AMERICAN BUCOLIC. The mass colour explosion & fantasy popular landscape painting boom of the 1800s.
We think of the 19th century as a dusty, monochrome environment, where solemn people stand still for photos, in grey spaces, dressed in shades of grey. It wasn’t. The century, especially the last part of it, was psychedelic with colour.
New technology mades a difference to peoples lives. One huge, visible change it supplied to every American in the 19th century, was colour. Colour began to materialise everywhere; on the boxes of farm produce and cigars, on the covers of sheet music, on calendars for banks and insurance companies. Folks woke up to a new world of colour. This colour explosion was brought to them by lithography. Colour lithography.
Lithography began in Germany in the 1790s. In black & white. It came over to America with German immigrants and within a few decades printers started using colored ink. Printers used grease crayons to apply their imagery to a block of limestone. The printer applied water and ink, the ink stuck to the greasy image. The limestone slab was then used to mass-produce printed copies. Colour lithography, or chromolithography was born and life would never be the same again. Its use spread quickly across the US and it pervaded the daily lives of American society like no other printmaking method before it.
Initially this meant that key scenes from Mexican-American War and the American Civil War could be seen in eye-popping colour. The advent of mass Colour lithography blurred the line between fine and commercial art and hungry artists got busy for colour starved American consumers. Art, in colour, was now affordable and homes all over America hung it on their walls. Popular art.
One of the most popular forms of this new and affordable art was the landscape. Some of the market was filled by reproductions of existing work by artists like Thomas Moran. But local landscapes, seasonal scenes were all fair game for artists. For many artists this wasn’t high art, simply a new way to make money. They exaggerated, fantasised the American landscape and turned up the new colour to eleven. Whatever sold. Whatever helped pay the rent. Some artists painted exotic overseas destinations, romancing places they’d likely never visit.
The difference wasn’t just in art. Colour lithography gave American consumer culture an enormous kick start.
So not high art. Popular art. Art seen, bought and loved by more Americans in the 19th century than any other. Art by unknown artists now forgotten.
Within this mass produced imagery, this kind of landscape comes over as a tiny sub-genre. It shouldn’t. It’s popular dream/reality and has a certain, singular aesthetic. A bucolic fantasy landscape world. Selling a promise; the American outdoors for everyone.
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