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“Thomas Moran”

At the National Gallery of Art to Jan. 11

Whatever the hopes of American painters to be the Raphaels and Michelangelos of the Capitol, it seems clear that as a patron of the arts, Congress has exercised considerably worse taste than most Renaissance popes. Famously rejecting the offer of Samuel Morse to decorate the Capitol, Congress let Constantino Brumidi plaster its ceilings with Charminesque putti. And just recently (when a hundred years of grime had begun to lend some superficial dignity to this brood), it chose to restore them to all their spanking garishness. Kitsch, accessible and unchallenging, is democratic, so it comes as no surprise to find the U.S. Congress buying its first large Thomas Moran canvas Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in 1872. And it is again no surprise to find a National Gallery retrospective of his work assembled 125 years later, under Congress’ nose.

Kitsch must eschew the sublime. When you walk through the show of this junior peer of Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, you see, among dozens of watercolors, 42 oil-painted instances of the truism that, in art, scale is not simply a matter of size. For however large Moran paints them, none of his paintings feels any bigger than a page. Why this is so is not clear; yet Bierstadt’s Domes of the Yosemite is sublime, and Moran’s Shoshone Falls on the Snake River fails to be anything more than a shallowly visual experience. The test is empirical. Stand in front of the Bierstadt and your mind might say, “Kitsch,” but your body feels a kind of tremulous fear and exaltedness. One could, I believe, document certain unmistakable physiological effects: Your breathing patterns change, your pupils dilate in front of such a painting.

In front of the Moran, we breathe quietly. It may have something to do with his palette. Moran began as a watercolorist. The paintings appear pretty, ungrounded, and without depth because of a color scheme that underemphasizes blacks and earth colors. But then, Moran was also a latecomer; he was seven years younger than Bierstadt, 11 years younger than Church. So it could be that Moran’s failure to make truly sublime western landscapes at such a late stage has something to do with a crumbling in the medium’s ideological underpinnings. Generally speaking, in the late 19th century there was a loss in the ability to read the natural as the face of an infinite divinity. A good test case is Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875). To my eye, this is not a vehicle for transcendence but unfortunately something like a sign for a roadside wonder. (I looked at this painting, saw the holy cross of the title neatly pasted at the top of a triangular composition, registered an internal “Cross indeed,” and was almost reassured to find it actually so in a photo in the next room.)

In fact, photography itself is the most probable culprit in driving the natural sublime from painting in the late 1800s. This show is replete with photographic documentation. Some photos are from the geological surveys Moran accompanied, others are portraits of the artist rakishly dressed in situ, and still others are the highly popular stereographs of the West that had at that time come to compete with topographic painting. Popular art history holds that the invention of photography simply brought an end to representation in serious painting in the late 19th century. This is inaccurate, as this show, the work of Adolphe William Bouguereau, and the survival of avant-garde representational painting into our own time make evident.

What photography did do is initially turn painting into an affair of color—note that Moran is a hyperbolic colorist—and also into a matter of manipulation and interpretation. A given painting’s relationship to its audience, which had previously been a two-part arrangement, became essentially triadic: There were not only nature and the viewer but the painter as inevitable and felt presence. This was, of course, the death of the natural sublime. For the face of the godhead, if it is already captured, digested, and presented as such by this new sort of painter, is not going to provoke a sense of crushing excess, a feeling of something superseding human faculties. To effect this, a certain automatism was needed. Enter the era of the camera.

Curator Nancy Anderson’s catalog essays carefully track Moran’s skilled marketing of his late “sublime” landscapes to a public increasingly unsympathetic to grand and heroic visions. Rather than question the validity of this enterprise and the possible shortcomings of the work, she focuses instead on Moran’s heroic efforts as a publicist, his remarkable energies in drumming up interest in the paintings by controlling their public exposure and his own public image. The upshot of these efforts, we are told, is a body of work “inextricably linked to political, commercial, scientific, and social issues…much more than aesthetic concerns [emphasis mine]” and images that are “compelling enough to validate the proposition that both conservation and commerce were well served when landscapes as spectacular as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were left relatively untouched.”

Two familiar notes are sounded in this defense. One is the democratic ideal of the painter as successful operator in a market of taste. The other is the idea that, by making images of an accessible, unterrorizing, and anti-demonic nature, Moran was in the service of conservation. Both are open to question. For is it not true that, in our current environmental crisis, the early romantic view of nature as terrifying might usefully counter our complacent and human-centered optimism? Might not such a view unsettle our belief that all things (including nature, beauty, and landscape) are “resources” to be developed or ready-to-hand commodities awaiting our use? Nor need we accept without qualification the notion that a democratic government is best served by a democracy of taste, in which judgments of aesthetic quality are settled in an open market of popular opinion.

The current vogue in approaching 19th-century art is to let a hundred flowers bloom. This has been a useful corrective to the widespread dismissal, in the wake of modernism, of much of the best of the last century. It has brought about welcome changes in museums (the Musée d’Orsay itself) and in the discipline of art history has spawned much valuable scholarship (such as that of Robert Rosenblum). The National Gallery’s show continues in this vein by purposely sidestepping questions of quality and offering us an extremely well-documented look at an artist whose social and political importance is undeniable.CP