Hudson River School

1 January 2017

While both works prominently feature New England landscapes, there are a few key differences that result from vast differences in artistic style. O’Keeffe, staying true to her modernist roots, depicts her landscape in a simplified or abstracted form by omitting major details from her scene, and also through non-representational color choices.

Contrasting this, Bierstadt gives his scene intense detailing while simultaneously idealizing the scene and presenting nature in its most romantic form, thus offering a picturesque representation of the landscape with obvious omissions of human presence or natural flaws, which serves to enhance his scene. It is immediately clear that both landscapes, in their simplest form, depict a very similar subject: New England mountains and water. Bierstadt presents a majestic take on his landscape, which uses sunlight to emphasize a mist hovering above the lake in the foreground.

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This misting highlighted by the sun gives the landscape an overwhelmingly divine feeling to it. Contrasting this divine feeling, O’Keeffe’s work evokes more of a sense of calmness. With a full pink moon displayed in the background, its reflection in the water, and a series of green mountains in the foreground, the landscape moves in a more mystical yet tranquil way than the other work. Her ocean stays relatively still, with only slight movement evoked by visible brush strokes, as opposed to the active transformation from water to mist in Bierstadt’s lake.

Also, where his mountains serve as fixed objects in the landscape, O’Keeffe’s mountains seem to be rolling in a more literal sense. The fading of colors gives them an undulating feel that starkly contrasts the Franconia Mountains depicted. Pink Moon Over Water, although similar in style to most of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, differs in that it depicts a scene from Maine (O’Keefee). Most of her work was inspired from living in Arizona, where she spent most of her life (Biography).

In a similar manner, although most of Albert Bierstadt’s work depicted the American West, this landscape differs in that it represents a setting in New Hampshire that is much closer to his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts (Henderson). Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, New Hampshire, belongs to the artistic movement that classifies all off Albert Bierstadt’s work: The Hudson River School—a mid-nineteenth century American art movement that embodied elements of realism and romanticism (Henderson).

Both of these criteria are met; the landscape is extremely detailed, making it seem for the viewer as if they are standing and witnessing it in person, while at the same time it is idealized by being stripped of any human presence which likely would have existed at the time of the works creation (Curator’s). Another romanticized element in play is the depiction of the light as it perfectly spotlights the ominous misting from the lake.

From this it is clear that the work remains within the bounds of the Hudson River School movement of which Bierstadt pioneered, because such a spontaneous set of circumstances would not likely have occurred during the creation of the work. Very different in style, Pink Moon Over Water belongs to the American modernist movement. Characteristics which can attribute it to the movement include abstraction for the sake of aesthetic pleasure and the rejection of realism. Much like many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s other paintings, Pink Moon attempts to escape reality purposefully in an attempt to increase its visual appeal.

Rather than a rigid or earthly form, O’Keeffe gives her mountains a smoothness that does not exist in nature. She reshapes the environment and fashions it in a way that happily and eagerly attempts to agree with the human eye. Major compositional elements in Pink Moon Over Water, include mountains, ocean, and a pink full moon. In this sense, the piece is simplistic because it does not have any minor elements like trees or clouds. Although the rolling foreground mountains make the landscape asymmetrical, it is very close to being a symmetrical piece.

Color distribution is very even and the moon is a perfect circle centered in the background, and because of this the work effectively tip-toes the line between symmetry and asymmetry. Contrasting this is Echo Lake, which is clearly asymmetrical: on the right is a lake and distant mountains, and on the left a shore and closer mountain with trees. Because of its intricate detailing, the New Hampshire landscape possesses many elements which were thoughtfully excluded from the Pink Moon Over Water landscape.

These elements include trees, shrubs and vegetation, clouds, rocks, and mist. Although it’s likely all of these details would have been present at the location of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, she chooses not to display them for the sake of smoothness and aesthetic indulgence that is characteristic of her artistic style. There are huge differences in the application of color between the two works. Albert Bierstadt uses color in his landscape with one purpose in mind: accurately depicting the subject matter in its ideal state.

Earthly tones are used for the dirt and mountains, lush green shades for the vegetation, and soft blue tones for the sky and its reflection on the lake’s surface. Although slightly idealized, the colors reflect something that can unquestionably be found in nature. Georgia O’Keeffe contrastingly takes her work in the opposite direction. It’s clear at first glance that the colors she uses, although beautiful and calming, could never be found in nature. She applies greens that range from whitish and sea foam green colored to a pine green color at the tops of the mountains.

Most notably of all, the moon is a light shade of pink that serves as a perfect complement to the greens used in the mountain. Light is another element used very differently in both landscapes. In Echo Lake, dark storm clouds dominate the top of the landscape, but a gap exists that allows a radiant beam of sunlight to penetrate, which serves to showcase the mist coming up from the lake. This effectively gives the mist a divine feel that elevates the landscape to something more powerful than just a simple mountain scene.

O’Keeffe’s painting uses light much differently. The source of light is the reflection of the moon. Aside from its reflection on the water, it is unclear how the moonlight affects the rest of the piece. Irrationally, mountain peaks which have more exposure to the moonlight are darker, while the lower parts of the rolling hills that are tucked away from the moonlight are brightly colored. Because of this it is clear that O’Keeffe intended to use light for a different purpose.

The fading from light to dark in the mountains gives them a strange sort of movement while viewing it. Starting from the bottom, the viewer’s eyes can almost roll over each individual hill and then finally into the water off in the distance. Spatially, both landscapes are ordered very logically. It is not hard to discern what elements come in front of or behind other elements. It is clear in Pink Moon Over Water that closest to the viewer is three distinct hills that lead into a distant ocean and horizon. Similarly, Echo Lake presents little challenge.

In the foreground is a lake and shoreline, which leads to a mountain farther back, and finally a distant mountain and clouds. Brushstrokes are easily seen in Pink Moon Over Water, while they are challenging to spot in Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, NH. Albert Bierstadt did well to conceal the appearance of any brushstrokes. His attention to detail and high level of skill attempts to minimize the appearance of brushstrokes, most likely to avoid reminding the viewer that this is indeed a painting, and not a photograph.

O’Keefe on the other hand used visible brushwork to give her mountains and water horizontal motion. When I look at Bierstadt’s Echo Lake and the powerful natural environment it depicts, I simply feel as if it immediately takes me to New Hampshire, and quietness envelops my mind. It reminds me of the peaceful serenity that’s characteristic of the natural environment. In addition, the transformation from water to mist feels symbolically representative of the physical laws that govern us.

It reminds me that we as humans simply populate a natural world that possesses infinitely more power than we do. Although I both admire and respect the scene portrayed by Bierstadt, I prefer O’Keeffe’s work because I connect better to it emotionally. The abstraction and unique color choices allow for an escape from reality that is not possible in Bierstadt’s work. Even though it does not depict a realistic landscape, it still manages to convey a kind of surreal tranquility ordinarily evoked from the most beautiful and monumental landscapes.

Even though both landscapes discussed are set in New England, the similarities end there. Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, NH offers a straight forward and accurately detailed look at a mountain landscape, which opposes the abstracted view of a landscape presented in Pink Moon Over Water, which makes use of non-representational color and simplified natural forms. Rather than idealizing her scene like Bierstadt, Georgia O’Keeffe simplifies it. Both convey powerful emotions and go in very different directions to do so.

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