Art Friend

Art Friend: An art critic and a Native journalist look into hidden history of 19th-century American landscape painting

Two people inspect pieces of art in a glass display case
MPR News arts reporter and critic Alex V. Cipolle (left) and Native News reporter Melissa Olson inspect a shell work and ceramics display by Native artist Elizabeth James-Perry at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Everyone needs an art friend. Art spaces can feel exclusive and art can be confusing, obtuse, even boring. But, especially with the right context, everyone can be a critic.

So let the MPR News arts team be your guide, your Art Friend.

Art Friend heads to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona for an exhibition that looks at the complex and sometimes contradictory meanings of 19th-century American landscape painting

Recently, senior arts reporter and critic Alex V. Cipolle learned the Fitzwilliam Museum at Oxford University overhauled labels for its 19th-century landscape painting displays. The labels now cautioned viewers these countryside images could evoke nationalistic feelings and longing for a bygone era.

While there has been a backlash (let a hill be a hill!), it seemed like an exciting and important new framing with which to view a genre of painting that has often been treated as benign and decorative.

The Minnesota Marine Art Museum has a caveat of its own for viewing “Re/Framing The View: Nineteenth-century American Landscapes”: “While the exhibition celebrates the work of these artists, it also offers a layered interpretation of the cultural and historical meaning of such paintings. What such artists often failed to capture are the environmental conditions and social concerns that may underlie picturesque imagery.”

Not only are landscape paintings not benign, they have often functioned as advertising or propaganda for the policies of their time.

Enter: Art Friend.

Alex V. Cipolle: Do you think it’s okay to just look at these paintings as beautiful landscapes and walk away?

Melissa Olson: No, I don’t.

Alex (voice-over): That’s me and my colleague Melissa Olson. We are reflecting on an exhibition we saw a few weeks ago.

Specifically, “Reframing the View: 19th-century American Landscapes” at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona. It’s full of luminous countrysides — thick forests and neverending mountains and rivers, mostly devoid of people.

Melissa and I share a cubicle wall.

Two people holding mics stand in a galery
MPR News Native News reporter Melissa Olson (left) discusses the painting “Waterfall in the Woods with Indians” by John Frederick Kensett with arts reporter and critic Alex V. Cipolle.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Melissa: My name is Melissa Olson. I am a part of the mighty team of two — myself and senior editor Leah Lemm make up the Native News Initiative at MPR. I am a tribal citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Alex (voice-over): We often get into chats about art and politics. I had read about curators who are reconsidering the genre of Romantic-era landscape painting. Viewers often see them as just pretty pictures. But some curators say they are mirrors of — or perhaps even advertisements for — the policies and values of their times.

Many of the landscape paintings we were about to see are rooted in the idea of manifest destiny. This was the 19th-century doctrine that American colonizers were ordained to expand westward across the continent. And the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” — that the decline of Native people was natural.

I asked Melissa to be my Art Friend.

We drove down the Mississippi to the museum on a very rainy day.

Bluffs appear through the windshield of a vehicle
MPR News arts reporter and critic Alex V. Cipolle and Native News reporter Melissa Olson drove down to Winona in April to see “Re/Framing The View: Nineteenth-century American Landscapes."
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Melissa: We’re running into a little weather.

Alex (voice-over): On the drive, we watch the wide river, the bluffs, the hills and forests. We notice how it’s likely similar to what we’re heading to see. Except this land is now marked by highways and large rigs on the river.

Alex: The landscapes we’re gonna see, you know, they’re being presented to us as mostly untouched, right.

Alex (voice-over): Much of the art on view is connected to the Hudson River School. This was an American landscape movement that started around 1825 in New York.

Melissa: There is this incredible contradiction at the heart of what these paintings are portraying, and the reality of Native people through the end of the 19th century, which is that you’re forced to, I mean, certainly, my family was forced to inhabit smaller and smaller and smaller parcels of land.

Two people read didactic signage in a museum
MPR News Native News reporter Melissa Olson (left) and arts reporter and critic Alex V. Cipolle discuss the painting “Waterfall in the Woods with Indians” by John Frederick Kensett.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Alex (voice-over): At the museum, a very quiet and very blue gallery is filled with landscapes that almost emit a heavenly light.

Alex: Look at all the golden glow.

Melissa: There’s so much golden glow.

Alex (voice-over): The exhibition signage says it celebrates the artworks but also offers a caveat: These artists often failed to include the social and environmental conditions that underlie their pretty scenes.

We walk up to a painting the size of an old television set.

Melissa: First, what stands out to me is this amazing gilded frame. But the landscape looks, it’s sort of this reminds me of like northern Minnesota, actually, with all the big rocky outcroppings.

A painting of a waterfall
"Waterfall in the Woods with Indians.” John Frederick Kensett.
Courtesy photo

Alex (voice-over): The painting is “Waterfall in the Woods with Indians.” John Frederick Kensett painted it in 1850. It’s set in upstate New York.

Melissa: There’s this beautiful waterfall that’s sort of falling down, and then it sort of winds around to the foreground, past a group of what appeared to be like three or four people sitting on one of the rock outcroppings, and they’re completely dressed in red.

Alex (voice-over): The people are a group that can be described as generically Native American.

Alex: Is this a real scene? Did this happen? What do you think?

Melissa: I think probably that this is posed. Yeah. I have some sense that they’re placed here to be a part of this sort of epic scene.

Alex: It seems like they would have to be in on it. Right? I mean, otherwise, it seems like it’d be a pretty vulnerable spot to have some white dude come into your space and just be like, “Just pretend I’m not here.”

Melissa: You can just hear that happening in the background.

Alex: Just do what you’re doing.

Melissa: Act natural!

A person views a stereoscopic image
MPR News arts reporter and critic Alex V. Cipolle views a stereoscopic image through a Holmes-type stereoscope.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Alex (voice-over): We wanted to know more. How did a scene like this come about in 1850s America? Twenty years after the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830.

I called up the curator who is based in Massachusetts. The exhibition originated there before traveling to Winona.

Naomi Slipp: My name is Naomi Slipp. I am the chief curator and director of museum learning at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Mass.

Alex (voice-over): I ask Naomi about the painting, “Waterfall in the Woods with Indians.”

Naomi: It is total fiction. It is definitely a sort of fantasy.

So Kensett did not have much interaction with Native people or communities, it’s very unlikely that he ever had a Native American individual sit for him. He probably painted this in his studio in New York City. He would have, interestingly, studied the scenery from life.

Alex (voice-over): Naomi says he is one of many Romantic-era artists who painted scenes like this after the passing of the Indian Removal Act.

Naomi: So paintings like Kensett are sort of romanticizing and mythologizing this belief that was widespread by this point, when he paints the pictures, that it's only a matter of time before Native people disappear. He’s not alone in creating these works of art that really support the federal agenda around Native policies.

Alex (voice-over): Landscape paintings have a special power to keep these myths alive today, she says.

Naomi: It can lull us into that state of unquestioning acceptance around the subject. I wanted to encourage people to think about that and probe that a little bit.

Alex (voice-over): But she says she also doesn’t want to intimidate viewers.

Naomi: I was very intentional in that kind of introductory text to the exhibition to say, like, it's okay to just enjoy these, you can just look. And I think some people found that comforting.

Alex (voice-over): I report back to Melissa. The Kensett painting? Complete fiction.

Melissa: That was generally the feeling that I had when I saw that painting, it’s so generic. This curator and lots of folks have pointed out is that people love to think about, romanticize about certain aspects of different Indigenous cultures, but they really don’t love Indigenous peoples or people.

Two people admire a large painting
MPR News arts reporter and critic Alex V. Cipolle (left) and Native News reporter Melissa Olson inspect the painting “Hudson River Valley from the Catskill Mountain House” by Thomas Hill.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Alex (voice-over): I tell her that Naomi wants visitors to delve into these issues, but also, that it’s okay to just look.

Alex: Do you think it’s okay to just look at these paintings as beautiful landscapes and walk away?

Melissa: No, I don’t. I think that that has to be paired maybe with recognition, that the ways in which we look also still inform the ways in which we think about and make public policy.

Alex: One-hundred percent. But I understand the sentiment of the curator that we just need to get people on the door to look, it's a first step to get people in the door to actually look. And why I also think that this exhibition is quietly radical in its own way.

Melissa: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And yeah, I could be persuaded, you know, by that argument, because I think it’s one of you know, this exhibit and others — like it are some of the places in which people are sort of doing the work to reframe how we, you know, how we see the world. And that’s absolutely critically important.

It’s been really fun being your art friend.

Reframing the View: 19th-century American Landscapes” is up until Aug. 4.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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