By: John Dorfman
The light seems to come from nowhere and everywhere. As the sun suffuses the haze and shimmers on the surface of still waters, the atmosphere holds a glow that might be silvery, bluish or fiery red. The view recedes gradually into the distance, passing through several distinct planes. The overall impression is one of silence and deep peace. Whether a lake view in the Catskills or the White Mountains by John Frederick Kensett, a fishing scene in the Massachusetts marshes by Martin Johnson Heade or a harbor cove with tall ships by Fitz Henry Lane, these spiritualized landscapes share a quality that is hard to describe but easy to see. During the mid to late 19th century, when these works were painted, the style had no name, and the artists didn’t think of themselves as part of a particular school. Today they are known as Luminist paintings, and are being appreciated, and sought by collectors, more than ever before.
The term Luminist was coined by the American art historian John I. H. Baur in a 1954 essay. Actually, Baur had identified this distinctive approach to light and landscape a few years earlier, without giving it a name, in a catalogue essay introducing the M. and M. Karolik Collection, a path-breaking trove of American paintings now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Essentially, Luminism is a subset of the Hudson River School, a product of its second generation (approximately 1850–75), and it embodies the emotionally charged, quasi-religious view of nature that is so evident in the works of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, the original Hudson River painters.
The critic Robert Hughes, in his book American Visions (1997), suggested that around 1825, with the American Revolution and the founding generation of the Republic fading into the past, American artists were running out of material for the kind of heroic history painting and portraiture that they had been producing. The next step was to find subject matter in the land itself—its physical being and the spiritual meaning behind it. In dramatic vistas like Niagara Falls or Cole’s beloved Kaaterskill Clove, the first generation of Hudson River painters (1825–50) found what they were looking for: the sublime, a manifestation of the divine in the physical world. For them, nature was a revelation of God’s creative power, and its beauty and majesty were clear indications that America was the place where God expressed this power most fully. Nature was the American cathedral.
After Cole’s death in 1848, the next generation of Hudson River painters took yet another step, exploring the same idea in a more subtle way. For them, light itself was the expression of the divine; an especially staggering scene was not necessary, or might even be a distraction. “Luminism is a natural extension of the Hudson River School,” says New York dealer Catherine Dail. “It is somewhat Transcendentalist and depicts America in a way that emphasizes both the national scene and a sublime spirituality.” In 1836 the great Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space … I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” Emerson believed that he was living in an “ocular age,” and the Luminists, with their emphasis on the finest gradations of light and the ways we perceive it, were perfect citizens of that age. As transparent eyeballs they sought to minimize or eliminate the human presence in their pictures and simply let the light pour in.
It is important to remember that the term “Luminist” is better applied to paintings than to painters. Heade did some of the very best Luminist landscapes, but he also painted a lot of floral and other still lifes. Lane’s later marine paintings are also among the top Luminist works, but his early efforts are orthodox ship paintings. Not every landscape by Sanford Robinson Gifford is Luminist, either, and many of Frederic Edwin Church’s great paintings are far too dramatic to be Luminist.
Today, while there is still some debate, most experts agree on the defining characteristics of the style, many of which have to do with composition: In addition to the special, glowing light, a Luminist painting has a basically frontal vantage point; a low horizon line; proportions in which the length of the canvas is about twice the height; and a three-plane structure of foreground, middle distance and background. The general mood is one of intense quiet and stillness, and the brushstrokes are invisible. That last point is considered particularly vital—Luminism is not Impressionism, despite the common interest in light. The highly polished, glazed surfaces of Luminist paintings were intended to make the hand of the artist disappear, as man disappears in nature.
This subtle style fell into obscurity as noisier movements took the stage. As late as 1969, New York Times art critic John Canaday could off-handedly refer to the “limited popularity” of the Hudson River School in general in his multivolume Lives of the Painters. “Often considered trite,” he wrote, “Hudson River painting in truth demands almost esoteric sensitivities.” The nation’s bicentennial changed all that forever, as a patriotic surge of interest in cultural history put 19th- and early 20th-century American painting on the mental map of millions. Four years later the Princeton University art historian John Wilmerding organized the first all-Luminist exhibition, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. This extremely successful show attracted unprecedented attention to Luminist painting and helped boost the market for it, as well.
“The highest prices in American landscape painting are now going to Luminists,” says New York dealer Howard Godel. “It’s been straight up from the ’80s on.” Dara Mitchell, head of American paintings at Sotheby’s, says Luminism “holds a special place in the history of 19th-century American painting and has always been highly prized by collectors. It’s at the top of the food chain in some ways.” The reasons for this esteem are both aesthetic and cultural. “Luminism still resonates with Americans because we have this connection with nature, which is a big part of our identity,” says Eric Widing, Christie’s head of American paintings. “The attention from collectors and the big prices in the marketplace are because it touches a deep core in the American psyche.”
The best, most characteristic works by the top artists—Lane, Heade, Gifford—sell in the several millions of dollars. The auction record for Lane is $5.5 million, paid at Skinner in Boston in November 2004 for his Manchester Harbor (1853), an emblematic marine scene at sunset. Heade’s Sunny Day on the Marsh (circa 1871–75) sold for $2.8 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2005. According to New York dealer Louis Salerno, owner of Questroyal Fine Art, while top examples can sell privately for $5–8 million, “good examples” of work by the best artists can be found in the $300,000–400,000 range, and some significant works are under $100,000.
Supply, however, is a problem. “Scarcity makes this market very strong,” says Salerno. “Luminist paintings tend to be held in conservative hands and don’t tend to get sold when times are hard. They’re cherished in families for a long time. The supply is very limited; you can find them, but it is difficult.” Another reason for the limited availability is that the artists were generally not very prolific, or else didn’t paint in the Luminist vein for their entire careers. “American artists don’t have catalogues raisonnés of thousands of works like Monet or Picasso,” Mitchell says. In addition, she points out, condition problems make the best examples even rarer: “Some of the artists were experimenting with new pigments, and some of them painted rather thinly, so their canvases have not all survived over the last 150 years in perfect condition.”
As the Lanes, Heades and Giffords disappear into museums, second- and third-tier artists are coming to the fore. Other notable and collectible painters who did Luminist work include William Bradford, John Casilear, Francis Silva and Jasper Cropsey. And more attention is now being paid to Luminists of a slightly later generation, painting in the 1880s and ’90s, such as Alfred Bricher, a specialist in seacoasts, and William Trost Richards, known for his Luminist effects in watercolor. “Here the paintings have to be exceptional to command strong prices in this climate,” says James Berry Hill of Berry-Hill Galleries in New York. “They have to be absolutely perfect, fitting all the attributes of the truly classic paintings—the incredible sense of quiet, the beautiful horizontal picture plane, the perfect paint surface that really does not show brushstrokes.”
This beautiful and pensive style of painting is gaining more enthusiasts all the time. Some will wait years to acquire a great example, while others are more than content to contemplate them in the rich holdings of American museums. Either way, what William Cullen Bryant called, in his sonnet dedicated to Thomas Cole, “the light of distant skies” will continue to beckon.
Adelson Galleries, New York
Berry-Hill Galleries, New York
Catherine Dail Fine Art, New York
Debra Force, New York
Godel & Co. Fine Art, New York
Hirschl & Adler, New York
Questroyal Fine Art, New York
Spanierman Gallery, New York