One Piece at a Time

Ideal Landscape

Henry Vianden, "the father of Milwaukee painting," invites you into a perfect sylvan landscape. But is it real?

By - Aug 3rd, 2012 04:00 am

Henry Vianden (American, b. Germany, 1814–1899) Landscape with Mountains and River, n.d. Oil on canvas 42 1/4 x 72 5/8 in. (107.32 x 184.47 cm) Gift of Frederick Vogel III on behalf of the family of Louise Pfister Vogel and Fred Vogel, Jr. M1973.78 Photo credit John R. Glembin

Go to an art museum, pick a work, stand before it for a long time. Tell us what you see. TCD’s One Piece at a Time series began with that thought in the summer of 2010. TCD senior editor Tom Strini handled the One-Piece duties then and in 2011. This summer, we have a variation. In the winter and spring, Strini worked with a class of graduate students in art at UWM. They did the One Piece drill at the Milwaukee Art Museum, wrote draft essays, then survived a writer’s boot camp with Strini. We’re publishing the results, one piece at a time.

When we view a landscape, whether a painting, photograph or film, we tend to imagine ourselves in that landscape. We move, even if briefly, into the presented place and time. The 19th-century painting, Landscape with Mountains and River, (undated) by German-American artist Henry Vianden, for example, prompts this condition of seeing, this experience of being situated in a new place and time.

The Place. Vianden created layers of depth. The sliver of sky is crisp yet insignificant, pushed far beyond the clouds and rows of jagged mountain peaks that dominate the painting. Dark pines contrast the warm, sun-bathed cliffs. The river enters from a distant bend and gains presence as it gently moves toward the viewer. In the foreground, each leaf is specific. In the distance, entire trees dissolve. Thick brushstrokes give the rocks texture, and white highlights suggest sunlight and serene movement on the shadowy river. A lone figure rests in a canoe amidst the majestic landscape. Though consumed by nature, the figure deserves recognition. It seems to be a peaceful journey.

The Time. The painting resides in the American Collections at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Many of the paintings here, including Landscape with Mountains and River, are monumental in scale and level of detail. Specific time is not readily apparent in the painting. The we see the painting in context. The portraiture and genre paintings suggest the period, and a deep, ornate gold frame carry the aura of long ago. And the undisturbed remoteness depicted in the landscape seems to be from an earlier time. It emanates a sense of nostalgia. It takes the viewer to a different place and time.

Vianden, born in Germany in 1814, attended the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Munich and later studied in Antwerp, where he continued to study the German Romantic tradition. Landscape with Mountains and River, with its lone figure set against a majestic, natural backdrop, exercises common themes of nature and individual isolation They rose from feelings of alienation in the post-Industrial Revolution of Europe in the early half of the nineteenth century and typify the Romantic tradition. However, at the time of Vianden’s education, landscape painting was moving away from Romanticism and toward realism, a trend visible in this painting.

Vianden moved from Germany to America in 1849. He became a prominent art educator and artist in Milwaukee from 1849 until his death in 1899. Today, he is considered the first academically trained German-born artist to live in Milwaukee. He has been described as “the father of Wisconsin art.”

So this raises an interesting question: Does the locale in Landscape with Mountains and River — which has no date and only a nondescript title, painted by an artist whose career spanned two continents — actually exist? Does the painting depict a place in Germany, painted prior to moving to America in 1849, or on a return trip to Vianden’s homeland? Did Vianden paint it in Milwaukee, as a fancy of the American West? Is it a complete fabrication, not painted from observation at all?

Close observation suggests that the artist might have invented the scene. The trees range from believable to fantasized, as do the rock formations absorbing sunlight at the perfect moment. The dramatic framing of the mountains in the foreground and the vantage point in the middle of the river set the viewer in an almost unbelievable, yet intimate vantage point. The end result is a believable scene that seems almost too perfect a collision of the romantic and the real and an idealized depiction of nature.

Perhaps it is best not to know whether such a place exists. Whether the ambiguity of a specific location is intentional or not, it works in favor of the painting by allowing the viewer to freely situate himself in the painting without the distractions of knowing too much. It could be anywhere or nowhere, but Landscape with Mountains and River is a lovely place to be, if only for a moment.

Previously in One Piece at a Time: Brooklyn Henke on Caillebotte’s Boaters on the Yerres; Joe Grennier on Warhol’s Brillo Box; Eric Roman Beining on Torso of a Male Athlete; Aneesha Baldeosingh on Jules Olitski’s Heat Resistance.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Art

0 thoughts on “One Piece at a Time: Ideal Landscape”

  1. Anonymous says:

    this is my idea of beautiful writing.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Lovely. I’ve never looked at a painting this deeply. I’ll try it next visit!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating look into the depths of another world.

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