreau, and what they shared in common was a fascination by the transition from one season to the next, where artists like Hoffman were interested in seasons at their absolute peak. Thoreau and Birchfield tended to focus on the transition from winter to spring.


Let's now turn to the last quarter of the twentieth century. , and the impact of urbanization on thinking and visualization. Despite the lack of seasonal differences changing people lives, we encounter a very intense, productive trend of ongoing interest in landscaping. Paintings now are very subjective, very personal, so there's a lot more going on now. They are much more autobiographic.


I'd like to start with Thomas Cornell, a very serious artist who did his first four seasons in 1986 and one might call his quartet advertising the landscape, because he did this set as a commission for the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. These hung in their headquarters building until they were bought by the museum in Portland, Maine. He portrayed courtship in autumn. It was most often associated with spring, sometimes summer, but never autumn and certainly never winter. What is John Hancock getting out of this? When we get to winter, we get to the answer: older couples looking back over their lives, wondering if they have planned adequately.


Turning to an intriguing husband and wife in seasonal painting, Pam ... and her husband David Sharp(sp). His style, which is very deliberately childlike, is much formal with the wife's hands. Here again, by the way, the urbanization of America is important because this couple lives very close the corner of Fifth Avenue in New York City. They not only share an apartment, they share a studio. If you're wondering about the hand here, it's a female skeleton. It's a bit unnerving having this skeleton, but she uses ex. She did a four season painting in one version, a full-length nude painting of herself, but she has a wreath of spring flowers on her head, with her skeleton hanging next to her representing winter.


David's summer, which he calls "The Gleaner," and we have a tax being collected in a very urban park of New York City -- a standard urban motif but captured in a more meaningful way for people living in New York.


Now we've switched to James Romero (sp), born in 1930. He has done at least four different sets of seasons. This particular set was commissioned for the MCI Building. Their purpose was to show the Mississippi River, near St. Louis, with red to convey summer heat and thunderstorms brewing. What was most important was using seasonality for statements of triumph.


Moving on to Lisa Werlin (sp). She did her four seasons in 1994-1996. It's about a couple trying very much to get together; we call in courting, in tradition. But there are things preventing them. Her paintings are seven feet high by six feet wide. She did studies at the museum of natural history. She broke significantly with tradition. She kept autumn -- courtship is invariably consummated in summer, and by autumn, a mature couple. But here courtship is not consummated, in fact it's the same couple, stark naked on tree limbs, reaching out to each other with a wolf or creature howling at the female figure. You wonder is this courtship ultimately going to be frustrated? Winter is supposed to be represented by couples by fireside waiting for spring to come. In winter, her couple is finally actually getting together, in the nude, in the snow, with the wolf or the animal sneaking away and the couple making love. Apparently the couple can generate enough heat.


So to sum up, we have a lot of change in the between the chauvinism of the late nineteenth century to the emphasis on American exceptionalism. Naturalism is somewhere between very diluted and absolutely non-existent. So, within the span of a century, we shifted from four seasons landscapes that were full of chauvinism as four seasons to media of the psychological, mediations, contemplations, contemporary work that combines these things to show what it means to contemporary strains of life. Intriguingly, when Marc Chagall was invited to do the spectacular mosaic downtown, he was immensely grateful to the hospitality that he received in Chicago when he came here as a refugee during World War II, and he wanted to give back to Chicago, and I would like to thank my hosts here. Thank you very much.


Kammen is author of American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the

Twentieth Century.




Copyright 2001 Michael Kammen. All rights reserved.