‘Seeing and Being Seen’ in 19th Century Traveler Art

When looking at paintings by traveler artists from the mid to late 19th century, the viewer must ask one crucial question: what would the impression of these exotic vistas have ultimately been? Since 19th century viewers were most likely to see foreign landscapes in the museum gallery at this point, as photography would not become an omnipresent part of daily life until the 1880s, one can begin to conceive how impressive the scenes must have been. While 20th century readers might recognize this approach as “reception theory” or “visual studies,” the question of how a museumgoer might have received a painting of a tropical locale intersects nicely with our own contemporary attempt to understand exactly what and why artists painted these scenes. As W. J. T. Mitchell writes, vision is “a ‘cultural construction,’ that is learned and cultivated, not simply given by nature” and is thus “deeply involved with human societies, with the ethics and politics, aesthetics and epistemology of seeing and being seen.”[1]

In considering the cultural constructions that defined both vision and art in the 19th century, scholars can begin to unravel the circumstances that both drove painters to capture foreign landscapes and allowed them to reach the remote locales (including, for example, the invention of the steam engine in 1804). As scholar Katherine Manthorne described in her book Tropical Renaissance: North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879, American artists often relied on commercial ventures to reach what they deemed ‘untried frontier,’ usually through visits to Central and South America.[2] Accordingly, the resulting works idealized the region as a fertile Eden or tabula rasa despite the generations of missionaries and explorers who had also traveled south. Thus many of these works led to what Manthorne calls the “complete condensation of South America” and the region came to symbolize certain American priorities.

Two paintings currently at Hawthorne Fine Art demonstrate how Mitchell and Manthorne’s frameworks can help to reveal the unique circumstances of production surrounding this genre. In Bay of Rio de Janeiro (ca. 1866) by Cyrenius Hall (b. 1830. New Hampshire), the artist creates an expansive view of Brazil’s Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) Mountain on the left and the Corcovado Mountain on the right. In this case, the subject and composition of the work highlight both the artist’s skill and the perilous journey taken. While the bulbous mountain points evoke the scene’s exotic locale, the wispy, fiery red clouds in the sky suggest the personal sacrifices Hall endured to reach this fantastical vista, as he lost his brother Henry from a hemorrhage en route. One can thus locate Mitchell’s duality of “seeing and being seen” within Hall’s painting itself, as it relies heavily on observation and interpretation while also revealing the artist’s recollection of a significant cultural experience abroad marked by real world tribulations.

One can apply this same method of disclosure to another work currently in Hawthorne’s collection called Tropical Landscape at Sunset from 1885 by Norton Bush (b. 1834, New York). Completed after Bush’s third trip to Nicaragua in 1875, this painting likely depicts the San Juan River that flows along the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica and is similar in style and composition to a work by Bush from 1871 called On the San Juan in the Cisneros Collection. Luminist in effect, these ethereal paintings evince the artist’s tranquil memories of traveling along a picturesque river in a country he knew well. Given they were completed after the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which unceremoniously concluded an era where one had to travel through Central America to reach New York from California, perhaps these works also represent Bush’s own nostalgia.[3] Bound up inextricably with the economics of American expansionism and the desire for increasingly exotic views, Bush’s trips to Nicaragua over his lifetime reflect the increasing ease with which Americans traveled abroad – ushering in the ‘Gilded Age’ where artists began to look inward for inspiration.

[1] Mitchell, W. J. T. Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture, in Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York: Routledge, 1998), 87.

[2] Manthorne, Katherine. Tropical Renaissance: North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).

[3] Maccaro, Alex C. “Norton Bush, On the San Juan, 1871,” Exh cat., Traveler Artists: Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, ed. Katherine Manthorne (New York: Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, 2015), 200.

Cyrenius Hall

Cyrenius Hall, Bay of Rio de Janeiro, ca. 1866, Hawthorne Fine Art.

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Norton Bush, Tropical Landscape at Sunset, 1885, Hawthorne Fine Art.

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Norton Bush, On the San Juan, 1871, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.

By Lizzie Frasco

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