Colonial painting on the North American continent focused primarily on portraiture or historical works. The best pre-Revolutionary painters, like Benjamin West, tended to flee the cultural backwater of the British colonies for the art world of England or the arcadian promise of Italy. Landscape painting in America did not emerge as a school until several decades into the nineteenth century; when it did, the greatest works spoke eloquently to America's need to find a national identity. The United States, as a young country, was suffering from a typical adolescent identity crisis by the 1830's. Having won their independence from the mother country, a desire to define the nation as something other than "not British" had taken hold. Unfortunately, by definition, Americans lacked a native ancestry on which to fall back.

The American landscape stepped into fill the void; it provided what Barbara Novak calls:



 
The Arcadian or Pastoral State
Course of Empire series
1836
Thomas Cole

"an effective substitute for a missing national tradition. America was thus both new and old--new in that its undiscovered and unsettled territories were the proper habitat for that radical innocent, the noble savage celebrated by Rousseau and the Lake poets; old in that these same forests and mountains spoke, as Chateaubriand suggested, of America's most significant antiquity--one that registered more purely in its uncultivated state" (20).


The American land provided its citizens with both a past and a future; it seemed to assure that Thomas Jefferson's agrarian dream and yeoman farmer would never lack opportunity. American artists set out to capture this ancient new land, the repository for these national hopes. Thomas Cole was the first; his paintings set the tone of magnificence and size, but many were fantastical and overtly metaphorical. Cole's more realistic paintings, like The Oxbow, laid a path for the latter half of the nineteenth century. His followers, Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Church, produced a national art that was both literal and awesome.

What these artists strove to capture was not only the Christianized sublime as evinced by nature, but also the "general principle of nature" (Novak, 86), the fusion of "being and becoming" (Novak, 123). The implication of the paintings was not only to celebrate the natural beauty of the new country, but also to suggest the natural resources at hand--what the landscape could "become." Consequently, there was a division in the representation of the landscape; would landscape become a paradise regained, the true Eden, or would it become a base for an industrial society? With the entrance of the train onto the landscape by the 1850's, artists had to choose whether to represent an idealized America or a realistic one. George Innes, in Lackawanna Valley paints not only the train, but further evidence of man's power over nature: the stumped trees surround the lone, casual figure. Albert Bierstadt, a contemporary of Innes', chose the other route; he painted an idealized landscape into which the machine, and the coming industry, would not enter. More than once, as in Yosemite Valley, Bierstadt shied away from blunt realism and painted out the train that was already there.

This basic division in representation carried through to the twentieth century. Grant Wood, if placed into this formula, would seem to land on the side of Bierstadt and idealistic representation of the American landscape. His eschewing of mechanization, as well as his manicured farmscapes suggest a tendency towards the Edenic notions popular nearly a century before. What complicates the equation is Wood's sense of irony, as well as the fact that he was apparently not painting a contemporary landscape. It seems, as with many other influences that may have worked on Grant Wood, that he absorbed the idea of the landscape made perfect, and blended it with his own style as he created his unique vision.


The Oxbow
(The Connecticut River near Northampton)

1836
Thomas Cole

Kindred Spirits
1849
Asher B. Durand

Lackawanna Valley
1856
George Innes

Yosemite Valley
186-
Albert Bierstadt