Continental Shift III: The Impact of Science


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. 

By Richard Read.



In comparing the first two paintings of this exhibition, I could have pointed to a difference in the principles of their composition which illuminates their difference from the first painting of Australian landscape we encounter, Eugène von Guérard’s magnificent Mt William from Mt Dryden, Victoria (1857). However typical of American settlements of the time, William Groombridge’s View of a Manor House on the Harlem River is topographical: it would have borne a sufficient resemblance to the place it depicts to please locals. By contrast, Thomas Doughty’s In the Adirondaks (c.1822–1830) is a composite landscape based on classical principles. It stitches several views of the Adirondacks seamlessly together to give a characteristic impression of the area. This translates a classical process into landscape painting that now seems Frankinsteinian: Zeuxis’ painting of an ideal figure by joining together the best parts of the most beautiful women.

Figure 1: Eugène von Guérard, Mt William from Mt Dryden, Victoria, 1857. State Art Collection: Art Gallery of Western Australia

Von Guérard’s Australian painting is fourth in the show after Thomas Cole’s Last of the Mohicans (too complex to discuss here except to say that it is another composite picture that welds together scenes from the Hudson River area with episodes from James Fennimore Cooper’s novel to elevate landscape through literary rather than historical associations). Mt William from Mt Dryden, Victoria is an incomparably greater aesthetic achievement than the first three paintings. No wonder it graced the cover of the catalogue for the precursor exhibition ‘New Worlds from Old: American and Australian Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century’ at the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, back in 1998. Its extraordinary, well-balanced composition rejects the rule-bound classical formulae of the Doughty and the Cole, but neither is it pragmatically topographical in Groombridge’s sense. Rather, it rejects neoclassical principles in favour of dynamic, organic unity that pursues tendencies first inaugurated by Captain Cook’s artist, William Hodges, of whom Bernard Smith wrote in European Vision:

The painter is seeking to gain the authority and prestige of classical landscape for another kind of landscape altogether: a form of landscape the compositional elements of which were determined not by reference to states of mind but by reference to the interrelation of the facts and scientific laws determining the nature of a given environment.[1]

Dispensing with the European categories of the beautiful, the sublime and the picturesque, von Guérard appears to be painting a fantasy of the Australian landscape before occupation, so he is emphatically at the wilderness end of the settlement spectrum. Trained in Düsseldorf (like the American painter Worthington Wittredge in this exhibition, hence cutting across national divisions), this Austrian artist was strongly influenced by one of the greatest scientific minds of his day, Alexander von Humboldt. According to Smith:

To Humboldt the world consisted of climatic zones more or less distinct from each other. In the Ansichten he sought to outline the general character of each zone. … Organic development, fecundity, and vitality, increase, he claimed, as one moves from the poles to the equator. Nevertheless, each climate has a beauty peculiar to itself … Thus Humboldt would transform the painting of nature in her exotic forms from being an item of scientific topography and documentation to an expressive form of landscape art, essential in his view, to the nourishment of the European imagination.[2]

Decentring the privileged Mediterranean aesthetic, von Guérard paid homage to the distinctive character of this region of the Grampians by emulating the dictum Humboldt would later formulate in Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe: ‘Every zone of vegetation has, besides its own attractions, a peculiar character, which calls forth in us special impressions’.[3] Beneath flora and fauna, however, is the geological bedrock, affording Guérard the means to compete with renditions of mere human history in the landscape by evoking the creative forces of immeasurably ancient geological time. The problem, though, was the question of how landscape painting could compete with the challenge of geological charts that were beginning to depict the causal structure of forces shaping land beneath their visible surfaces. It was by trying to express, in Humboldt’s own later words, ‘the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces’.[4]

In the painting, we see the underground geological forces that have pushed up the foreground and background in one scoop of folded rock, spanned by the fertile plains of reticulated lakes and foliage. The leftmost cloud lifts its tip beyond the upturned final peak, borne upwards by the draft from it. Though consummately balanced, the scene is dynamic. As the dawn breaks morning light and receding shadow slide by each other in the valley along an edge that helps to define the vanishing point beyond the base of furthest slope, where flanges of graduated aerial perspective converge and glide along the flat horizon. A halt is called somewhere behind the head of a foreground tree protruding above the horizon.

Dynamism extends beyond the frame. Although the scene is understood as a fantasy of a lost state of nature, it would also have been appreciated as the hard-earned end-result of arduous expeditionary surveys, like other Australian scenes in the exhibition by Nicholas Chevalier, Thomas Clark and William Piguenit. The latter was employed by the Tasmanian Survey Department from 1849 onwards, and left a dramatic account of the difficulties of exploring the Western Highlands in 1874. He quotes his friend R. M. Johnson:

In descending through a hole into a dim, gloomy chamber of the scrub, one member of the party immediately in front of me fell, and, striking some rotten mossy-covered branches of the floor he sank down through the latter out of sight, and only by his cries could I find where he had disappeared. I could only see his boot, vainly jerking at the mossy sheet, which, after he had fallen through, had sprung back, concealing the deeper recess where he was lodged. In hurrying to his assistance I attempted to descend a sudden dip of some twelve feet, but before I could clear my knapsack from the branches which pressed upon me my foot slipped off a treacherous moss covered trunk, and falling, I found myself suddenly suspended by my knapsack. Our united cries for help brought our companions upon the scene; but the ridiculous and helpless picture we both presented so excited their mirth that it was some minutes before they recovered calmness to extricate us from our curious and perilous situation…. having been engaged over twelve hours in piercing a distance a little over a mile.[5]

Von Guérard’s Mt William from Mt Dryden, Victoria is built to pierce distance, both behind and in front of the picture plane.

Behind the picture plane it comments on the difficult process of its own transportation as a mobile commodity. Of course this applies only to field sketches that would later have been worked up in the studio, but the painting would also be more broadly understood as the culmination of unprogressive movement on a journey expressive of great will power. Beyond the picture plane, even if the framed space is perceived from a static vantage point, the scene is to be moved through, and offers resistance to movement that varies according each faculty of sense. Paintings are many-layered, multi-sensory, complex artefacts that, as Rachael DeLue has written, ‘are now understood as inviting complex experience in which the entire body, not only the eye, is solicited’.

To my mind, von Guérard often divides impressions of sight from those of touch. The chromatic texture of the foliage is intense.[6] Fibrous details multiply the more closely they are inspected (if only one could see them more clearly through the conservation glass). The eye instantaneously soars over vast distances that leave the tactile sense entangled and delayed. Consider the first five words of the title: Mt William from Mt Dryden. The viewer’s gaze connects two mountains, the one we gaze from and the one that meets our gaze. For me the ‘punctum’ of the picture – the poignant detail that indelibly touches us without mere meaning or beauty that Roland Barthes defined in Camera Lucida – is the eagle. Were this America it would carry national associations of the bald eagle, personifying Zeus, clutching the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace on the official seal of the Continental Congress. What does it connote here?

I wonder how many other viewers would share my first impression that the eagle is flying inwards towards the vanishing point? It provides a sightline that moves the eye into the distance at a speed far greater than its own over terrain that would be excruciatingly difficult and slow to hike through, though to begin with there are inviting, sunlit avenues of descent in the foreground and a natural parkland in the middle distance. Yet the eagle also presents an anomaly that detains the mind’s apprehension of a scene that otherwise fits it perfectly. However strong the sightline it creates, it isn’t obvious whether the bird is flying into or out of the picture space. But suddenly the creature transmogrifies and we realise that the illumination of the underside of its furtherest wing by the morning light confirms a quite different flight path. It is absolutely certain that it is flying downwards in our direction towards the left foreground on a quite different tangent from the other. Yet the other sightline remains. As an optical universal joint it raises a tent of spatial geometry that supports a magisterial multi-directional gaze.[7] From this apex we vicariously share its scrutiny of everything in all directions below. Neither is it alone in its predatory patrolling. Concealed by shadow in the right hand foreground, a dingo slyly stalks unconcerned kangaroos on the other side of a rock. The landscape borne of underground and aerial forces bears a lattice of animal desires, including ours. Primordial as the landscape is, it is also a kind of surveyor’s map, as ripe for extraction and development as Thomas Doughty’s fishing scene.

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

So are these, after all, the ‘special impressions’ that the ‘peculiar character’ of a natural region calls forth in us: nature red in tooth and claw? At the international symposium held in connection with the ‘Continental Shift’, speakers addressed the issue of whether colonial painting was ever or always dominated by the appropriative and extractive power of images. Ruth Pullin made the case that scientifically curious artists such as Guérard, despite his time in the goldfields of Australia and perhaps also America, were primarily motived by a desire for knowledge. He was more enlightened than the average British colonist. Perhaps Mt William from Mt Dryden, Victoria is not an Arcadian fantasy. In addition to the dingo and the eagle there are whiffs of smoke floating up from the valley, though whether they come from the camp fires of the Europeans or the Jali Jali people it is impossible to know. Pullin asked whether this might be a sublimated way of expressing altruistic, compassionate concern for what would happen to the land, a sense of the blood that has stained, or is about to stain, such places.

In many later paintings in the exhibition, the drama of nation-building in the teeth of wilderness has shifted to remoter frontiers, giving way in the American paintings of John Frederick Kensett, say, or in the Australian paintings of Louis Buvelot, to an aestheticised appreciation of ‘middle’ or ‘civilised’ landscapes, long settled by previous generations, their contours shorn of native trees before living memory. They chiefly cater to the taste of city dwellers and are not where national history is made. Yet the theme of clearing the land also persists in some of the latest paintings of the exhibition, such as the swathe of ring-barked trees rendered in the stylish facture and formalised composition of Albert Fullwood’s View Across a Mountain Range (1880s). Is the subject of this aestheticised vision supposed to be ugly or beautiful? Its emotional tenor may have been clear at the time, but is difficult to fathom now.

It will be interesting to see how the American paintings change in meaning when placed next to new Australian paintings in Melbourne.

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] Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific.

[3] Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (London: H. G. Bohn, 1849–1858), p.97.

[4] Humboldt, Cosmos, vol. 1 (1849), p. vii.

[5] R. M. Johnson, quoted by William Piguenit, in Bernard Smith, Documents on Art and Taste in Australia: the colonial period, 1770–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 176.

[6] See Ann Galbally’s analysis of the chromatic subtlety of the painting in the best book on the artist, Ruth Pullin, Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed (Melbourne: NGV, 2011), p. 128: ‘On the tree-covered plain beneath, complementaries red-purple and mid-green are set against one another, with the red dominating. The balance alters as we move down the picture plane towards the foreground, where a verdant green becomes controlling only to be held in check as the eye reaches the immediate foreground and a warmer red is introduced into the yellow-green grasses on which the kangaroos graze. These balanced and carefully planned colour harmonies indicate a totally integrated natural world, its fundamental nature signified by the overlay of the even more primal elements of light and dark to reveal a natural paradise untouched by man’.

[7] See Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and the American Landscape Painting, c.1830–1865 (Washington DC, London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

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