Take a Virtual Road Trip through the American Art Collections of the Springfield Museums
Since the early days of automobile travel, tourists and adventure-seekers have taken to the open road to experience America’s marvelous natural wonders and bustling cities. During the 1950s, improvements in automobile production, and the expansion of the United States’ highway system, enabled cars and their drivers to go further, faster. Born from the legacy of the great American road trip are literary masterpieces like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, iconic films like Thelma and Louise, and numerous celebratory works of American art.
Although the technology of transportation is ever-improving, the desire to see and document the United States’ vast landscape is as old as the country itself. In the century following the famous western expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, a popular desire to explore remote corners of the country, and experience the West, captured the imaginations of adventurers and artists. In fact, as the United States grew throughout the 1800s, so did the popularity of landscape paintings. Large canvases featuring epic vistas and smaller prints of similar subjects glorified the nation’s splendor. While 19th century artists sourced inspiration from cross-country wagon trips, train rides, and America’s first state parks, 20th century modernists traveled by car, using new painting styles and technologies like color photography to deepen and re-invent the traditions of American landscape art.
If cross-country travel is not on your agenda this summer, don’t despair. Numerous landmarks and scenes from America’s vast landscape can be experienced through the collections of the Springfield Museums! Are you ready for a whirlwind, cross-country road trip through the American art collections? Buckle up!
Lake Winnipesaukee at Weirs Landing, New Hampshire, 1876, watercolor by William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905). The Horace P. Wright Collection, 46.D08B.
Our road trip begins in the Northeastern United States, with William Trost Richards’ Lake Winnipesaukee at Weirs Landing, New Hampshire, created in 1876. A one hundred mile train ride from Boston, the New Hampshire town of Weirs, situated along Lake Winnipesaukee, became a popular destination for late 19th century city dwellers seeking respite during the summer months. An adherent of the American Pre-Raphaelite Movement as well as a worldly and spiritual man, Richards believed that each rock, leaf, and petal was a mark of divine creation and should be rendered accurately. His watercolor, Lake Winnipesaukee at Weirs Landing, New Hampshire, displays his characteristic clarity and offers a splendid view of the lake’s rocky outcroppings and lush vegetation.
Cape Lighthouse (Mass.), 1950, wood engraving by Asa Cheffetz (American, 1896-1965). Anonymous Gift, 50.D37.
From the lakes region of New Hampshire, we’ll drive along the east coast, arriving on Cape Cod.
Master wood engraver Asa Cheffetz was born in Buffalo, New York, but lived in Springfield, Massachusetts as an adult. Cheffetz is best known for exacting, yet poetic depictions of the New England countryside in which the artist sought to convey, “the very temperament of the land in all its moods.” In order to crate Cape Lighthouse (Mass.), the artist carved a series of fine incisions into a wood block, thereby creating a raised surface. In the final print, raised sections of the woodblock appear as velvety black imprints that contrast sharply with the cream paper below, conveying modulations in light and shadow. The scene depicted in this wood engraving is one of a sunny day on the Massachusetts coast. Several gulls rise into the sky, and a light breeze rustles through the grass below the central lighthouse.
View of Niagara Falls in Moonlight, 1872, oil on canvas by Hermann Herzog (American, 1832-1932). The James Philip Gray Collection, with additional funds from the bequests of Richards Haskell Emerson, Ethel G. Hammersley, and Henry Alexander Phillips, 84.05.
Next stop? We’re driving west to New York, where we’ll visit Niagara Falls!
In this dramatic moonlit scene, painter Hermann Herzog captures the romance and magnificence of Niagara Falls. By the mid-1800s, the falls were regarded as a symbol of national power and depicting them was considered an important milestone for serious American artists. Herzog, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in the early 1870s, approached Niagara Falls as one of his first subjects. Choosing to foreground the natural beauty of the falls, Herzog did not include a recently erected suspension bridge or other signs of tourism and industrialization. Herzog would complete at least eight paintings of the region, observing the falls in various weather patterns and at different times of day. In 1885, Niagara Falls became the nation’s first state park. Today, over 30 million visitors flock to the falls’ impressive rim.
Ephrata, 1934, oil on masonite by Charles Sheeler (American, 1883 – 1965). The James Philip Gray Collection, 34.06.
Traveling southeast from New York, our road trip will take us from the roaring falls, to a quiet, historic Pennsylvania town.
Photographer and painter Charles Sheeler began renting a farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1910, where he explored his interest in the clean lines and geometric forms of early American and Shaker buildings. Eastern Pennsylvania’s Ephrata Cloister, painted here in the artist’s realist style, housed an 18th century monastic community. Founded in 1732, the mystical order died out around 1800; but Ephrata’s buildings are now open as a state historic site. Sheeler’s Ephrata is as much an investigation of simple, functional forms and intersecting lines as it is an evocation of rural Pennsylvania.
Natural Bridge. In the Blue Ridge Region, Rockbridge County, VA., undated, hand-colored lithograph published by Nathaniel Currier (American, 1813-1888) and James Ives (American, 1824-1895). Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum Acquisition Funds, 2004.D03.631.
An approximately six hour drive takes us from Ephrata Cloister to Virginia’s Natural Bridge, located in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains.
Virginia’s most famous natural bridge, featured in this 19th century lithograph produced by the firm Currier & Ives, was carved by the rushing waters of Cedar Creek. The natural wonder has amazed humans for hundreds of years. In fact, the Monacan Native Americans worshiped the bridge, considering it to be a sacred site. The United States’ third president Thomas Jefferson was also captivated by the landmark, so much so that he actually purchased the site from King George III in 1774, calling it, “the most sublime of nature’s works.” Below the title of this print, impressive statistics state that the height of the bridge is 215 feet, and that it is about 80 feet wide.
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. And the Chattanooga Railroad, 1866, hand-colored lithograph published by Nathaniel Currier (American, 1813-1888) and James Ives (American, 1824-1895) after Frances Flora Bond Palmer (American, 1812-1876). Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum Acquisition Funds, 2004. D03.460.
Another day’s drive will take us to Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, to experience the expansive views of the Tennessee Valley.
Once called “the gateway to the south,” Chattanooga, Tennessee was considered an important threshold between the northern and southern United States in the 19th century. Lookout Mountain, pictured here, was the site of a significant Civil War battle that ended in victory for the Union. Shortly after the war, the mountain also became known for its picturesque beauty. In fact, in 1895, an incline railway was installed on Lookout Mountain. It transported passengers to the top of the peak where they could see for hundreds of miles. The incline railway still runs and is advertised as America’s steepest passenger railway. However, this lithograph predates the tourism boom in Chattanooga: the modest home and single train are harmoniously incorporated into the landscape.
Sandhill Cranes Over Brazos River, TX, 1975, cibachrome color print by William Garnett (American, 1916 – 2006). Gift of Claire Joyce, 91.Ph.05.
Although the next segment of the drive, all the way down to the Lone Star State, might be best split into two days, there’s plenty to see along the way!
This view of the Brazos River, which sometimes appears red due to surrounding sediment, can only be seen from the perspective of a bird or flying overhead in a plane. Photographer William Garnett was inspired to take photos of the American landscape from airplanes while serving in the United States Army Signal Corps as a cameraman during World War II. In this aerial image, the landscape becomes abstracted: bold sections of color are dotted with white specks of flying cranes.
New Mexican Landscape, 1930 oil on canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986). The James Philip Gray Collection, 35.04.
Once in the southwest, we’ll drive west further still. Next stop? The enchanted deserts of New Mexico!
“I never felt at home in the East like I do out here … I feel like myself again—and I like it,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote during her first visit to New Mexico in 1929. After her initial visit, the artist returned to the Taos region nearly every summer after, eventually moving there permanently. The artist’s painting New Mexican Landscape represents the sandy hills near Alcalde, a village 40 miles from Taos. During the 1930s, O’Keeffe painted nearly 20 views of this area, using her Ford Model A as a mobile studio. The cool tones, bright blue sky, and simplified forms of smooth hillsides exemplify the artist’s distinctly modern approach to the natural landscape.
Great Salt Lake, Utah., undated, hand-colored lithograph published by Nathaniel Currier (American, 1813-1888) and James Ives (American, 1824-1895). Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum Acquisition Funds, 2004.D03.689.
Heading northwest from Alcalde, New Mexico, we’ll visit a city named for its famous lake.
For over 150 years, the Great Salt Lake has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Utah. A natural wonder, the Great Salt Lake is both the largest lake between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean and the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere. In 1869, travel to the Great Salt Lake was made more accessible with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. 19th century lithographers Currier & Ives celebrated the beauty of the Utah landscape by showing three men standing on an outcropping admiring the impressive lake and dwellings below. As shown in many of their prints, the buildings of the city, representing civilization, peacefully co-exist with the nature surrounding the settlement.
Sunrise in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, California, 1873-1875, oil on canvas by Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902). George Walter Vincent Smith Collection, 1.23.4.
Our final stop on this great cross-country road trip allows us to bask in the California sunshine.
Albert Bierstadt’s interest in the grandeur of the American West was ignited in 1859 when he joined a United States Army expedition tasked with mapping a wagon trail across the Rocky Mountains. Bierstadt returned with an armful of sketches and photographs, from which he created a number of critically acclaimed paintings. During his third trip west in 1871-1873, he focused much of his work outside the Yosemite Valley and created Sunrise in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, California. Today, the Hetch Hetchy Valley can only be experienced through photographs and paintings: in 1923 the Tuolumne River was dammed and the valley flooded to make a reservoir for San Francisco. Therefore, Bierstadt’s glowing canvas transports its viewers in both space and time.
Maggie North is the Curator of Art at the Springfield Museums