Spring Landscape (Spring in Marin County)

Spring Landscape (Spring in Marin County) by William Keith

Does this painting describe a moment in time, or is it timeless?

Keith’s friendship with the naturalist John Muir enhanced his view of nature as inspiration. Muir noted that the painter should be true to the specific details of a given place, “observing a devout truthfulness to Nature yet removing veils of detail, and laying bare the very hearts and souls of landscapes.” Among the scenic places that Keith visited frequently was Marin County, which provides the setting for this bright, bucolic scene.


Moonlight by George Inness

What emotional quality does the light in this painting suggest?

This painting attempts to convey the impression made upon Inness by the partially obscured glow of moonlight on trees and houses. The artist once explained, “The purpose of the painter is simply to reproduce in other minds the impression which a scene has made upon him. . . . [an artwork’s] aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion.”

Fog over San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California (from the Prisonation series)

Fog over San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California (from the Prisonation series) by Sandow Birk

What forms of power shape this landscape?

This view of San Quentin State Prison shows California’s oldest and most notorious prison veiled behind a foggy mist. Birk’s landscape documents the transformation of California from a mythical Eden into the home of one of the nation’s largest incarcerated populations. According to Birk, the works in his Prisonation series are “based on the California landscape paintings of the 1880s, the image of California, and the romance of the West and the reality of what the West has become.”

The Glory of the Heavens

The Glory of the Heavens by William Keith

What do you experience walking at night in nature?

With its crimson and golden light, this landscape is evocative of California; it may have been inspired by Keith’s excursion to Monterey the year it was painted. The painting was described in a 1912 exhibition catalogue as “a poem in pigments, one of those rare poetic fancies, a song without words such as only a masterhand and spirit can call from the spheres.” Keith considered this work one of his best, exhibiting it in the California Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Governor's Creek, Florida

Governor's Creek, Florida by William Morris Hunt

Does the movement of the boat interrupt the scene’s stillness or become a part of it?

This creek scene condenses brown-green foliage against its reflection on the water’s surface. With horizontal green strokes, Hunt rendered Spanish moss hanging from tree branches, suggesting the damp warmth of the Florida climate. Governor’s Creek and the St. John River were fashionable resort areas when the artist painted this scene. However, this picture includes no evidence of leisure—instead, Hunt shows two small figures rowing their boat laboriously through the smooth water.

The Great Swamp

The Great Swamp by Martin Johnson Heade

What do you do to protect the environment?

Heade painted 120 views of salt marshes, natural farmlands where laborers harvested black marsh grasses and gathered them into haystacks to dry. The artist first went into the marshes to hunt and fish, developing a deep appreciation for the productive relationship between humans and the land. The two figures in the canoe—likely a father and son—may have symbolized the future generations that would benefit from protecting and maintaining such natural resources.

Ruins of the Roman Theatre at Taormina, Sicily

Ruins of the Roman Theatre at Taormine, Sicily by William Stanley Haseltine

What democratic ideals was America founded upon?

Here we see the ruins of a Greek and Roman theater in the ancient town of Taormina, Sicily. Classical civilization had symbolic resonance for many Americans, who viewed their country as being founded upon the democratic ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Haseltine’s views not only served as a pictorial souvenir of popular tourist destinations but also inspired those who could not afford to take the “Grand Tour” of Europe.

On the Cache la Poudre River

On the Cache la Poudre River by Worthington Whittredge

What might have been left out of this painting?

Whittredge likely made this painting on the last of three journeys to the American West. He was deeply impressed by the beauty of the countryside: “Nothing could be more like an Arcadian landscape . . . the earth covered with soft grass waving in the wind, with innumerable flowers often covering acres with a single color as if they had been planted there.”

Scene in the Arctic

Scene in the Arctic by William Bradford

Have you ever been on a great adventure?

The horizontal expanse of this scene exaggerates the openness of the uncharted Arctic. A single ship among icebergs became Bradford’s best-known subject, and he painted from personal experience and photographs of Arctic expeditions. He participated in several explorations—opportunities he used to study nature, glaciers, and icebergs for later inclusion in his paintings.

Fishing Party in the Mountains

Fishing Party in the Mountains by Thomas Hill

How do outdoor activities make you feel?

This painting shows how a reverence for nature helped cultivate rural, recreational tourism. The popularity of fishing was greatly enhanced by the publication of the first American edition (1847) of Isaak Walton’s legendary fishing guide The Compleat Angler: The Contemplative Man’s Recreation (1653). While some Americans fished for sustenance and others “angled” for pleasure, most believed that fishing enhanced the participant’s physical and mental health.