American art before the 20th century has received little respect, even in its own country. Many art history books just skim over or skip completely the art from the earlier days of the Republic, focusing instead on what the Europeans were doing.
But early American painters, self-consciously trying to create new styles for the new nation, had a greatness all their own. While the Europeans were painting Romanticized nature scenes, the Americans were painting landscapes that grew out of Jonathan Edwards's insight that nature is the art of God. And what the American luminists-such as Martin Johnson Heade and George Inness-were doing in exploring light anticipated the much more famous French Impressionists.
With the traveling exhibit "Masterpieces of American Art, 1770-1920: From the Detroit Institute of Arts," Americans can take in their own artistic heritage. The show debuted at the National Gallery of Ireland and is on a circuit to the Phoenix Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh, and then back to Detroit, from whose extensive collection of American art this exhibition was drawn.
John Singleton Copley's "Watson and the Shark" is a dramatic picture of trying to save someone from being eaten by a shark, a reminder that Americans were trying to survive nature, not just admire it from afar.
The centerpiece of the show is Frederic Church's huge painting of a South American volcano, "Cotopaxi." Church was the most innovative and creative of the Hudson River School of landscape artists, represented also in the exhibit by paintings from Thomas Cole, Jasper Cropsey, and Albert Bierstadt. The lurid red light from the volcano and the blasted countryside are awe-inspiring, yet unsettling, calling to mind God's wrath rather than, as other of the landscapes do, His mercy. A devout Christian, Church is one of America's greatest painters, and it is a crime that he is so little known in his own country.