- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

PHILADELPHIA — Covered with rolling green hills, jagged mountains, crashing waterfalls and ominous gray clouds, the massive landscape paintings now on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts embody everything Edmund Burke captured in his treatise "On the Sublime and Beautiful."
In the work, the 18th-century Irish intellectual defined sublime as huge, powerful, rough and ultimately frightening.
The Philadelphia show "American Sublime" features work from 10 American artists. The nearly 100 paintings, created between 1820 and 1880, are large in scale and scope. Huge canvases are all but overwhelmed by the big glowing combinations of sea, earth and sky.
The exhibit, the first to collect so many artists of the period, was coordinated by two British curators and originated in London at the Tate Britain, where it received rave reviews. The show is on view in Philadelphia until Aug. 25 and then goes to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Kim Sajet, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, says the works broke sharply from European traditions.
"They didn't have the ruins, the medieval castles," she says. "Everything was untreated, unspoiled this idea of the birth of a new nation."
One of the first, "A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains," was painted by Thomas Cole in 1839. It shows autumnal forested land in front of a huge mountain, with a tiny white house against the trees.
In the foreground, chopped-down tree trunks show the influence of humans, Miss Sajet says. However, she adds, in the upper left hand corner heavy gray clouds are collecting, signifying the awesome power of nature.
This conflict between human beings and the wilderness appears throughout the works.
Farther along, we see Frederic Edwin Church's panoramic painting of Niagara Falls, done in 1857. The long, narrow piece re-creates the turquoise and white water pounding over the rocks with a tiny row of trees and houses on the other side in the far distance.
Miss Sajet says this, like other landscapes, was meant to be hung low, with the viewer standing close to the painting to feel as though she or he is in it.
"You're standing at the precipice, ready to go over," she says.
Another Church painting features his travel to Ecuador. The 1866 work "Rainy Season in the Tropics" has tropical trees and grasses on one side of the painting and jagged brown mountains on the other. A glistening rainbow arches across both sides.
This painting is presented as it would have been in the 19th century, Miss Sajet says, with red velvet curtains draped on each side.
The paintings are arranged to show the evolution of landscape art and the nation. The first section bears the title "Wilderness," for when settlers and artists first arrived. The last is called "The Great West," for the final expanse of untouched land.
These works largely have been overlooked for years, Miss Sajet says, because landscape painting was no longer popular in Europe at the time. European artists had finished with landscapes and were moving toward impressionism, so they viewed these paintings as old-fashioned.
Subsequently, the art establishment continued to ignore this period. Most thought American art didn't become relevant until the 20th century with artists such as Jackson Pollock, says Hilary Pitts, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The exhibition was a surprise and a success in London and now comes to a building in Philadelphia that is of the same vintage as the art.
Designed by Frank Furness and built in 1876, the ornate, gothic museum is known for its collection of work by American artists, such as Thomas Eakins, Benjamin West and Mary Cassatt. The museum has been preserved in its original state, with its sweeping staircase, marble pillars, detailed tile floor and skylights in the ceiling to view the paintings in natural light.
The final selections of the exhibit show the rust-colored mountains of the West. The last painting is an 1892 work by Thomas Moran, "Grand Canyon of the Colorado." The rough, red-tipped rocks, interrupted by patches of smoky clouds, are visible far into the distance, under a tiny strip of sky.
It was this and other paintings that helped persuade Congress to create national parks, Miss Sajet says.
"Congress did not see the places, they saw the paintings," she says.

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