Today’s post comes from Joe Brichacek, Class of 2012 and Art Center Student Docent.
I occasionally wander through the Art Center and attempt to view each of the paintings and sculptures as historical documents. Many paintings are explicitly historical, especially in the nineteenth-century gallery where we find Gustave Doré’s The Defense of Paris painted in 1871, the year that the Franco-Prussian War ended. Yet with some paintings we must dig a little deeper and consider their wider historical contexts to use them as evidence. An incredible resource for understanding American, Hudson Valley, and even Vassar history is found in the Art Center’s founding collection of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar in 1864.
These paintings tell us a great deal about the priorities of Vassar’s founder as well as their collector, Elias Magoon, a Charter Trustee of Vassar College. Magoon and Vassar believed that art should be an important part of a Vassar education and that Vassar’s collection of art should be original works, not reproductions of old masters. Of course, these ideas, as well as the paintings themselves, are the products of a dynamic period in American history. The Hudson River School provides us with a perspective on how nineteenth-century Americans viewed aesthetics, environment, and industrialization with its treatment of sublimity and pristine nature. Hudson River School paintings can also evince certain aspects of American history that are much more controversial. Frederick Edwin Church’s Summer in South America is a valuable example of American perspectives on Latin America during the nineteenth-century.
In 1823 the Monroe Doctrine established the primacy of the United States in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. This expansive foreign policy became increasingly dramatic as principles of Manifest Destiny inspired Americans to expand both to the West and to the South. Manifest Destiny was not merely about obtaining more land and resources for the young United States, it was an ideological movement that emerged from the belief of many in the political, social, and religious superiority of the United States—a superiority, it was thought, that should be extended across North America and, perhaps, even to Central and South America as well.
The early nineteenth century saw the Second Great Awakening, a revival of religious fervor with an epicenter in Upstate New York. Increased anti-Catholicism was coupled with a desire for moral reform, and many religious revivalists relished the potential opportunity to place all of the Americas under a largely Protestant United States. Manifest Destiny appealed to a diverse array of Americans and for different reasons. The relative success of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) created an environment of confidence and desire to see more lands under the American flag. Americans turned their gazes to the Caribbean and the Pacific for opportunities for economic expansion and “Filibusters” began unauthorized military campaigns to seize lands in Latin America.
Frederick Edwin Church settled in New York and certainly witnessed the currents of the Second Great Awakening and Manifest Destiny. Church travelled to South America in 1853 and 1857 which led to many landscape compositions including his seminal Heart of the Andes which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While Summer in South America is not explicitly imperialistic, its very nature and existence illustrates the inclusion of South America in the jurisdiction of the Hudson River School, a movement that celebrated the beauty of America—a construct that was inherently different from Europe and a construct that evidently included South America. This is superbly demonstrated within the gallery as Church’s Autumn in North America hangs a few feet away from Summer in South America
The Hudson River School celebrated the pristine beauty of America, and that pristine beauty did not end at the Rio Grande, nor did the ambitions of many American imperialists. About the time that Church painted Summer in South America (c. 1853), American filibuster William Walker (1824-1869) seized Nicaragua in 1856 and ruled as President for nearly a year before he was defeated and executed by a coalition of Central American governments. While we need not label Church a proponent of imperialism, it is important to consider the precedents and consequences of the American gaze directed to South America as manifested in his paintings. Like all of Church’s landscapes, Summer in South America is beautifully rendered with dramatic lighting and colors, detailed flora and fauna, and majestic topographical features. What is taken for granted in Hudson River School paintings is that these unparalled and virginal landscapes belong to America and are distinguished from the cultural heritage of Europe. They are beautiful and they are American…even when they are not American.