When you consider how much 20th century Americans moved around from place to place - by air, by car, by speedy surface transportation - it’s a wonder we ever bothered to paint natural scenery.
Yet, 20th century America is known for showing the grandeur of the Great Outdoors so persuasively that the depictions have been known to strike observers as religious events.
This, even though many painters of the land are not famous for that.
"Grand Canyon'' by Philip Pearlstein, a realist figure painter known for rooms full of cropped nudes with sagging muscles, painted the canyon as the body incarnate, an unforgettable vision of Mother Nature bared, worn-out and wrinkled.
And the social realists of the early 20th century turned downright earthy in their work: "Sun Glow" is by George Bellows, better known for picturing boxers, like "Stag at Sharkey's" who fought it out in a crowded back room of a west side New York saloon. In his "Sun Glow," you see an uninhabited coastline, and loamy breakers meeting unyielding rocks baking in a sun that enlivens them.
Good for the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan to offer visitors 48 “Masterpieces of American Landscape Painting 1820-1950” through January 12, 2014. Artists include Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer, George Inness, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe.
Even Cole, famed for founding the Hudson River School, the 19thcengtury movement that romanticized the beauty of the Catskill wilderness, began as a portrait painter. Clearly he was moved by the natural scenery of the American North East.
All of which makes something Louvre curator Guillaume Faroult said last year odd. He said that Cole was motivated to picture the Great Outdoors by a visit to the Louvre’s European collection.
The National Historic Site for Cole says it was the haunting beauty of the Catskill wilderness that moved Cole. No mention of the Louvre.
Granted, when it comes to landscape painting, Americans were greenhorns. The Chinese were doing it 11 centuries ago. And Europe first saw nature as the main idea in painting in the 16th century, when Pieter Breughel portrayed winter in "The Hunters in the Snow.'' America's earliest landscape paintings were topographical records made by artists who joined explorers on their journeys into the wilderness.
But I’d argue that while American artists came to outdoor painting late, they ran with it like a deliverance from their man-made world.