WHEN THE PAINTER David Johnson climbed up onto a bluff above the Connecticut River in the farm country of New Hampshire, he looked upon America, and he saw that it was good.
The year was 1867, the Civil War was over and the nation restored to peace. The citizenry could return to their God-given task of taming nature for their own uses; the scene that stretched before Johnson bore witness to their industry. Once upon a time a thick forest had blanketed these gently sloping hills, but sturdy farmers generations ago had felled the trees. Fields for crops and cattle now lined the riverbanks, and tidy farmhouses dotted the fertile land.
Johnson painted the scene, carefully layering the land's unfolding planes. The sun-splashed golden fields in the foreground gave way to a row of trees and the curving river beyond, and then the distant horizon, its lovely blue mountains blurring into the benevolent sky. But in painting this metaphor of domestic tranquillity, Johnson did not neglect his botany. As was his wont, he carefully painted the distinguishing characteristics of his trees and plants, making them readily identifiable a century later.
His oil on canvas, named, with his usual precision, "The Connecticut River at North Littleton, New Hampshire," is part of a fine show of 19th- and early 20th-century American paintings at the Tucson Museum of Art. The exhibition, drawn from a private collection, is called, rather defensively, Roads Less Traveled, in deference to the fact that its realistic works are hardly fashionable nowadays and that, moreover, they're not even by the best-known painters of its period, 1833-1935.
The collector, Frederick Baekeland, explains in a catalog essay that he'd rather buy up good paintings by lesser-knowns than mediocre works by the famous. He'll get no quarrel here about his right to buy what he likes. He does own a few clunkers, a picture of a little girl that lapses into unpardonable sentimentality, a few later examples of half-baked impressionism. Yet the collection overall is a fine investigation of a lost aesthetic, from a time when painters still trained regularly in the age-old techniques of underpainting, fine brushwork, glazing and the like.
There are some gem-like still lifes (John F. Francis' 1860 oil on panel, "Four Pears," is a giddily polished piece of realism), flower paintings that tend toward the conventional (though the watercolor "Roses in a Vase" by Emily Spaford Scott, ca. 1885-1905, is soft and lovely). Best of the figure works is a vigorous 1917 self-portrait by a Florence Julia Bach, a jaunty New Woman in the age of suffragism; the maritime scenes are marked by expert handling of light on water.
Most interesting, though, are the 29 landscapes that form the bulk of the exhibition. Like Johnson, the painters who turned out these scenes of America were part of the Hudson River School, one of the first truly American art movements. Several decades into the 19th century, the young country had moved away from the heroic deeds -- and heroic paintings -- of its revolutionary founders, and its writers and painters were seeking a purely American sensibility. The early landscapists saw that America didn't have the grandiose crumbling ruins that the Old World did, as the art critic Robert Hughes puts it, but they had something better: a vast continent of wilderness land.
"In the 19th century Nature became America's national myth, and the act of painting it an assertion of national identity," Hughes writes in his American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America."
These new American painters loved the picturesque, and they wanted to emphasize the beauty of the new land. The Hudson River painters may have started out in the Northeast, but they kept their name as they wandered all across America. Herman Herzog is the great traveler of the Baekeland group, turning out both "Florida River Scene," ca. 1895-1910, a nicely modulated watercolor of a brown and green swamp circled by native palms, and "Arroyo Seco, California," 1874-1880, filled with exotic desert flora. Joseph Rusling Meeker wandered south and painted the foreboding "Louisiana Bayou," an oil on canvas, in 1867. (There are even a few European scenes, including John William Casilear's 1861 "Swiss Lake," a classic view from the classic Grand Tour.)
But most of the works in this show are agreeable renditions of the eastern woodlands, a region whose low-lying wetlands, autumnal forests and tidy farms easily lent themselves to the subtle colorations characteristic of these painters. George Henry Smillie's 1900 "Long Island Landscape," is a fine rendering of a cool, damp fall day, all browns and earth greens and grays. Henry Farrer's "Sunset in the Wetlands," a watercolor from the 1890s, has a pale moon rising above a similarly subdued fall landscape. William Trost Richards' "Atlantic City, New Jersey," 1871, is a wonder, if only for its depiction of the place pre-Trump. Actual trees reach toward the ocean, separated from its blue waters by a narrow expanse of white sand.
The pictures are on one level a snapshot of a lost America, from a time before the mandate of Manifest Destiny (and speculators like Trump) had gobbled up so much of the nation's beauty. These painters may not have been as concerned about creativity, about "expressing themselves," as late-20th-century artists are, and they certainly worked within a much narrower aesthetic, but their works are mostly lovely. And they teach us about our national myths.
Paintings like David Johnson's Connecticut River Valley show a land tamed and populated, the same New England landscape that impressed the young Frederick Law Olmstead and made its way into the urban parks he designed around the nation. Every American knows this landscape: a place of pleasing open space, gently curving hillocks and undulating meadows, punctuated by elegant gatherings of cultivated trees. It's a place of going over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house, a place that once was real, on that bright day in 1867, but now has metamorphosed into a landscape of nostalgia.
Roads Less Traveled: American Paintings 1833-1935 continues through Sunday, November 28, at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Gallery hours are 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors and students, free for all on Sunday. For more information call 624-2333.