Painting the American sublime

Visions of the American West

CHAPTER 3: Painting the American sublime

For artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Hill, the American West was a vast frontier of epic scale, with seemingly endless horizons and equally infinite possibilities. These artists’ common belief in sublime experience—a concept borne from German Romanticism—is made manifest in their landscapes. Immanuel Kant, whose philosophies deeply impacted the German Romantics, distilled the idea into a simple distinction: “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless.” Grandiose and luminous, these compositions depict humankind as small and diminutive in the face of nature. By employing dramatic, operatic proportions, artists aimed to evoke the divine through the natural world—a central tenet of the sublime.

Image credit:
William Gilbert Gaul
The Land of the Free, circa 1900 (detail)
Oil on canvas
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of C.R. Smith, 1976

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