On the last wall in the last room of the Cooper-Hewitt organized Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape, on view through May 4, 2008 at the Cantor Arts Center, there hangs an enormous reproduction of a painting of Niagara Falls by Frederic Edwin Church. The outsize scale of this banner is no doubt meant to give visitors to the Cantor a taste of the magnitude of the falls themselves. Indeed, after walking through several rooms of mostly small oils, works on paper, and scraps of historical ephemera in display cases, this heroic vision of Niagara is downright vertigo inducing. The actual 1857 painting that was used as the source for the banner is not in the Stanford exhibition (it is enshrined at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.), but Church churned out so many views of Niagara Falls that this minor curatorial detail is really not that important. No, the most interesting thing about both the painting and its reproduction is what they do not show.
We tend to think of the tourist trap as a relatively recent scourge, but way back in 1850 many people believed that tourism had already ruined Niagara Falls. Travel writers complained of the tackiness of the businesses that had sprung up around it; committees were organized to save the natural wonder. Yet Church's undeniably glorious painting, as well as the many smaller works at the Cantor that depict the falls in different seasons and from different angles, are magically devoid of the thundering, uncouth hordes, even though those hordes were all too present at the time.
Church's Niagara is a pristine place, captured in a state of innocent magnificence, as if he had stumbled upon the cascade by chance. In truth, Church was deliberately presenting the falls at their best in order to enhance both the reputation of the place as a world-class destination and his reputation as an artist. Art was used to refute the perception, accurate though it may have been, that Niagara Falls had been the victim of its own tremendous popularity. Church made pictures that elevated the Niagara Falls of the day to the level of the Niagara Falls that used to be, which in turn validated the natural landmark's importance in the eyes of the public and perpetuated its reputation in the popular imagination as a singular, iconic place that was well worth a visit. Not surprisingly, artists like Church, who used their gifts to give a bit of high-art polish to beloved but overrun places like Niagara Falls, saw their stature and careers bloom.
Out West a different story needed to be told, and once again fine art was used to tell it. The problem was not to convince a skeptical populace that the place was not overrun; its reputation for desolateness was legion. Rather, the assignment was to entice settlers and tourists alike to see for themselves this rugged land of biblically deep canyons, boiling geysers fired by the underworld, and mountains halved by the hand of God.
It took an Englishman named Thomas Moran to visually tame the West, which he did beginning in the 1870s. Like Church, Moran idealized his subjects, focusing on the signature features of the Grand Canyon (its steep, water-carved walls), Yellowstone (its mud pots and geysers), and Yosemite (its sheer granite faces and jutting protrusions). Though perhaps best known for his work at the Grand Canyon (by 1909, the Santa Fe Railroad was running ads that featured Moran at work there, on the assumption that where he went to paint, the common folk would follow), it is his eye for detail in Yosemite that I find most intriguing. In particular, Moran seized on the profile of Half Dome as a recurring subject in his work. Certainly he was not the only artist to notice and fall in love with the shape of what is arguably the park's most famous formation, but Moran romanced it more than most, paving the way for its place as the official logo of Yosemite today.
To my eye, Winslow Homer is not as neat a fit in this exhibition as Church and Moran, although as a magazine illustrator who accepted commissions and met deadlines, he must have been as pragmatic a publicist as his peers. The problem -- if you can call it that -- with Homer is that he's just too good an artist for me to care all that much about why he did what he did. Even a painting as ostensibly ordinary as the lush and gauzy Two Girls with Sunbonnets in a Field, 1877-78, projects an air of almost subversive mystery. Homer can, but generally refuses to, play it entirely straight. For example, in Sunbonnets one girl faces us directly, but Homer hides her features behind layers of paint and deliberately careless brush strokes. Other pictures are equally stingy with their details: Storm Coming from 1884 conveys its sense of urgency via nothing more than the hurried scribbles of chalk on paper. At the bottom of the sheet, a solitary stick figure runs through an open field in a vain attempt to find shelter from the indistinct, but clearly oncoming, onslaught. Homer isn't selling anything here, but I'm definitely buying.
Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape continues at Cantor Arts Center through May 4, 2008. Lomita Drive and Museum Way, Stanford, (650) 723-4177. Admission is free; closed Mondays and Tuesdays.