Landscape paintings that run down the beach in slow motion

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860.
“There she stands, mighty Everest!” drones the narrator in a Monty Python sketch. “Towering a mile above the surrounding plains: wreathed in clouds, wracked by winds, killer of climbers. Everest — the mountain with the biggest tits in the world!

Kate and I went to the American Sublime exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Saturday. The exhibit was put together by the Tate gallery in London. “Sublime”, according to the Tate’s program, describes European’s impression of the New World’s “wild, rugged, and awful” scenery, and their almost religious reaction to its “immensity and boundlessness.”

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862,
“Sublime” might not have described all the paintings we saw, though many fulfilled the requirements of immensity. Most of the canvases were five or six feet tall, seven and eight feet wide, with colossal sunsets, rugged mountains and usually a panther crouching on its kill somewhere in the corner. I suppose they were the Victorian equivalent of prime-time television, except instead of T.J. Hooker, you have the rise and fall of a mighty civilization in five turgid panels, complete with maidens in togas leaping from craggy cliffs to avoid the
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire 4: Destruction (detail),1835-6
sweaty clutches of barbarian invaders. If these painters were alive today, they would all be making a lot of money in Hollywood. And, in a way, I suppose that’s what they were doing then: creating easily-admired paintings of vasty subjects on big, bold canvases that can be seen from the back of the gallery.

Not that I’m complaining! These muscular American works could have kicked the ass of any effete cheese-eating European paintings, any day of the week. If you put together a basketball team of these American landscapes, and played a basketball team made up entirely of Old Masters from the Louvre, the score would be 100-0 by the end of the first half, and a Thomas Cole Arcadian Idyll would have smashed the backboard, drunk all the Gatorade, and ravished the cheerleaders.

West Chester KOA Kampground, Site 27, 2002.
Kate had her wedding shower the next day (hurrah!), and I took a couple of hours to ride around Chester County on my motorcycle and compare the local landscape to the epic Sublime visions. It was, of course, a lot less dramatic — rolling hills, lots of trees, burned grass, nine-foot corn. But it’s more liveable: no worries about surprising a puma on its kill, or stumbling on hairy, tomahawk-wielding savages in the middle foreground. I found my way to a campground that Kate and I had passed by several times on canoe trips, and gave it a waypoint on my GPS. Here it is: KOA West Chester, Tent Site 27, on the west fork of the Brandywine river. It was hot, hot, hot now, but should be good for some prime camping in September and October! I’ll see how many folks I can entice down for a trip.

Hot coffee and apple cider doughnuts at Northbrook Orchards in the morning! And no barbarian invaders, I promise.

PS. I’m not really doing the exhibit justice: not all the paintings were of the cop-drama genre. these, for example, were really beautiful and placid.

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