Continental Shift II: The Problem of History


Three blog posts on Three Early Paintings in ‘Continental Shift’, an Exhibition of Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Paintings at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, 30 July 2016-5 February 2017. Read the first in the series, ‘Colonisation and Wilderness.’ 

By Richard Read.


I was blogging before about the ‘problem’ of painting landscapes in newly colonised countries as it applies to the first two paintings – and many others – in the ‘Continental Shift’ exhibition of nineteenth-century American and Australian paintings at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

In Europe, the hierarchy of subject matter in painting dictated that ‘history painting’ transcends portraiture as the highest genre. This is because it depicts virtuous souls in heroic action, typically in biblical or classical stories or in scenes from the grand narratives of national history. It is spiritually virtuous public art. Portraits fell lower down in the hierarchy because although the souls they depict might be virtuous, they are not seen in action. Genre painting (confusingly named) occupied the lowest place in the scheme because it depicts objects in still life, landscapes or scenes of low life, subjects that are either inanimate or (allegedly) lacking in nobility of soul.

In colonial countries the institutional apparatus was too rudimentary to support history painting. The market was typically confined to portrait painting or paintings of private mansions that declared the status of their owners. Meanwhile painters, in countries that at first lacked art academies or salons to elevate their reputations (even Britain did not establish its Royal Academy until 1768), found it hard to distinguish themselves from house decorators or sign painters in public estimation. I think it’s fair to say that all of the paintings in the ‘Continental Shift’ exhibition belong to the second phase of visual arts that Bernard Smith charted in his incomparably brilliant European Vision and the South Pacific:

So soon as the visual arts became significant as a mode of taste in the colonies it became possible for artists to distinguish, both in their own work and in their writings, between the functions of documentary and topographical art on the one hand, and those aspects of art which sought to express more complex forms of experience on the other. Whereas it had been the basic function of the artist working in the Pacific since the days of Cook to provide Europeans with true accounts of life and nature in the Pacific, it now became increasingly the professed function of the colonial artist to elevate colonial taste.[1]

It is in representing those ‘more complex forms of experience’ that aesthetic emotions arise.

For the lower art of landscape painting to elevate colonial taste, it was necessary to find a way of making it approximate to history painting by transforming it into the scene of heroic actions, as the European followers of Claude and Poussin had aspired to do. The problem with America and Australia, however, was that by comparison with Europe, there was scant national history of any significance to record. In his ‘Essay on American Scenery’ in 1836, Thomas Cole called this ‘a grand defect in American scenery – the want of associations, such as arise amid the scenes of the old world’.[2] It was therefore necessary either to import history indirectly into the landscape, or to find some other criterion on which to draw painterly distinction from the natural scenery of new territories unsanctified by ancient narratives of national suffering. Thomas Doughty’s In the Adirondaks (c.1822–1830) and William Groombridge’s View of a Manor House on the Harlem River (1793) take opposite routes in these respects.

Image: William Groombridge, View of a Manor House on the Harlem River, 1793. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.


As its title suggests, View of a Manor House on the Harlem River seems to endorse the status of an owner by showing his house and its setting. It was either commissioned by the owner or was intended to attract other local patrons. This happens today when a salesman approaches a house and presents an aerial photograph of it: ‘Would you like to buy this for your mantelpiece?’ But the case is not so simple here. This is not a single mansion in an idyllic setting, as in Constable’s Wivenhoe Park or in many of John Glover’s estate paintings of Tasmania. The explanation may be that ‘American scenes are not destitute of historical and legendary associations’, as Cole again puts it: ‘the great struggle for freedom has sanctified many a spot’ and this painting represents one of them.[3] By ‘the great struggle for freedom’ Cole means the founding event of American nationhood itself, the War of Independence. The mansion in Groombridge’s painting is thought to be the one that is cropped on the far left of the painting, a relatively marginal position that hardly seems to justify a commission that includes a whole community.

It transpires, however, that the evident – if modest – prosperity of that community, and the rosy future implied by its arching sky, is contingent upon this site having been the location of a significant battle in the War of Independence. Indeed, this very manor house is thought to have served as the centre of communications. National history endorses personal ownership, it seems. There is a historically grounded sociality about the painting, then, that is sharply at odds with the subjective and aestheticised vision of the later paintings from both countries that are featured in the exhibition. How different, for example, are these publicly inflected brushstrokes from the personalised facture of George Innes’s intimate pastoral vision in Summer, Montclair (1877), or Charles Condor’s shimmering Japonais Balmoral Beach (1888), both great works from later in the exhibition that express their artists’ inner life rather than the collective values of a social group – lamps rather than mirrors in M. H. Abrams famous terms of Romantic transition. Many of the later paintings in the exhibition, starting perhaps with John Frederick Kensett’s Almy Pond, Newport (1857), are paintings that capture momentary personal visions, rooted in the present. Groombridge, on the other hand, not only paints history but also – judging from that sky – destiny. The historical implication of Groombridge’s painting would no doubt have been more obvious to its earliest viewers than to us, for if American had not won the war this peaceful community would not have prospered as it does and will continue to do. Indeed, on close inspection, one of the houses towards the centre of the village is partly ruined. Could it be a relic of that battle and a reminder of the dire consequences of defeat? This emotionally positive prospect of a glorious, stable future possibly enshrines a political ideology that sharply distinguishes it from the social organisation of the land in the ‘old country’. Let’s call that ideology the spirit of community. What is it?

The answer seems to turn on the role of that trudging farm worker. In one respect, he is just ‘staffage’, subliminally animating the landscape with the quotidian aspect of his human presence. In another respect, though, his movement to the left is important for the composition. Like a perpetual motion machine, his trudging gait constantly winds our eye towards the right, over the static Cuyp-like cattle, where it is released like a pinball into the diagonal leftward radiance of the sky. But might he also play a vital ideological role?

When I first spotted him I thought of the opening line of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos: ‘the enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders’. Were this England, from whence Groombridge hails, it is easy to imagine him as a representative victim of the enclosure movement, that greedy privatisation of the common land that turned peasants who had freely lived off its natural resources into wage slaves. But this is America, and if there is a dream, it is a utopian one that consigns the feudal or capitalist exploitation of European landowning firmly to the past. (Besides, only the most thoughtful English painters, such as Gainsborough, would have dared to incur the wrath of their patrons by including the rural poor in scenes of enclosure.) Instead, it is more likely that this worker and township expresses the social ideology of individual independent freeholders set forth in Thomas Jefferson’s Ordinance Act of 1784. As Hector St Jean de Crèvecoeur put it in Letters from an American Farmer, the implementation of this idea allowed the European visitor to behold:

fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields, an immense country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where a hundred years ago all was wild, woody and uncultivated![4]

Within such a vision, Groombridge’s trudging farmer becomes the heroic actor of a history unfolding in the future, not the past, for ‘the virtues of the new nation are to be found … in the hearts of those who labour in the earth’.[5] As Thomas Cole, again, put it: ‘American associations are not so much of the past as of the present and the future’.[6] So would it be for Australian associations. Sir Thomas Mitchell writes in his Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia:

The traveller there seeks in vain for the remains of cities, temples, or towers; but he is amply compensated by objects that tell not of decay but of healthful progress and hope; – of a wonderful past, and of a promising future.[7]

Groombridge’s peasant tramps within an orderly community beneath a radiant sky. His staff suggests effortful progress, but he appears to be smoking a pipe and a historian of costume might be able to confirm my tentative impression that his yellow jerkin is quite fancy. The promise of that sky embraces political and religious freedom (vide the distant steeple). There may well be feudal elements in this social vision – the manor house of the title, for example, implies some hierarchy. Yet, it is consistent with the grand plan for American town planning devised in the 1660s by Lord Shaftesbury, assisted by philosopher John Locke, to allocate more than 60% of land and representation to ‘the people’ on the assumption that yeoman farmers would eventually become the backbone of the colony.


Image: Thomas Doughty, In the Adirondaks, c. 1822-30. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.


It is hard to make such grand claims for Thomas Doughty’s painting of the Adirondaks, which seems merely to convey the minor emotions of recreational pleasure in pleasant surroundings. How much history – past, present or future – can be wrought from a fishing expedition? Instead, the painting makes a case for American exceptionalism manifested by the unspoilt majesty, unthreatening sublimity and uniquely American distinctiveness of its scenery. Its few flaming red trees are replete with potential to burst into the glorious colours of the Fall, unmatched by any other nation’s natural cycle. Bland with abundance, this untouched scene is ready for exploitation. Like the surface of the lake, its intactness will in time be broken. The fish that is about to be plucked from the depths is a symbol of an extractive vision, an abundance of nature, there for the taking. Apart from the central incident – minor enough in its impact – the eye skates around the scenery without emphatic points of purchase. One could understand this relative blandness as a deliberate suppression of intricacy. The blankness of the overlapping stage-set mountains is also a redundancy, a potentiality. The futurity of the flaming trees contributes to this feeling: others are waiting to burst into colour. They are waiting to be harvested, exploited, transformed, even as they will purify the soul of those who subdue them with axe and plough. To quote Cole again: ‘in looking over the yet uncultivated scene, the mind’s eye may see far into futurity. Where the wolf roams, the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower – mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil’.[8] Nor does the presence of a recreational fisherman restrict these implications.

Karl Marx wrote:

The individual and isolated hunter and fisherman … in no way expresses merely a reaction against over-sophistication and a return to a misunderstood natural life, as cultural historians imagine … It is rather the anticipation of ‘civil society’, in preparation since the sixteenth century and making great strides towards maturity in the eighteenth.[9]

But how does the first painting in the exhibition from pre-Federation Australia deviate from these visions? More next week…

Emeritus Professor Richard Read is a full term Associate Investigator with CHE, and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. He was formerly Winthrop Professor in Art History in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Art at UWA, and has published in major journals on the relationship between literature and the visual arts, nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and Australian art history, contemporary film, popular culture and complex images in global contexts.

[1] Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (Sydney: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 218.

[2] Thomas Cole, ‘Essay on American Scenery’ (1836), accessed 22 January 2017:, n.p.

[3] Cole, ‘Essay on American Scenery’, n. p.

[4] Hector St Jean de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782), in Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (London & Sydney: Croom Helm, 1984), p. 176.

[5] Jefferson, quoted ibid, Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, p. 176.

[6] Cole, ‘Essay on American Scenery’, n. p.

[7] Sir Thomas Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848), quoted in Smith, European Vision, p. 212.

[8] Cole, ‘Essay on American Scenery’, n. p.

[9] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), quoted in Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, p. 228.



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