Sublime Landscapes, Part 1

Yes, I’m still alive!  Between picking up extra shifts for vacationing coworkers, toying with an idea for a novel, and wandering around the Internet the way I used to wander the basement of the Engineering department of the local university whilst trying to find a way from one history class to the next without going outside…painting and blogging have been pushed to the back burner somewhat.

A major reason for my Internet wandering has been my increasing fascination with paintings like this:

File:HRSOA AlbertBierstadt-Storm in the Mountains.jpg

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

That’s Storm in the Mountains, painted by Albert Bierstadt in 1870.  It’s representative of many of the things I find intriguing about the Hudson River School—dramatic and dreamlike, with a compelling composition and a seemingly exaggerated sense of scale.  The mountains and stormy clouds both have a looming presence, but the flat land in the foreground and the “tunnel view” of another mountain in the distance prevent the painting from feeling hemmed in by the cliffs on either side.

About a year later, Bierstadt painted Sierra Nevada.

File:Sierra Nevada Albert Bierstadt circa 1871.jpeg

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Notice how the mountain on the left seems to lean forward towards the viewer, and the one on the right almost blends into the sky.  This is atmospheric perspective pushed to the limit—something I’ve been hesitant to do.  After all, Johannes Vloothuis’ “Landscape Composition Rules” establish a kind of hierarchy within the painting, where the least important elements are given the least contrast in values (light and dark).  Yet I don’t think it’s counterintuitive that in looking at this painting, I tend to wander toward the upper areas.  That’s where the light is brightest and the space is most open.

That’s also the part of the painting that, in me, provokes the response, “How’d they do that?”  The Hudson River School artists used traditional techniques, and hazy lighting and softened outlines are generally produced by laying down thin glazes of paint, something which I’m currently experimenting with.  Their color choices (if not the pigments actually used to produce them, on which I haven’t found much information) are generally unified, and with some exceptions, quite subdued, almost Baroque.  The characteristics that set these artists apart from their predecessors were subject matter, dramatic composition, and philosophical underpinnings.  They were attempting to convey the sublime.

I’ll have to write another post about that idea.  For the moment, I’d like to offer one observation on those mountains.

Looking at Albert Bierstadt, especially, it sometimes strikes me that that isn’t exactly what mountains look like.  They may not actually be exaggerated in height (another potential post), but different aspects of their geometry are emphasized (sometimes vertical cliffs, sometimes the sharpness of peaks and ridges).  The ethereal quality of some of the more distant peaks in these paintings made me realize: this may not be exactly what the mountains look like, but when I read about or otherwise envision mountains, I imagine them looking like this.

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