American Luminism was a group of artists who derived their inspiration from the vast American landscape. Of course, this was not new. Ever since the rise of European culture in North America and due to the lack of a royal cultural system which many came from the old world to get away from, artists found the varied and inspiring landscape a readily available subject. Even though there first came pictures of successful merchants, political leaders, and common folk, the abundance of beautiful views has drawn many generations of Americans to delve into the subject matter.
From Thomas Cole to Georgia O’Keefe, the remarkable natural blessings of the Americas can not be underestimated.
Among those included in the Luminist group are: Martin Johnson Heade, Fitz Henry Lane, and John F. Kensett. Many others could be considered in this group, such a Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt but for the limited purposes of this article, I will just include the first three.
Let’s start off with my favorite of the Luminists, Martin Johnson Heade. I remember visiting an exhibition featuring American artists from Thomas Cole and Gilbert Stuart to William Merritt Chase and Martin Heade. What struck me most about the one Heade painting in the exhibition was how it seemed to be illuminated from behind. As if a light bulb was embedded in the sun barely poking through the stripy clouds. I would include an image of that here but, alas, I can’t remember the title of this picture.
Martin Johnson Heade studied with Edward Hicks of Peaceable Kingdom fame. In his younger days, Heade mainly focused on portraiture and traveled to Europe several times. He became an itinerate artist, traveling around America and became friends with people included in the Hudson River School which peaked his interest in landscapes. Heade also painted flowers and birds and traveled the tropics to further his interests. Besides the depictions of New England seascapes, after moving to Florida in 1863, he began painting the unique landscapes one finds there, although he continued to paint flowers.
Heade really gained his following in the 20th century, having been rediscovered, especially when the exquisite rendering of his luminist landscapes found surprise among art critics and historians.
Approaching Thunder Storm is probably the most famous of Heade’s works. The ominous approaching darkness of the thunder storm contrasted with the illumination toward the front of the picture, always brings forth colorful suppositions such as the anticipation of the coming Civil War. The overlapping jutting land and the horizon at about the height one expects for a painter familiar with the Golden Ratio, combined with the figures in a line in the front, the row boat and sail boat produces an eerie stability soon to be broken by the dark storm approaching. Heade’s picture has the quality of surrealism in its starkness.
Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865) was another artist brought back to life, after fading into obscurity in the 19th century, by the art collector Maxim Karolick in the 1930s. Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he was drawn to paint depictions of the sea from early on. His father was a sail maker but due to his crippling affliction in his legs and his talent in drawing and painting he first came to work in the workshop of a lithographer and after success in this field, announcing that he was a marine artist. Lane painted mostly in the northeast but traveled up and down the east coast of the United States for work, depicting mostly harbors and boats.
Lane’s pictures of sailing ships are exquisitely detailed due to his obvious knowledge of the construction of the ships at the time. Some of his paintings show the elaborate rigging of the many sailing ships that he represented on canvas.
At this point, a short, simple description of Luminism might be helpful. Luminism refers to mainly landscape artwork developed with a pervasive, clarity of light that produces a drama based upon its effects. An offshoot of the Hudson River School, this group of artists were not given this name until the 20th century, in 1959, by John Baur, a director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Other factors included with the Luminists are the linear, geometric quality of the formal compositions. Often the paintings are long, rectangular canvases with the horizon stretched along the middle of the picture. However, it is not unusual to see something like the Golden Ratio being utilized with the horizon at 1/3 to the bottom or to the top. Many parallels and repeating forms may be seen. In some cases, objects are placed such they form something like a Renaissance triangle producing great stability and a sense of tranquility.
From the few images that we have seen so far, we may quickly gain a feel for these Luminists and their use of color and light. They seemed to gain much inspiration for the light in fleeting moments such as at dusk, dawn, or when thrown into shadow from clouds and storms.
John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872) was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and probably a bit more refined than the previous two mentioned artists. His strongest influence was from the artist Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School.
Kensett, like many others, began by studying engraving at the Cheshire Academy as his father and uncle both were involved in the profession as engravers. He even engraved bank notes in New York City. Unlike Lane, Kensett traveled to Europe and saw a strong personal influence of Dutch landscape painting. He left for Europe with Asher Durand and John William Casilear, both of the Hudson River School and both landscape painters.
We will begin with the most famous of Kensett’s paintings, Eaton’s Neck, Long Island.
Eaton’s Neck exquisitely displays Kensett’s artistic narrative. Here you have a detailed starkness and a clarity of color and light. Without the drama of the other’s contrasts of color, Kensett has produced a picture of a beach in the bright light of day. No people distract from the scene and the forms are clear and decisive. The eye is driven back to the straight line of the horizon from the pointing, curving form of the beach and the dark mass to the right that conforms to the rhythm. The simple minimalism of this scene is intriguing in its austerity. The fact that the horizon sits near the Golden Ratio of this long canvas, enhances the influences of the image. One begins to try and resolve the little specks and the banks in the far distance due to the clear atmosphere and the formal qualities of this pictures construction. I consider Frederic Church‘s rendition of Niagara as a masterpiece and this picture is on the same level.
All three of these artists have many examples of Luminism. The singular vistas available to the American observer has encourage the long continuation of the landscape in American art. From Thomas Cole to Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. The subject matter resulted in incredible ways of depicted natural light such as we find among the Luminists and their cousins, the artists of the Hudson River School.