A traveling exhibit featuring a collection of 19th-century paintings that first documented the dramatic landscapes and powerful views of the American West will be on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum from Feb. 28 to May 8.
[caption id="attachment_132556" align="alignright" width="300"] "Destruction," one of five paintings in "The Course of Empire" by Thomas Cole. Photo contributed by the Milwaukee Art Museum.[/caption]
Nature and the American Vision, organized by the New-York Historical Society, includes paintings from 23 19th-century American artists who undertook westward expeditions to capture early views of the American frontier. Many places featured in the paintings have since become iconic destinations. Among them: Niagara Falls, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite Valley.
Painters featured in the collection are considered part of the Hudson River School, the country’s earliest artistic movement, which also included poets and writers who went west to find inspiration in the country’s dramatic landscapes.
"It's difficult to overstate it's importance to American art and American art history," said Brandon Ruud, curator of American Art and Decorative Arts. "It's considered the first national artistic movement in The United States. It really is what put American art on the map ... They made these beautiful, topographically accurate, breath-taking paintings, that Americans initially responded to overwhelmingly with great enthusiasm. Other artists, mainly in Europe, began to notice and began to see this unique american vision (emerge)."
Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire,” considered one of the greatest early works to emerge from the United States, will be included the exhibit. “The Course of Empire” is a five-piece series depicting the rise and fall of civilization that has been on exhibit at the Louvre in Paris for the past six months.
[caption id="attachment_132562" align="alignright" width="300"] "Sunset, Lake George, New York" by Jasper Francis Cropsey. Photo contributed by the Milwaukee Art Museum.[/caption]
"These were considered the first great paintings ever created on American soil," Ruud said. "They combine this European high tradition of painting with commentaries on American political culture that was really relevant then and even relevant now, I think."
Though some pieces featured are intimate sketches and paintings artists made while traveling west, others are massive and painted on canvases as wide as 12 feet.
"These are jaw-dropping, monumental canvases," Ruud said. "They wanted to convey the majesty of nature to people who could not travel to these areas and they would create these jaw-dropping displays."
Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $17 for adults and $15 for students, seniors and active military members. Admission is free for members and children 12 and younger.
The Milwaukee Art Museum recently completed a $34 million renovation and expansion project, which the Wall Street Journal featured this week.