There is perhaps no substance or ideal more central to America’s mythology than the land. For a young nation challenged to define itself in the absence of an official history, the native landscape was an important source of pride. The vast forests, fertile plains, and great mountains of North America offered seemingly limitless opportunity for exploration and invention, as well as commercial exploitation. Over the years, the land has served as a wellspring of aesthetic inspiration, spiritual sustenance, and economic opportunity.
In the early to mid-19th century, a group of landscapists founded the country’s first national painting style. For the Hudson River School artists and their audiences, majestic images of the natural wonders of the northeastern United States rivaled the grand history paintings of their European counterparts. Later 19th-century artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington joined prospectors in “mining” the American West for pictorial material. At the end of the century, American artists’ interpretations of the land took a more personal turn. Painters such as Childe Hassam and George Inness produced expressive landscapes that depicted fleeting atmospheric effects and embraced the subjectivity of vision.
Nature continued to inspire artists into the 20th century. Abstract painters including Joan Mitchell and Richard Diebenkorn produced large-scale canvases that drew on the experience of intense light and color, and which produced environmental, atmospheric effects. Other artists took a more oblique approach to the issues of landscape and nature. The works of Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler, for example, are animated by the organic forms, lush surfaces, and writhing energies of the natural world.