'American Painters, Italian Mountains' Art in Context

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Yvonne Chen Staff Writer

At the moment, visitors at Middlebury’s Museum of Art can enter the realm of the treasured traveling Smithsonian exhibit called “Young America.” Most recently, in the last of a line of provocative lectures, Stewart Professor of English and Environmental Studies John Elder intrigued an audience at Twilight Hall with a slide lecture titled “American Paintings, Italian Mountains,” which discussed five paintings of the collection.

The pieces that were discussed included Francis Jasper Cropsey’s “Coast of Genoa,” Thomas Cole’s “The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge,” Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss’s “Torre di Schiavi,” Worthington Whittredge’s “The Amphitheatre of Tusculum and Albano Mountains, Rome,” Elihu Vedder’s “Volterra” and a comparison piece, Georgia O’Keefe’s “Gray Hills.”

Elder started off by apologizing for his dilettante perspective regarding art. However, despite the “probable defects” that can come from a non-art-historian perspective, the professor more than made up for his shortcomings. Elder’s literary and environmental background served to breathe new life into the interpretation of the century old oil paintings.

Elder also delighted the crowd with excerpts from the Romantic poets. With the intent to contrast the American painters with their European literary counterparts — he recited Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Castle,” juxtaposed against the dynamic mountains and violent coastlines of “The Coast of Genoa.” He interpreted that the verticals of the waves, the mountains, and the tower that figuratively “surge up and subside,” in very much the same ways that civilization is born and then dies, and as architecture is built and ultimately destroyed.

The environmental perspective can also come into play when one examines the American paintings of Italian mountains. Elder speculated that erogeny, or the science of erosion, can be useful in interpreting Vedder’s “Volterra.” This painting depicts a series of eroded cliffs and powdery ridges. Metaphorically, one can see the mountains are in dialogue with the ruins. However, the mountains are always in a dynamic state of change and therefore represent what one might call the “ruins of nature.”

When speaking of Thomas Cole’s “The Subsiding of the Waters of Deluge,” he remarked that the painting by the foremost landscape painter is a dramatic and satisfying depiction of a “New Jerusalem.” Elder speculated that in every civilization there is an active civilized age, followed by a corrupted downfall, and finally reclamation by nature. Americans wanted to start anew with civilization by “scouring the endemic dream of the American atom.” Like Cole’s “New Eden,” the American embodiment of the New Jerusalem in art reaffirmed the ideal of an American gusto that is present in the face of apocalypse.

Elder concluded the lecture with a final and familiar speculation on the ruins created by the recycling of the Old Science Cuilding on Storrs Avenue. As seen in the backdrop of Vermont’s Green Mountains, Elder remarked “As the building sunk floor by floor … I saw … a miniature time-lapse of the World Trade Center. I was helpless to eradicate that memory.”

Despite the tragedy of the Sept. 11 attacks, Elder commented that the ruins of the World Trade Center are crucial in bringing the community into a “more ultimate relationship with our environment” and to “meditate about the future and how we frame our human habitations and how our sense of history is changed.”

The slide lecture was enlightening, and a treat for the art enthusiast. Elder’s sensitivity to literature, the environment and current events can be taken as overly digressive for a lecture in art history. However, one could not help but feel appreciation for the “Young America” paintings in light of the newfound perspectives.

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'American Painters, Italian Mountains' Art in Context