See to shining sea

Two new DMA exhibits present the artist as a Polaroid

Somewhere high in the Rocky Mountains, 1863:
"Wait 20 minutes while I sketch this storm."
"Yeah, right Mr. Bierstadt. We'll just stand here with the pack mules while the wind freezes our butts off and you indulge yourself. Again."

Granted, conjuring up a mental picture of an impulsive, self-centered artist is easy--it's urban myth by now, thanks to the modernist temperament of the rich and famous (Picasso, Warhol). But the American painters of the mid-19th century, the ones we might otherwise think of as stately and dignified, were no exception: Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt--their giant oil paintings of landscapes that hang in the big museums came at a price. To get those glorious mountains and oceans and forests on canvas, they had to leave the cosmopolitan safety of their East Coast cities and travel--tagging along with a surveyor team or with their own reluctant entourage in tow--to the far reaches of civilization. Once on location, they sketched their surroundings, quickly and efficiently, before taking cover. Call them amateur explorers, or stuntmen, or simply out of their league, but know this: Americans waited for these visions with the anticipation of kids on Christmas Eve. The newfangled photograph was still in its formative stages and couldn't capture a vista's nuances--oil painting was the only fully fleshed-out picture of the unconquered world.

The Dallas Museum of Art, under consulting curator Eleanor Jones Harvey, has launched a spectacular show that spotlights these oft-unheralded "sketches." (They're actually small, quickly-rendered oil paintings on canvas and wood, produced by the aforementioned--and four other--landscape artists as initial studies for their monumental masterworks.) The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880 is fascinating for three reasons. One, these little images are actually more charming than the huge finished products; two, the stories that go with them (graciously supplied on placards throughout the exhibit) are as comic and crustily adventurous as any Merchant-Ivory production; and three, the way these guys captured the picture, in such gestural, spontaneous form, was a natural precursor to what would be the Next Big Thing--Impressionism.

The paintings' jewel-like intensity has them sparking off the walls; most are not much larger than a square foot, but their dappled, clear colors and gutsy, painterly textures belie something that was often lost in the studio translation to larger scale: emotion. Ever seen a giant iceberg with your own eyes, drifting with ominous grace in the distance over a white-capped ocean? (Yeah, me neither.) Take a snapshot, then go home and try to recreate the way you felt when you saw it for real. It's no go--and when these artists rendered their more-calculated, academic version of what they had seen out in the wild, their once-stirred souls had calmed down in the respite of their heated parlors and Darjeeling tea and overstuffed brocade chairs. The initial head rush was lost.

Not so in the on-site sketches. In Church's studies of Niagara Falls, several of which are on display here, you can fairly hear the roar of the torrent as it screams over the ledge to the river below; the thick clouds of mist rise and obscure the picture in a reflective filter of cold sunlight. He was there, all right, and through the sketch he takes us with him. It's virtual reality, circa 1856. In Bierstadt's sketch "The Trapper's Camp," the artist paints a tiny huddle of men around a glowing fire, the skies lowering in the distance, and if you stand close, you can practically hear the snap, crackle of the burning twigs and the muffled conversation of the exhausted men (more tired, no doubt, since they had to lug Bierstadt and his equipment along all day). In another, the determined artist paints a dying buffalo; the lack of minute detail and background filler can't keep the massive, charcoal creature from looking as though it's heaving and snotting in glassy-eyed pain.

Some of the works are quiet, with a David Lean kind of nobility. Cole's "The Ruins at Taormina," a grand, mossy vision of a remote Italian vista, is about as immediate and as Impressionistic as a painting can get without being Impressionism. John Frederick Kensett's "At Pasture," a view on a clearing with a few cows scattered around, also packs a Cinemascope view in its modest 10x20 inches--it looks vast and lush and peaceful. And Asher B. Durand's careful studies of trees are not only surprisingly precise, but more surprisingly breathtaking in their lacy, delicate detail. One of these on your wall would be better than most picture windows.

And that's how the emerging middle class of the time saw them. Merchants and soldiers and college art professors and the like couldn't possibly afford the end product--the museum-bound wall-coverings--of these artists' forays (for unlike some art movements, the American landscape phase made its artists famous in their lifetimes). But they could afford these sketches, and by the end of the period, the artists knew that their little visceral paintings could be as closely scrutinized as their big, careful ones, and perhaps even preferred.

On top of that, the artists would compete for most colorful battle stories, as in: "I almost fell off a cliff last time I went to Newfoundland." "Oh, yeah, well I was charged by a stampede of wild horses when I was in the Indian Territory." In effect, the fans back home waited not just for the sketches, but for the adventure tales to hit the press. The more danger the artist subjected himself to in the effort to get a good view, the more valuable the sketch. So they'd pitch an easel in 10 or 100-degree temperatures, on a slippery incline, brave the insects and wind, and try to beat the setting sun. (And? Cole and Kensett died of pneumonia, and Sanford R. Gifford of some rampant strain of Egyptian malaria, all in their 40s or 50s. Ah, the price of art. And fame.)

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