There are two ways to look at “From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early American Republic,” on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through Dec. 29.
One is to see it as a pleasant exhibition of American landscape painting and prints from the first century of U.S. history, with a special emphasis on views of the Philadelphia region. Drawn primarily from the Academy’s permanent collection, it brings together some of the big names from the Hudson River School, such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt.
The other way is to see it as a revisionist manifesto, one that challenges conventional ways of seeing the history of this art and even engages in a brazen bit of rebranding that makes art done in Philadelphia into a predecessor to, influence on, and rival to New York’s Hudson River School.
Risking accusations of redundancy, Anna O. Marley, PAFA’s curator of historical American art, calls it “the Schuylkill River School.” It was, she writes in the exhibition catalog, “not an organized society of artists, but rather a tradition of landscape art that developed around painters affiliated with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Among those she cites are the brothers Charles Willson Peale and James Peale, James Shaw, Thomas Doughty, and pre-eminently Thomas Birch, creator of many iconic views of the Fairmount Waterworks and the Schuylkill.
She notes that Thomas Cole, the English-born painter who is conventionally viewed as the founder of the Hudson River School and of landscape painting in America, spent time in Philadelphia after his arrival in this country, and that he remarked upon the high quality of the work being produced by Birch and others.
This fact seems to challenge the conventional wisdom that, while Philadelphia artists had included landscape vignettes in portraits, New Yorkers were the pioneers of the great landscape tradition that still influences how Americans see the land we inhabit.
Here is a spoiler: The conventional wisdom is mostly true. Painters of the Hudson River School captured early 19th century energy, enterprise, romance, and spirituality to produce an art that was popular in its own time and remains so today. Nobody would choose a Birch over a Bierstadt.
To be fair, Marley does not push her thesis very hard in the galleries. She makes her statement simply by including the Philadelphia works along with the more familiar Hudson River paintings.
English settlers in North America during the 18th century brought two distinct traditions of looking at the landscape. One viewed land as the origin of wealth and social standing. The other, shaped by thinking about the sublime, looked to wild land as a source of awe, fear, overwhelming force, and spiritual excitement.
Some Philadelphia artists concentrated on notable people and their land; Charles Willson Peale was happy to show off his cabbage patch. Others were interested in the sublime. Their depictions of the Schuylkill show a wild, dangerous river with dangerous falls.
The forces of nature are evident in Doughty’s Land Storm (1822), in which a solitary walker makes his way through a gully, past fallen trees, wind-blown limbs, and pretty wildflowers. Though the emotional tone of this work is inconsistent, this impressive painting anticipates the slightly later work of the Hudson River painters.
What’s more interesting, though, is that some Philadelphia artists were developing a different view of the landscape that was neither aristocratic nor spiritual. This is a landscape shaped by a republic aspiring to democratic ideals, serving the needs of its people to provide livelihoods, health, and aesthetic pleasure.
Thus, while Niagara Falls is the icon of the American sublime, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Waterworks endures as a symbol of civic ambition and beauty. Thomas Birch’s 1821 painting of the complex shows a prosperous commercial arcadia. A small steamboat is in the foreground. Pleasure seekers walk and climb around the Waterworks. Lemon Hill and other grand homes are visible along the Schuylkill as it flows through the painting.
This is obviously an idealized image, but not a dishonest one. The “taming” of the Schuylkill, to provide clean water and help it end its pattern of repeated epidemics, was an important moment in the city’s history, and in that of the nation. It was a technologically sophisticated and beautiful solution to a difficult problem, a triumph of self-government.
Birch clearly saw the Waterworks and its landscape as a symbol of self-control. In his much-reproduced drawing Virtue and Vice, Sobriety and Drunkenness, the Waterworks stands behind the well-dressed, happy family on the right side of the picture. At the left stands a tavern, outside of which are a dirty, disorganized family, complete with crying child.
The happy family has been drinking water, which the Waterworks had helped make safe to drink. More generally, they are in harmony with their environment, and the drinking family is not.
The Birch vision of the Waterworks appeared in popular prints, on dishes, and on cups and saucers made throughout the world. But its vision of a commercial civilization in harmony with nature is really a road not taken in our culture.
Americans chase rapture. We prefer to identify with the solitary soul in the wilderness than with the citizen of a beautiful, well-ordered community. The paintings of the Hudson River School often show people dwarfed by vast landscapes, suggesting their powerlessness.
The sublime Niagara was too amazing and too powerful to be ignored. Both tourist facilities and mills grew up there in the early 19th century. An 1845 painting by an unidentified artist documents this development.
But when Bierstadt painted the scene in 1869, nearly all traces of this development are missing. It is one of the painter’s typical, breathtaking views, complete with rainbow. All emphasis is on the force of nature.
Yes, I would rather have the Bierstadt than the Birch. But I admire the social vision Birch conjures. At the Waterworks, and even at Niagara, humans alter their landscape and reshape it to suit their purposes. Any vision of beauty has to make a place for people.
From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early American Republic
Through December 29 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118-128 N. Broad St.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Admission: Adults, $15; seniors and students, $12; youth ages 13-18, $8 (free for children under 13).