Over time, some idealistic landscape images become central to a culture’s definition of itself. These archetypal icons are so ingrained in national identity that successive generations accept them and their cultural importance without question.

During the twentieth century, changes in social, political, and economic spheres have altered North American worldviews. As a result, interpretation of some iconic landscapes has shifted. For example, a place that was considered a natural wonder a century ago may now be considered a tourist trap - two very different interpretations. These landscapes remain loaded with meaning, except the meaning has changed. What was once a serious cultural icon may be transformed by shifting social values into a cultural stereotype.
Over time, some idealistic landscape images become central to a culture’s definition of itself. These archetypal icons are so ingrained in national identity that successive generations accept them and their cultural importance without question.

During the twentieth century, changes in social, political, and economic spheres have altered North American worldviews. As a result, interpretation of some iconic landscapes has shifted. For example, a place that was considered a natural wonder a century ago may now be considered a tourist trap - two very different interpretations. These landscapes remain loaded with meaning, except the meaning has changed. What was once a serious cultural icon may be transformed by shifting social values into a cultural stereotype.

© CHIN 2001. All Rights Reserved.

Wheat

Wheat

Thomas Hart Benton (1889 - 1975)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Mitchell and museum purchase
1967
UNITED STATES
oil on wood
50.80 X 53.30 cm
© Smithsonian American Art Museum


Throughout his life Thomas Hart Benton explored themes of growth, death, and renewal in paintings that feature the people and land of the Midwest. In Wheat, ripe stalks bear the weight of grain ready for harvest, even as the green shoots of next season’s growth push past the stubble of recently cut rows.
Throughout his life Thomas Hart Benton explored themes of growth, death, and renewal in paintings that feature the people and land of the Midwest. In Wheat, ripe stalks bear the weight of grain ready for harvest, even as the green shoots of next season’s growth push past the stubble of recently cut rows.

© CHIN 2001. All Rights Reserved

Fall in the Foothills

Fall in the Foothills

W. Herbert Dunton (1878 - 1936)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
c. 1933-1934
UNITED STATES
oil on canvas
© Smithsonian American Art Museum


A self-described cowboy and avid outdoorsman, Dunton saw the rugged West fading away before his eyes and he determined to hand down to the American people visual records of wildlife. In Fall in the Foothills, the artist captures the quiet elegance of a mother bear and her two inquisitive cubs at home in the sun-drenched autumn landscape.
A self-described cowboy and avid outdoorsman, Dunton saw the rugged West fading away before his eyes and he determined to hand down to the American people visual records of wildlife. In Fall in the Foothills, the artist captures the quiet elegance of a mother bear and her two inquisitive cubs at home in the sun-drenched autumn landscape.

© CHIN 2001. All Rights Reserved

Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies

Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies

John Mix Stanley (1814 - 1872)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Misses Henry
1845
UNITED STATES
oil on canvas
© Smithsonian American Art Museum


John Mix Stanley simply remarked of this painting of the Keechies tribe that it is "on the South-western Prairies" in the annotated catalogue of his portraits of North American Indians, which he published in 1852. Perhaps then, even as now, the subject of an Indian buffalo hunt seemed so romantic as to need no further description.
John Mix Stanley simply remarked of this painting of the Keechies tribe that it is "on the South-western Prairies" in the annotated catalogue of his portraits of North American Indians, which he published in 1852. Perhaps then, even as now, the subject of an Indian buffalo hunt seemed so romantic as to need no further description.

© CHIN 2001. All Rights Reserved

Fertility

Fertility

Grant Wood (1891 - 1942)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Frank McClure
1939
UNITED STATES
lithograph on paper
22.80 X 30.30 cm
© Smithsonian American Art Museum


In the last several years of his life, Grant Wood, a leading exponent of American Scene painting, produced a series of lithographs that conveyed his pride in the rich farm land of Iowa and his idealized vision of agrarian life. The artist avoided depicting towns or villages in these works, concentrating instead on rolling countryside and a landscape under loving cultivation. The season of the year in these pictures tends to be spring, summer, or fall. Fertility seems to be set in summer, when the sweet Iowa corn is high and nearly ready to yield its golden bounty.
In the last several years of his life, Grant Wood, a leading exponent of American Scene painting, produced a series of lithographs that conveyed his pride in the rich farm land of Iowa and his idealized vision of agrarian life. The artist avoided depicting towns or villages in these works, concentrating instead on rolling countryside and a landscape under loving cultivation. The season of the year in these pictures tends to be spring, summer, or fall. Fertility seems to be set in summer, when the sweet Iowa corn is high and nearly ready to yield its golden bounty.

© CHIN 2001. All Rights Reserved

Riding a Giant Corncob to Market

Riding a Giant Corncob to Market

W. H. Martin (1865 - 1940)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase from the Charles Isaacs Collection made possible in part by the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment
1908
UNITED STATES
silver print on paper
8.90 X 13.40 cm
© Smithsonian American Art Museum


Around the turn of the century in the United States, the phenomenon of comic tall-tale postcards developed to charm a popular audience. They served as a relief from the harsh realities of mid-western agricultural life---from grasshopper plagues to drought and floods---while also satirizing the idealized pictures that had lured people West a generation earlier. Photographer William H. Martin of Kansas created many of these images using the technique of photomontage. Cutting and pasting together pieces from different photographs, he composed an out-of-scale scene in which tiny people were juxtaposed with immense images of produce or game. He then re-photographed this altered picture and printed it on postcard stock. Western settlers often sent Martin’s popular images back east to friends and relatives, who collected them in albums for family entertainment.
Around the turn of the century in the United States, the phenomenon of comic tall-tale postcards developed to charm a popular audience. They served as a relief from the harsh realities of mid-western agricultural life---from grasshopper plagues to drought and floods---while also satirizing the idealized pictures that had lured people West a generation earlier. Photographer William H. Martin of Kansas created many of these images using the technique of photomontage. Cutting and pasting together pieces from different photographs, he composed an out-of-scale scene in which tiny people were juxtaposed with immense images of produce or game. He then re-photographed this altered picture and printed it on postcard stock. Western settlers often sent Martin’s popular images back east to friends and relatives, who collected them in albums for family entertainment.

© CHIN 2001. All Rights Reserved

Monument Valley, National Monument, Arizona

Monument Valley, National Monument, Arizona

Len Jenshel (1949 - )
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Consolidated Natural Gas Company Foundation
1985
UNITED STATES
ektacolor print on paper
37.50 X 55.90 cm
© Smithsonian American Art Museum


Len Jenshel’s desert photography illustrates the natural power and beauty of the desert prevailing over humanity’s attempt to manipulate and control the forbidding landscape. A constructed wall for sightseeing and a parked vehicle interrupt this sweeping vista of Monument Valley. Fortunately, no tourists obstruct the view of the majestic rock formations that rise up to 1,000 feet above the desert floor near the Utah-Arizona border.
Len Jenshel’s desert photography illustrates the natural power and beauty of the desert prevailing over humanity’s attempt to manipulate and control the forbidding landscape. A constructed wall for sightseeing and a parked vehicle interrupt this sweeping vista of Monument Valley. Fortunately, no tourists obstruct the view of the majestic rock formations that rise up to 1,000 feet above the desert floor near the Utah-Arizona border.

© CHIN 2001. All Rights Reserved

Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Be conscious of the emotional impact that is caused and shaped by a work of art
  • Give examples of iconic landscapes from North American nations
  • Describe how the meaning of iconic landscapes has changed over time through examples
  • Be aware of the commonality of themes in landscape art among the three North American countries

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