LATELY, WHEN EXHIBITS OF GREAT European artists-the Impressionists, Vermeer, daVinci-have traveled to America, hordes of visitors have lined up at the nation's great museums for the chance to see such magnificent works.
Last spring, the tables were turned. Europeans flocked to a traveling exhibit of American art-not the modern art that finally earned Americans respect in the art world, but art from the 19th century, art by Christian artists working out of a distinctly biblical worldview.
"Stunning," said the sophisticated reviewers. "Wonderful." The London Times called it "one of the most exciting and revelatory exhibitions ... in recent years." One of the curators reported that the show provoked an uncharacteristically emotional response from the generally cool British gallery goers. "You could hear audible gasps of amazement when people walked in and saw these scenes."
The show was titled "The American Sublime: Epic Landscapes of Our Nation, 1820-1880," a collection of paintings by the so-called Hudson River School. Known for their awe-inspiring depictions of spectacular natural vistas, the Hudson River artists created America's first original artistic movement.
Though popular in their time on both sides of the Atlantic, the Hudson River artists fell out of favor in the 20th century, the age of abstract expressionism and pop art. Most Europeans today had never even heard of these artists, let alone seen their paintings. London's prestigious Tate Gallery, working with its Senior Research Fellow Andrew Wilton and Yale art historian Tim Barringer, borrowed nearly 90 paintings from American museums and collections to assemble the show.
After its British run, the exhibition traveled back to its homeland in the United States, which, ironically, had also all but forgotten some of its greatest artists. "The American Sublime" was at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia through the summer and is currently at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts until Nov. 17, after which the paintings will go back to their owners.
The term "sublime" refers to the aesthetic experience of being overwhelmed, filled with awe at something so majestic that it evokes a sense of infinity. The paintings in this show, typically huge in themselves, depict vast mountain ranges, sunsets, waterfalls, storms.
The artists were not interested in painting trifles that were "pretty." They wanted to take the viewer's breath away with scenes of terrifying grandeur.
They did this because they were self-consciously developing a distinctly Christian aesthetic. They wanted the viewer to get from their paintings a sense of the infinite power and glory of the One who created this astonishing universe.
The originator of this style, Thomas Cole, was a devout evangelical. One of his students was Jasper Cropsey, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and heir of the Dutch Masters. Another, perhaps the best artist of them all, was Frederic Church, who, in the tradition of the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, developed the notion that nature is its Creator's self-expression.
This first generation of artists lived in New York and specialized in painting the magnificent scenery of the Hudson River valley, though Church would venture as far north as the Arctic and as far south as South America.
The later generation of artists influenced by this movement, such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, went west to capture on canvas the limitless panoramas of the frontier. In those days before either road trips or photographs, these artists presented the Rocky Mountains, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon to the American public. Philadelphia curator Kim Sajet observes that these paintings were largely responsible for the creation by Congress of the national parks. "Congress did not see the places," she points out, "they saw the paintings."
When these artists are studied today, they are usually lumped together with the Romantics, who also had a high view of nature. But the Christian artists of the Hudson River School scorned the Romantics' focus on the self. Instead, they made sure that their human figures in their paintings were very, very small, and that viewers too would feel their littleness in light of the grandeur of God and the objective universe that He has ordained.
Neither is nature absolute. A typical Hudson River school painting will show a wide open plain, which is dwarfed by a great mountain, which, in turn, is dwarfed by an even greater mountain in the distance. Then-as the perspective goes back further and further into seemingly infinitely receding depths-come glimpses of even greater mountains, until the farthest distances dissolve in light. In other words, when looking at a Hudson River landscape, the viewer looks through nature to its Creator, the light of the world.
Hudson River landscapes are transcendent, both visually and in their understanding of the relationship between nature and God. This is in stark contrast to the next school of American artists, the Luminists, who, influenced by the Transcendentalists, really were Romantics. In their landscapes-which are beautiful to see and which anticipate the European Impressionists by decades-the light seems to pulsate from within the natural scene. God, for them, is in nature. Whereas, for the Hudson River Christians, God made nature, sustains it, is involved with it, cares for it, but however vast the natural landscape, He alone is infinite.
To the credit of its curators, the "American Sublime" exhibit, in its labeling and catalog, recognizes the religious impulse in these paintings. It also recognizes the centrality of faith to the formation of American culture. The Hudson River school artists "were trying to forge the idea of a great nation, one that was close to God," says Ms. Sajet, "and that this was a country blessed by God."
No wonder people jaded by the content-free pretensions of modern art, and made cynical by the ironic contradictions of postmodern art gasp at the sight of these American landscapes.
Contemporary Christian artists, in whatever field, can learn much from their predecessors. Many follow secular styles, naively trying to force some Christian content into intrinsically incompatible artistic theories. They would be better off devising original, new styles of their own suited for the truth they want to convey, styles that will make the secular world want to emulate them.