I’d like to direct your attention for a moment to another of my favorite paintings by another Hudson River School artist: The Icebergs, painted by Frederic Edwin Church in 1861.
It currently resides in the Dallas Museum of Art, and like the paintings by Bierstadt in my previous post, it has a number of elements that give it a sense of vastness. The fantastical geometry of the icebergs (based on sketches from life) and the way the peak of the central iceberg almost fades into the misty sky is reminiscent of some of the loftiest mountains these artists depicted. There’s a visual escape from the ice-encircled bay in the view to the horizon through the open space on the left. The broken mast—a reminder of the lost Franklin Expedition (1)—provides a sense of scale.
But besides all this, the painting is huge.
Wikipedia’s list gives its dimensions as 163.83 x 285.75 centimetres. That’s 65.53 x 114.3 inches. Almost five and a half feet tall, and over nine and a half feet wide.
Church’s paintings vary widely in size, but only Heart of the Andes is bigger than The Icebergs. Albert Bierstadt’s works tend to be on a more modest scale by comparison, with some of the biggest being about three feet by five. Still, reproductions online or in books can’t carry the impact that the original would have had.
Even so, with many of the Hudson River School paintings being much smaller than that, and my experience of them so far being limited to books and computer monitors, their grandeur is unmistakable.
All this brings me back to what I said before: while the mountains in these paintings are not absolutely accurate representations, when I read about or otherwise envision mountains, I imagine them looking like this.
I would venture to say that the way these paintings engage the imagination is an important aspect of their success. If we describe the Sublime as “awesome, boundless, or overwhelming, qualities appropriate to an interpretation of nature as an image of the divine,”(2) does it not follow that this abstraction would be harder to capture than some other concepts? It can’t be allegorically personified like the Three Cardinal Virtues or symbolized with an object, like a skull as memento mori. It must permeate the painting like a mood.
This difficulty parallels the challenge of conveying the sense of scale in these types of landscapes. Perhaps the dreamlike quality and subtle exaggeration of the mountains helps to achieve both ends. Instead of showing us the mountains’ geometry perfectly, artists like Church and Bierstadt say, “I can’t describe how sublime this place is, but perhaps I can help you imagine it for yourself.”
1. Dallas Museum of Art, “The Icebergs,” http://www.dallasmuseumofart.org/idc/idcplg?IdcService=SS_QD_GET_RENDITION&coreContentOnly=1&dDocName=dma_406373&dID=6021#al (accessed September 17, 2013).