Last August, the Interior Department reclaimed two huge Thomas Moran paintings from the American Art Museum, where they were on long-term loan. That forced the museum to figure out a new way to display one of its remaining large-scale masterpieces by Moran, a 19th-century American landscape painter associated with the Hudson River School. The result is a focused masterpiece of its own — an arresting gallery that juxtaposes Moran’s 1893-1901 “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” with a 2004 painting, “Manifest Destiny,” by the contemporary American artist Alexis Rockman.
The Moran painting is an 8-by-14-foot vision of Yellowstone canyon and its beloved waterfall, blasted by sun through a roiling sea of clouds. The Rockman canvas, an 8-by 24-foot bleak, futuristic image of the Brooklyn waterfront, imagines the toll of global warming as ocean water submerges the city and makes a ruin of its infrastructure. These two works are now in dialogue, and the conversation — about our use and abuse of the natural world — is profoundly disquieting. Even more striking is the power of Rockman’s painting, which doesn’t feel like an ironic comment on the Moran, nor a pendant to it.
This is a dialogue among equal interlocutors, which suggests that large-scale landscape painting is still a vigorous form, especially in large public venues such as the Smithsonian, and it could play a vital role in how 21st-century Americans grapple with the destruction we are wreaking on the planet.
The second-floor gallery in the American Art Museum, now closed again because of the pandemic, demonstrates the renewed vigor of a kind of painting that was supposed to have died out at least a century ago. This includes landscapes, but also history painting, or what curator Eleanor Harvey, who created the gallery, calls “painting in the grand manner.” Works in this style use scale, drama, allegory and figuration to engage emphatically and directly with a wide audience — usually on themes pertinent to national identity, grievance or ambition.
History painting, in particular, allowed painters to mythologize the world they lived in, using heroic characters arrayed in theatrical tableaux to quicken patriotic and partisan emotions. John Trumbull’s massive 1820s paintings in the U.S. Capitol — “The Declaration of Independence,” “Washington Resigning His Commission” and the “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” — are classic American forays into the form. But other 19th-century American painters working in the grand manner included Thomas Cole, who created cinematic cycles of symbolic paintings, and Albert Bierstadt, who painted epic and aggrandizing landscapes of the American West.
Placing the bleak, futuristic Rockman next to the Romantic Moran emphasizes not just the dream and failed promise of the American project, now in disarray and disparaged around the globe, but also the persistence of grand-manner painting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York did something similar in December 2019, when it displayed two monumental works it commissioned from the Canadian-born Cree artist Kent Monkman in its cavernous central lobby, a ceremonial, neoclassical space known as the Great Hall. Monkman’s paintings engage directly with both the architectural grandeur of the museum and its traditional display of history painting. The giant diptych places the artist’s alter ego, a cross-dressing figure called Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, at the center of unsettling riffs on European colonization narratives.
Standard accounts of art history say that history painting in the United States died out about the time the German American artist Emanuel Leutze painted one of the most famous, and parodied, examples of the form: 1851’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which shows Gen. George Washington standing defiantly erect near the bow of a crowded boat. Like Leutze’s painting, one of the two Monkman works, “Resurgence of the People,” also is centered on a crowded boat on choppy waters, with Miss Chief Eagle Testikle (the name is a play on “mischief egotistical”) depicted in the same heroic pose as Washington, but wearing high heels, lipstick and not much else.
Large-scale, romantic landscape painting lasted a bit longer, into the early 20th century, but it, too, supposedly faltered as an art form more than a century ago.
The resurgence over the past two decades of artists working in the grand manner suggests that the energies inherent to this style didn’t disappear but were merely redirected: into cinema like that of Cecil B. DeMille; into cycles of narrative painting such as the African American history paintings of Jacob Lawrence; and even into political spectacle, lingering on in the rallies of President Trump. And now they are coalescing again into a coherent artistic form, with multiple offshoots and variations, including the works of Titus Kaphar and Kehinde Wiley.
Among the works of Kaphar, an American artist born in 1976, is a portrait of Andrew Jackson, based on an earlier 1833 image, yet covered with strips of shredded canvas hanging from his face, like a tattered beard. “The Cost of Removal,” held by the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., references Jackson’s most notorious presidential decision — the genocidal removal order that forced southeastern Native Americans off their ancestral lands. Wiley’s heroically scaled portraits, including an official portrait of former president Barack Obama, and Mark Bradford’s 2017 colossal rethinking of 19th-century panoramic painting, “Pickett’s Charge,” are related examples of new work in the grand manner.
Is this return to the old style fundamentally ironic? Do these new works relate to 19th-century classics like the graffiti mustache Salvador Dali painted on a reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa? Artists and critics have struggled to find the right words, or metaphors, to describe the phenomenon. Kaphar has said he is “amending” rather “erasing” older works. Others have spoken of reinvention, appropriation, inflection. Often, it is assumed that the artist is trying to destroy the power of the old work through an excoriating humor, mocking it into submission.
But Monkman isn’t just mocking Leutze any more than Rockman is despoiling the beauty of Moran’s vision of nature. They aren’t resurrecting a dead tradition simply to flog it. Rather, they are working in the same tradition, simply to different ends. They use scale, narrative and moral suasion to shape public opinion and collective identity.
“Scale is about audience, and it’s about the size of your megaphone,” says Harvey, the American Art Museum curator. Rockman, she says, “chooses to paint on a big scale because he doesn’t want you to look and look away. He wants your attention for a sustained period of time.” Like landscape masters who worked in the late 19th century, Rockman’s goal isn’t just to overwhelm the viewer with a gigantic vision — in this case environmental apocalypse. He wants the viewer to move around inside the image, study the details, look at the tropical mangroves growing on the submerged deck of a suspension bridge, just as Moran wanted his viewer to move through and ever deeper into the Yellowstone canyon, to the waterfall at its focal center.
That motion serves a purpose: In Moran’s case, the viewer moves through the painting so as to “own” the great open expanse of the West, land violently appropriated from Native Americans, while Rockman moves the viewer to “own” the devastation in the moral sense, acknowledging complicity in the destruction.
When Monkman refers to Leutze — and Titian, Rubens and Delacroix — he is working just as history worked before him — borrowing and repurposing figures and poses from earlier works because of their latent iconic power. The appropriations may sometimes be humorous — a naked Washington in high heels — but they also function like the details in a large-scale landscape, inviting the viewer to linger, look, explore. And the narratives they serve — visions of European incompetence and brutality along with a dream of redemption led by Indigenous people — aren’t merely sendups or derivatives of more authentic stories. Rather, they are serious, self-sufficient and challenging new visions of multiethnic social life.
For a century or more, the great works of the old grand manner have sat in museums enjoying something like the status of the English royal family — out-of-date and often a bit absurd, but largely untouchable because of the raw emotional response inspired by their pomp and pageantry. It seems these paintings haven’t been seriously challenged for generations. Their messages, their means, their ideas have ossified into glorious relics.
The new grand-manner artists are taking up the conversation again. They are filling a void, challenging the suppositions and conclusions of the earlier works. One of the most beloved American works in the tradition — Thomas Cole’s 1833-1836 cycle of paintings, “The Course of Empire” — showed the rise and fall of a great, classical civilization, from primitive origins to picturesque ruins. It resona0ted with 19th-century Americans, who tended to think of history as cyclical, with young America, of course, on the rising side of the cycle.
At some point, it seems, America crested the cycle. And now we have painters returning to the grand manner, painting darker visions, still aiming at the same wide audience but painting like Cassandra, urgent to be heard. The new grand manner is again showing us the course of empire, on the far side of the apogee.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly credited the image “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.” This story has been updated.