Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Rebecca Bedell reviews The End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America

Maggie M. CaoThe End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. 280 pp.

Review by Rebecca Bedell

20 November 2019

In this important study of American art from roughly 1870 to 1920, Maggie M. Cao explores “the end of landscape.” By this she means not the demise of the genre which, as she notes, is remarkably resilient, but more specifically the end of its heroic age in the United States, the end of the period when the artists of the Hudson River School rode the crest of public acclaim, critical approbation, and financial reward, the end of the period when their work was bound to and advanced the nation’s expansionist ideology.  

Endings, Cao observes, have been given far less attention in art history than beginnings. They have, she says, gone untheorized and often unstudied. She does not offer a theory to fill the void, and her explanation for American landscape’s decline—its confrontation with modernity—feels unsatisfying since one could equally propose that its ascendancy was bound to modernity: to the spread of market capitalism, the arrival of new modes of transportation and communication, the rise of tourism, and the loss of wilderness. What she does impressively is to escort us on fascinating journeys to the margins of landscape art, to places where its long-established pictorial conventions and long-embraced ideological supports were breaking down. 

Each of the book’s four chapters focuses on an individual artist––Albert Bierstadt, Martin Johnson Heade, Ralph Blakelock, and Abbott Thayer—and on what Cao terms “limit events,” artistic experiments that probe a tradition’s inadequacies, unsettle its accepted conventions, and push it to the breaking point. “Only at such limits,” Cao asserts, “did landscape become a site of profound interrogation of modernity’s spatial, temporal, and relational challenges” (p. 6). This a one of a number of big and bold claims made in the introduction, and I am not convinced that she provides the evidence and argument that they require. But ultimately this matters less than her penetrating and sensitive analyses of individual works, and in this respect her contribution to the field of American landscape is enlightening and significant.

In the book’s most compelling and revelatory chapter, Cao presents Heade’s well-known paintings of salt marshes and hummingbirds as revisions and rejections of the landscape vocabulary that had brought fame to his much more successful friend Frederic Edwin Church. Cao contends that Heade shatters “the logic governing Church’s works” (p. 73), jettisoning oversize canvases, narrative legibility, and imaginative traversibility, and emptying his landscapes of nationalistic and spiritual themes. With his marsh paintings, he chose to paint a flat, featureless, miasmic wasteland, so distant from contemporary notions of the picturesque that Cao dubs them “anti-landscapes.”  In his hummingbird paintings, Cao continues, Heade collapsed foreground and background, excising the middle ground that carries viewers imaginatively into and through so many Hudson River School paintings. Instead, he pressed his life-size orchids and birds directly against miniaturized “distant” landscapes in ways that create disorienting disjunctions of scale. Here, Cao illuminates as no one has before Heade’s bizarre artistic choices and subversive aims. 

In her chapters on Bierstadt, Blakelock, and Thayer, Cao draws attention to little studied aspects of their creative practice, enriching our response to and understanding of their artistic concerns and achievements. Bierstadt’s designs for an expanding railroad car and his small paintings of butterflies become, in Cao’s telling, expressions of the artist’s anxieties about the closing of the Western frontier and the faltering of the expansionist ideology on which he had built his fortune. Blakelock’s “landscape money” (landscapes in the format of paper currency) and his paintings of New York shantytowns soon to be razed for new real estate developments are, she cogently shows, intertwined with financial concerns both personal and societal—concerns about land speculation and the volatility of art markets. Thayer, in his experiments with camouflage, including compositions created from bird feathers, pursued pictorial implications of Darwinian theory and, in the process, broke down the figure-ground distinctions long central to landscape art.

With insight and verve, Cao illuminates the anxieties, jealousies, frustrations, and obsessions that led the selected artists to upend established conventions and reject accepted ideologies. She offers dazzling interpretations of individual paintings, such as Bierstadt’s Wreck of the Ancon and Heade’s Gremlins in the Studio, and her selected “limit events” are captivatingly strange as well as engagingly related. Whether all of this adds up to a general demonstration of the “end of landscape” is perhaps an open question. Yet Cao is such a delightful and stimulating guide to previously unexamined byways of American landscape art, and she prompts us to think about her subjects in such innovative and unexpected ways, that ultimately she opens us to new perspectives on the era.