Summary of Luminism
Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, a handful of landscape painters, instead of painting monumental, dramatic scenes of American wilderness, began painting on a smaller, quieter scale. The Luminist style had much in common with the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, which advocated that one immerse oneself in nature in order to know oneself and the divine. While the artists did not cohere as a unified movement, they did share stylistic tendencies. Marked by a certain rendering of light as a uniform glow that infuses the entire scene, Luminist paintings reveal no brushstrokes of the artist, thus maintaining a silent, almost impersonal, surface. The particularly American style has continued to influence contemporary landscape painting.
- While partly influenced by Romanticism, Luminist paintings do not tend to depict nature as grand and imposing, nor do they strive to convey a sense of spectacular, awe-inspiring sublimity. Instead, Luminist paintings with their smaller size evoke a quiet spirituality based on closely observed natural phenomena, especially the quality of light.
- Luminist light is particularly distinct. It is often cool and hard, almost palpable. The painters use slight tonal modulations, and not brushstrokes, to create the effect of radiant light.
- Luminist compositions are very ordered, emphasizing the horizontal expanse with a deep spatial recession. The surfaces are precisely rendered, leaving no hint of brushstrokes. This clarity of the picture plane facilitates the viewer's communion with the natural scene presented and lends the scene a certain silence.
Overview of Luminism
Luminism refers to a type of American landscape painting that became most prominent in the 1850s and lasted into the 1870s practiced among artists associated with the Hudson River School. The artists did not identify themselves as Luminists, as the term wasn't coined until 1954 when the art historian and director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, John I. H. Baur, used it to describe these naturalistic landscapes, often seascapes or river views, emphasizing the treatment of light to create a contemplative and luminous effect. Baur defined Luminist work as, "a polished and meticulous realism in which there is no sign of brushwork and no trace of impressionism, the atmospheric effects being achieved by infinitely careful gradations of tone, by the most exact study of the relative clarity of near and far objects and by a precise rendering of the variations in texture and color produced by direct or reflected rays."
Important Art and Artists of Luminism
This proto-Luminist landscape depicts the Erie Canal and focuses on the canal's quiet waters reflecting the light of the softly glowing sky. On the tree-lined road along the edge of the canal, two horses are driven by a man on horseback, while at the bend in the low middle distance a boat comes into view around the curve known as King's Bend. The hill on the right is subtly illuminated by sunlight, and a number of ducks swim along the banks of the canal. The painting conveys a feeling of quiet serenity, as the canal takes up the foreground of the painting and draws the viewer's eye toward the low horizon where the small town of Pittsford is visible beneath the autumnal sky, but the town does not disturb the natural configurations of the land.
This work employs Harvey's innovative stippling, where he placed tiny points of color adjacent to one another to create an effect of light, a technique that prefigured the Neo-Impressionist technique of Pointillism. The canvas is naturalistically detailed in its depictions of the horses and the boat as well as the seasonal indications such as the crimson leaves on the trees to the left and the bare saplings outlined on the hill to the right. The emphasis on atmospherics, the subject matter focusing on a body of water that reflects the sky and seems to flow into it, and the open composition favoring the curvilinear in its depiction of the canal and the horizon, along with the intimate scale of the canvas, made this prototypical of the Luminist landscapes that would follow over the next 20 years.
Mount's Eel Spearing at Setauket is more often classified as a genre painting, but it shares Luminist aspects that others would more fully develop in the following decade. While depicting a common activity, the painting also depicts the still waters that reflect the farmland in the background and the glow of the sky. Despite the action of the figures, there is a quiet and undisturbed mood about the scene that is common of many Luminist works.
Sometimes criticized for having a provincial quality, Mount studied at the National Academy of Design in New York, and his awareness of the European art tradition can be seen in his triangular composition and the dignified classicism of his figures. At the same time, his work was informed by the American naïve style's emphasis upon bold outline and simplified elements, as shown in the sharp relief of the two figures.
This painting depicts a dugout canoe, bearing two men and a black bear cub, tied to one end, as they descend the Missouri River to St. Louis. The older man on the right wears a Phrygian cap, a French symbol of liberty marking him as a French fur trader, and placing the image within an earlier historical period, when this part of the country was a French territory dominated by the fur trade. The young man, leaning on the cargo in the center of the boat, is the man's son, and his clothing and the beaded medicine pouch near him reflects that he was part Native American.
The waters are remarkably still and reflective, as shimmering horizontal lines depict the hidden currents that break around a submerged tree limb in the foreground. In the middle distance to the left, submerged trees rise out of the water, creating a diagonal to the island that frames the two men on the canoe. As a result, the figures come into sharp relief, as the landscape becomes an atmospheric harmony of the river, the hazy distant forest, and the luminous sky, thus creating an examplary Luminist structure.