Imagining Landscapes

Edward Hopper, Railroad sunset


Edward Hopper, Railroad sunset, 1929
Oil on canvas, 71.7 x 121.2 cm
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Bequest of Josephine N. Hopper

My aim in painting has always been the most exact
transcription possible of my most intimate
impressions of nature. If this end is unattainable, so,
it can be said, is perfection in any other ideal of
painting or in any other of man's activities.

Edward Hopper, 1933

Consider the meanings of nature and natural discussed in other books in this series. You may wish to propose, and also to criticise, possible criteria for naturalistic description, such as, 'conveys no false information' or 'universally recognised as an accurate portrayal'. This question is treated in greater depth in Imagining nature (pp. 27-38) and in Beasts and other illusions (pp. 24-42).

In 1976 the New York Museum of Modern Art presented an exhibition entitled The Natural Paradise (Curated by Kynaston McShine), which took as one of its major themes the perception of nature in American landscape painting. The following exhibit draws its inspiration from that remarkable bicentennial celebration of the Romantic tradition in American landscape art.

Within that single tradition may be found a great many different ways of seeing and portraying nature, some of which are illustrated in the selection of pictures that follow. They are presented here without comment, but with quotations (usually from the artist) indicating something more about how each thinks about nature and how each works in relation to nature. The procedures below suggest a preliminary way of working through these ideas:

Maxfield Parrish, The spirit of transportation


Maxfield Parrish, The spirit of Transportation, 1920
Oil on board, 90.2 x 69.9 cm
Clark Equipment Company, Buchanan, Michigan

I feel that the broad effect, the truth of nature's mood attempted, is the most Important ... 'Broad effect' is a rather vague term, but what is meant is that those qualities which delight us in nature –the sense of freedom, pure air and light, the magic of distance, and the saturated beauty of colour, must be convincingly stated ... If these abstract qualities are not in a painting it is a flat failure.

Maxfield Parrish, 1935

Numerous modern artists are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impressions.

Henry T. Tuckerman, 1867


  1. Study each of the paintings carefully before reading the accompanying quotations.
  2. Decide whether you would describe the painting as 'naturalistic'. Consider what you mean by the word 'naturalistic.'
  3. Now reflect on whether the painting, if not perhaps fully 'naturalistic', might be described as 'true to nature' in some more general sense.
  4. Study the painting again, but this time read the associated quotations. Write down any evidence of visual confirmation in the painting of the verbal statement.
  5. Note and discuss any apparent contradictions between written and pictorial statements.
  6. When you have studied the whole of Exhibit 1 one painting at a time, record any broad areas of agreement or general correspondence of approach. Do the same for any divergence of opinion or approach. While definitive discussion of the artistic approach, or opinions, of the artists represented is beyond the scope of this exercise, you should be prepared to make preliminary judgments on these matters based on the information at your disposal.
  7. Which of the quotations (all made by artists) could as well have been made by scientists about their own work? Which could have been made by a simple observer in a physical landscape about his own perceptions.
Albert Ryder, Toilers of the sea


Albert Ryder, Toilers of the sea, n.d.
Oil on wood, 29.2 x 30.4 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art George A. Hearn Fund, 1915

Ryder gave us first and last an incomparable sense of pattern and austerity of mood. He saw with an all too pitiless and pitiful eye the element of helplessness in things, the complete succumbing of things in nature to those elements greater than they that wield a fatal power... He knew the fine distinction between drama and tragedy, the tragedy which nature prevails upon the sensitive to accept. He was the painter poet of the immanent in things.

Marsden Hartley, 1921

A picture must have a sound structure with all parts coordinated. This inner structure must be the result of the close study of nature's laws, and not of human invention. The artist must come to nature, not with a ready-made formula, but in humble reverence to learn. The work of an artist is superior to the surface appearance of nature, but not its basic laws.

Chades Burchfield, 1945

Morris Graves, Joyous young pine


Morris Graves, Joyous young pine, 1944
Watercolour and gouache, 136.2 x 68.6 cm
Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York Purchase

I paint to rest from the phenomena of the external world – to pronounce it – and to make notations of its essences with which to verify the inner eye.

Morris Graves, 1948

Andrew Wyeth, Spring beauty


Andrew Wyeth, Spring beauty, 1943
Drybrush and ink, 50.8 x 76.2 cm
EM. Hall Collection, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery University of Nebraska-Lincoln

I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something wait beneath it – the whole story doesn't show.

Andrew Wyeth, 1965

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