Educators Smithsonian Education
Landscape Painting: Artists Who Love the Land
Creating Illusions
Introduction - Creating Illusions - Catlin - Moran - Bierstadt - Homer

No matter where the landscape artist chooses to set up his easel, he will have to confront the central problem posed by all landscapes-creating the illusion of deep space on a flat canvas. When done well, the effect can be spellbinding. We feel that we can enter the painting and continue walking for miles.

Landscape artists know that there are certain techniques that work. Five "space tricks" that students can try out for themselves are described in this Art to Zoo:

1. A winding path.
A path or river that winds through the landscape from foreground to background can make us believe that the picture describes a deep space.

2. Changes in size.
A tree that is close to us appears much larger than a tree of the same size that is far away.

3. Overlap.
A boulder that is close to us overlaps and partially hides a much larger cliff behind it.

4. Changes in clarity.
A distant mountain range appears more hazy and less distinct than a mountain that is closer.

5.Diagonal composition.
Land that moves away from us on the diagonal appears to move back into space.

George Catlin, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and Winslow Homer were four American artists who used these techniques well. Their ultimate purpose was not so much to impress us with their ability to fool our eyes but to create pictures that portray the great size and splendor of the American landscape.

CatlinMoran, and Bierstadt were artist/explorers who were lured west by the raw power of unexplored rivers, mountains, and canyons. They joined geological and surveying expeditions into our nation's then-unexplored territories, making a visual record of the land with their paintings. Homer, on the other hand, preferred the East; his passion was the rocky Atlantic seacoast of Maine. All four painters helped Americans see and love their land in a time when photography was still in its infancy and travel films did not exist. Today television floods us with images, and we can easily travel by car, train, or plane to whatever river, mountain, canyon, or seacoast we wish to visit. Yet the silent paintings of these artists still speak to us of the majesty of our land.

Through the study of several works of art, this issue of Art to Zoo explores the way that Americans felt about their growing nation during the period of westward expansion until the end of the nineteenth century. It introduces students to some basic principles of landscape painting and has them practice geography skills to gain appreciation for the physical characteristics of different regions of the United States. All of the paintings discussed in this issue are in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

Introduction Next Page: Catlin

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