III. The Art of Exploration

In the nineteenth century, American artists increasingly used exploration as a vehicle for examining character, both personal and national. The painters of the Early Republic had sought to illustrate national identity by depicting the events and participants of the American Revolution. By the 1830s, however, a new school of artists had started to root American identity to the land itself. In the 1820s, painter Thomas Cole found his inspirations locally in the sometimes bucolic, sometimes fierce, landscapes of the Catskills. His pupil, Frederic Edwin Church, set off for more distant and difficult locales in the Rockies, the Andes, and ultimately the Arctic, producing scenes that thrilled East Coast audiences and established him as the preeminent landscape painter in America. [3-1, 3-2] More than fortune drove Church and fellow artists into the wild. They wanted to produce landscapes that moved beyond the conventions of European painting, embodying a distinctly American vision of nature. Artists traveled in hopes that the wilderness would get under their skin, alter their perceptions, and infuse their works with something unique. To educated Americans in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, this was not a silly or eccentric project. Church and the roaming artists of the Hudson School recapitulated a national story. As they sought the frontier, they were being shaped by it. Nowhere, they felt, could nature touch them as deeply as in the Arctic, the ultimate frontier, a place wild and sublime beyond measure. [3-3] [3-4] [3-8]