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Transcendence: Seers and Seekers in the Age of Thoreau

Transcendence: Seers and Seekers in the Age of Thoreau

by Francois Specq, Frangois Specq
The immense changes to the moral and civic values of pre–Civil War America that the Transcendentalists advocated are explored in this account. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Daniel Webster, as well as painters such as paranoramic landscapist Frederic Church, are among the creators whose contributions to the period of cultural reformation are


The immense changes to the moral and civic values of pre–Civil War America that the Transcendentalists advocated are explored in this account. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Daniel Webster, as well as painters such as paranoramic landscapist Frederic Church, are among the creators whose contributions to the period of cultural reformation are discussed.

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Higganum Hill Books
Publication date:
Directions 21 Book Ser.
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)

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By Francoise Specq

Higganum Hill Books

Copyright © 2006 Francoise Specq
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-9741158-9-4

Chapter One

Frederic Church's America

It was Henry David Thoreau's lament in "Chesuncook" (1858) that wild nature was now the haunt of woodcutters more than poets and painters. Thoreau concluded that essay with the idea that a person's life should partake of both civilization and wilderness. Around the same time, the painter Frederic Edwin Church, a resident of New York, became seriously interested in the wild nature of Maine. He first visited Mount Katahdin (Thoreau's "Ktaadn") in 1851 and came back on numerous occasions, finally purchasing a parcel of land on the shore of nearby Lake Millinocket where he built a seasonal home he called Rhodora. Church thus spent much of his life in either New York or the wilderness (not only the Maine woods but also the Andes and Labrador). Like Thoreau, he was an avid reader of both Alexander von Humboldt and John Ruskin.

It would be tempting to conclude that Church embodies Thoreau's ideal of the artist in some respects. However, Church's world-view and idea of the artist's role in society were profoundly different from Thoreau's. And Thoreau would probably have felt misgivings in front of the paintings inspired by Church's sojourns in the wild, especially the masterworks of his maturity-Andes of Ecuador, Niagara, Heart of the Andes, Twilight in the Wilderness, The Icebergs, and Cotopaxi (1855-1862).In fact, Thoreau did go to see the first of these, Andes of Ecuador, when it was exhibited at the Boston Atheneum in 1855. Unfortunately he never recorded his impressions for posterity. My purpose here is not to fill in this blank, but rather to point up some essential aspects of Church's art and thereby shed some light upon Thoreau's as well.

God, Artist and Man

To Church, it should be noted, America meant not just the United States, but the continental whole of North and South America, from the Arctic to the Andes. South America takes on a particular importance with Church, just as it did for both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, as well as for their predecessor Humboldt. The intellectual influence of this great German naturalist-explorer, famous for his South American expeditions at the turn of the ninetenth century, was substantial among Western thinkers prior to the Darwinian revolution, primarily through his Personal Narrative and Cosmos. Humboldt's chapter on landscape painting in Cosmos so struck Church that he followed in the German thinker's footsteps and visited the Andes. From April to October of 1853, Church explored the mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. The excursion resulted in Andes of Ecuador, his first mature work, two years later.

Andes of Ecuador typifies Church's art in a number of respects. First, it is a large-scale canvas, 1.22 m by 1.90 m, as are most of Church's subsequent major works. Such great size naturally helps to express and produce an impression of immensity and expansion, and so corresponds to the era's taste for panoramic views. The large-scale canvas becomes an equivalent to the popular panorama, but in the "higher" category of easel-paintings. Second, beyond formal characteristics, what is striking in this painting above all is its religious tenor, its expression of a triumphant faith in a God of light who is revealed in the American wild and spreads his blessing in it just as on the first morning of creation. Thus Andes of Ecuador was presented in its time as a "sublime psalm of light" and a manifestation of "God's benediction."

Most of Church's paintings in his mature period thus present us with a transcendent order, symbolized by the radical break between the picture's plane and the viewer. As viewers, we often seem suspended on the edge of an abyss. We are not invited, metaphorically, to step into the field of the painting; instead, we are confronted with a vision, a revelation of divine transcendence. Church's God is not an immanent presence within his Creation, like Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Oversoul," but instead reveals himself through it. Church's world has nothing to do with pantheism, nor with the hint of materialism that attaches to that doctrine. In spite of his Protestantism, Church is closer to Pascal than he is to Spinoza. Church is the painter of transcendence and revelation; orthodox in religion, he is descended from the Puritans of the seventeenth century. David Huntington, who even characterizes Church's work as "Puritan baroque," sees it as a form of art that Puritanism took two centuries to produce.

Actually the iconic value of American nature is simply the other side of the traditional Protestant rejection of the representation of God. It suits the Calvinist idea that nature is the "theatre of God's glory." In an America that was heir to the Puritans, the representation of landscape was a substitute for the representation of God. Whatever their differences in matters of religion, Thomas Cole, Church and Emerson belonged to this same cultural tradition; for them, the wilderness was a pathway to the divine and landscape painting a form of celebration of it.

Church's work, an anthology of the American sublime, is thus also a theology. To enumerate the forms of the sublime is to list Divinity's attributes: the power and the glory, the mystery and the universality. Such a conception of art makes the painter a prophet, as one of Church's contemporaries said: "Truly 'there is an evangel in art as well as books,' and Church is among the prophets." By his role as an intermediary, but not as a mediator, between transcendence and the world of men, by his ability to represent the absolute, as opposed to the contingency of human life and history, Church asserts his prophetic aim. The prophet sees not so much the future as the absolute on which it is based. More than any other American painter, Church took on the mission of America's prophetic seer. This appears particularly clearly in another of the paintings inspired by his travels in the Andes, Cotopaxi.

By its size (1.22 m by 2.16 m) as well as its high view over vast uninhabited expanses, this painting evokes a world of continental dimensions, where we can pick out images of the sublime according to Edmund Burke: waterfalls, steep rock cliffs, volcanoes, contrasts of shadow and light. The landscape is bathed in a supernatural luminosity. Yet the tone is different from that of Andes of Ecuador, for it suggests a new theme belonging to wartime America. Although inspired by the sublimity of the Andes, this painting from 1862 also suggests the conflict that was ravaging the United States. It expresses the struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, symbolized by light (the sun) and darkness (the volcano) in an apocalyptic vision corresponding to the way many American Protestants saw the Civil War. As in the Apocalypse of John, good ultimately will triumph over evil, a victory prefigured by the luminous cross traced on the lake's surface by the sun's rays-a symbol of Christ's second coming. Evoking the cosmic dimesion of history, Cotopaxi is not so much a work of hope as of faith in a revival which will affirm the primacy of the absolute, a celebration of God's providential plan for the world. Church's God reveals himself theatrically, in an effusion of glory somewhat reminiscent of baroque art.

Paintings like Andes of Ecuador and Cotopaxi define too a certain relationship between art and the spectator. Indeed Church's paintings seem to take the viewer outside time, suspending the world's clamor in the fascinated contemplation of a universe that affirms his faith in God and in America. Doubt had no place in Church's thinking, and even during the Civil War his art maintained its affirmative power. Church is thus not only the painter of a triumphant and conquering America, but also of an America which finds in the unity of the cosmos an answer to the danger of being torn apart-as if nature's unity exorcised the threat of national disintegration. Standing face to face with divine transcendence thus offers man, that spectator trapped in the immanence of his destiny, a form of regeneration or redemption. Faith in the prophetic mission of the artist is reinforced by a faith in the powers of art which Church inherited from Cole. The artist, convinced that art's power can transform the viewer's awareness, is confident in his redemptive mission.

God's Nation

If all nineteenth-century landscape painting seems divided between presenting nature as man's creation or as God's, it is clear that Church's paintings belong primarily to the second category. Indeed Church's work seems a veritable anthology of the American sublime, from the north to the south of the continents, from the icebergs of Labrador to the volcanoes of the Andes, and including the falls of Niagara, the arch of the Natural Bridge, Virginia, or the Maine forest of Twilight in the Wilderness. From this point of view the closest literary equivalent of Church would have to be Walt Whitman rather than Thoreau.

Geographically, however, something big is missing that was highly significant in Church's time. Why did Church never paint the American West? Why did he never go there, great traveler though he was? Nothing, it seems, sheds any light on this question. I might venture that, having followed Humboldt to South America, Church may have decided to exploit this field alone, leaving the Western landscape market to a colleague who specialized in it, Albert Bierstadt, an artist working in a similar spirit.

This spirit was that of manifest destiny, a vision of American nature whose sublimity could symbolize and sanctify the undertaking of this nation which considered its mission to be the conquest of nature. So a painting like Niagara, by its movement, power and scope, perfectly symbolizes America as regenerative force and partakes of the myth of a New Adam. American nature, being primitive, is close to the origin of the world and therefore to the Creator, so whoever immerses himself in it, in a recurrent baptism, finds himself renewed. Nothing better symbolizes America than the rainbow linking sky and earth, this assurance of a new beginning which renews for American man-that castaway from the old world-the promise made to Noah. Ultimately, it is because the world is very old, and thus proof against corruption, that it is also new, a new Eden, and that American man is there reborn. Thus provided with the mission of redeeming man and proclaiming the millennium, this regeneration will spread throughout the world through the expansion of the American nation. From this close relation between primitive nature and the world's origin stems the human interest in science, particularly geology, which allows us to read the original text of the American continents, and so penetrate the secrets of the Creation.

Niagara made Church the most famous American painter of his day. While Niagara Falls had already been the subject of innumerable literary descriptions and artistic representations (including one by Cole), Church's painting seems to have grasped and communicated this symbol of American nature like no other. Giving a view of the falls which does not strictly correspond to any actual point, yet rendered with a gift of observation and an objectivity unknown until then, Niagara earned Ruskin's admiration. Church, the true prophet-seer of America, discovered the formula which best expressed the sublimity of the site. The artist, God's servant, seems to have withdrawn after having lent his hand to a revelation of which he is only the interpreter. We find here one of the characteristics of form noted in Andes of Ecuador, a break between the plane of the picture and the spectator, which dramatizes the intent of Church's vision. Besides the suggestion of transcendence already mentioned, it quite obviously contributes, in this case, to the viewer's illusion that he is placed at the very edge of the falls, that nothing human separates him from Niagara. Yet this abrupt closeness, this immediacy does not overwhelm the viewer. Church's spectacle of Niagara Falls, in its very sublimity, helps us to characterize this aspect of his vision more precisely.

Schematically, we can approach this vision through two fundamental texts-Burke's essay, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), and Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790). Burke, in the empirical tradition of Locke, bases his analysis of the sublime on the viewer's sensory experience of objects that are inherently capable of producing the feeling of the sublime. The sublime object occupies the mind completely, so that the mind's activity is suspended by a feeling of terror which is central to the experience. Burke's is thus a psychological analysis of the sublime from which any moral consideration is absent. From quite the opposite side, Kant, as a defender of rationalism and what he calls transcendental idealism, gives precedence to mind, ahead of object and sensation, affirming that "the sublime should not be sought in the things of nature, but only in our ideas." Still, Kant recognizes that, without being a property of objects, the sublime is produced by some objects, and he makes a distinction between a "mathematical sublime" (i.e., as to size) and a "dynamic sublime" (i.e., as to power). Beyond their differences, both seem to share the ability to separate man from the use of his senses and raise him to the idea of the infinite and the absolute.

A whole tradition of American art history has sought to connect two different esthetics to these two concepts of the sublime, the difference between the Burkean and the Kantian experience being typified in the difference between a theatrical sublime, in which majesty and terror are produced by the action and force of nature's elements, and a contemplative sublime, in which the internal feeling of perceiving space and time is the essential agent. In line with the first, the great tradition of romanticism would be, to give one example, Cole's painting, while the second would correspond to the so-called luminist movement, represented chiefly by Fitz Henry Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, Sanford Gifford and John Frederick Kensett. It remains then to locate Church among these contemporaries.

By his emphasis on the grandeur and power of American nature, and thus on exterior forms of nature which seem to be imposed upon men, Church seems to belong to the Burkean tradition of the sublime. Still, we must admit that the idea of danger or terror is absent from Church's art. Even in his most grandiose works, the spectator is not terrified or shaken, but magnetized, fascinated by the power of an apparent metaphysical drama. Church's grandiose visions are too serene, too heavily suffused with the feeling of a benevolent power to inspire terror. It is significant, for example, that the critic of Andes of Ecuador cited earlier speaks of "God's benediction" in this work. Instead of crushing humanity, this sublimity calls forth in him the feeling of rising toward the infinite or absolute. The place that man occupies in the very heart of Church's paintings is further proof: though very small compared to the nature which surrounds them, the figures we see there are not creatures overwhelmed by the power that dominates them; they are gently enfolded by a nature with which they live in harmony, in the paradoxical proximity of the divine. Still elsewhere-for example in View of Cotopaxi-humans appear more exactly as witnesses to the manifestation of transcendence with whom the viewer is supposed to identify.

In sum, it would seem that Church's sublime is located closer to, yet is not identical to, Kant rather than to Burke, whose conception of the sublime could perhaps be defined as the absolute sense-experience. For Church esthetics were part of a Protestant theology in which sensitivity as such always remained more or less suspect. The only thing that redeemed it was that it afforded intuition of the divine, and indeed Church's passion for science, as we shall see, also supported an approach to the world via the senses. For Church the sublime was an experience at once deeply sensual and supremely intellectual-a reconciliation between the senses and the mind that demonstrates, perhaps, the difference between the philosopher and the artist.


Excerpted from Transcendence by Francoise Specq Copyright © 2006 by Francoise Specq. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

François Specq is an associate professor who specializes in 19th-century American literature at the Université Lumière–Lyon 2.

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