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Luminism Collage

Luminism - History and Concepts

Started: 1850
Ended: 1875
Luminism Timeline

Beginnings of Luminism

To Start: Defining Luminism

Luminism refers to a type of American landscape painting that became most prominent in the 1850s and lasted into the 1870s practiced among artists associated with the Hudson River School. The artists did not identify themselves as Luminists, as the term wasn't coined until 1954 when the art historian and director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, John I. H. Baur, used it to describe these naturalistic landscapes, often seascapes or river views, emphasizing the treatment of light to create a contemplative and luminous effect. Baur defined Luminist work as, "a polished and meticulous realism in which there is no sign of brushwork and no trace of impressionism, the atmospheric effects being achieved by infinitely careful gradations of tone, by the most exact study of the relative clarity of near and far objects and by a precise rendering of the variations in texture and color produced by direct or reflected rays."

Early Developments

The painters who developed the style that later came to be called Luminism had varying backgrounds and training. Barbara Novak, the art historian, whose Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875 (1980) defined and advanced the recognition of Luminism wrote that the origins of the movement were "mysterious" and that it was "one of the most truly indigenous styles in the history of modern art."

Lacking a definite point of origin, Luminism nonetheless reflects a number of influences, most notably 17th-century Dutch paintings, naïve genre art of 19th-century America, the philosophy of Transcendentalism, and photography and printmaking. The development of the Luminist style can first be seen in the works of George Harvey and the genre artists George Caleb Bingham and William Sidney Mount, and reaches maturity in the works of notable master landscape artists, Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, Sanford Gifford, and John R. Kensett.

George Harvey: Atmospheric Landscapes

Harvey, a British artist known for painting miniature portraits and watercolor landscapes, came to America in 1820 seeking his fortune and began making connections with the artistic and literary community in New York City. He became interested in what he called "the ever-changing atmospheric effects" of the North American landscape and in the 1830s began working on a watercolor series "Atmospheric Landscapes of North America," that occupied him until the early 1840s.

His intent was to show what he called, "the course of the day," by focusing on particular areas in different seasons and times of day. He was influenced by Thomas Cole's ideas of nature as cyclical, expressed in Cole's Course of the Empire series, and also drew upon the works of well-known writers associated with the Hudson River School. For instance, his Daybreak: Leather-stocking's Expedient (c. 1830s-40s) combined his atmospheric landscape with a scene from James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Prairie (1827). In 1841 Harvey published Atmospheric Landscapes (1841), which combined his watercolors with etchings of his landscapes by William J. Bennett, and he exhibited the oil paintings and watercolors in 1842 at the National Academy in New York. To reach a larger audience he subsequently reproduced the images on glass lantern slides to be presented in tours of Britain and America, where his work came to the attention of artists associated with the Hudson River School.

Second-generation Hudson River School

Most of the artists associated with Luminism were part of a second generation of Hudson River School painters. The origin of the Hudson River School can be traced to 1825 with Thomas Cole's landscapes of the Catskill Mountains, as seen in his Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825). Cole's Romantic landscapes focused on pristine wilderness and helped bolster a rising national awareness of America as an unexplored and uniquely beautiful environment.

Following Cole's death in 1848, Frederic Edwin Church painted grand, pastoral scenes of the American landscape that fused the real and the idealized, and he went on to paint the South American wilderness on a panoramic scale, as seen in The Andes of Ecuador (1853). These and later more dramatic landscapes evoked the experience of the sublime - the individual's precarious place in the midst of an overwhelming nature. Church's ability to capture the light and atmosphere of a place paved the way for the Luminist painters that would follow.

Asher B. Durand, a painter of precise and humble landscapes, wrote in 1855 that new painters should eschew the dramatic and sublime and focus instead on "the 'lone and tranquil' lakes embosomed in ancient forests, that abound in our wild districts, the unshorn mountains surrounding them with their richly textured covering, the ocean prairies of the West and many other forms of Nature yet spared from the pollution of the civilization." His words would become guides for a new generation of landscape painters.

Robert Cooke's portrait of Fitz Henry Lane (1835) depicts the artist, who had paralysis from childhood polio in his wheelchair, paused while working on a seascape.

Following in the footsteps of Church and Durand, another group of second generation Hudson River School painters included Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, and John Frederick Kensett who developed the Luminist style which came into maturity in the 1850s. By the 1850s, America had changed from a country marked by large areas of wilderness to a more pastoral landscape, populated by small towns and growing cities, connected by railway systems and the Erie Canal. As a result the river views and seascapes of the Luminists depicted places where signs of human habitation and activity were always present. In their small intimate canvases, they sought to convey a sense of the individual in communion with nature, a quiet state of contemplation.

Naïve painting

Edward Hicks' <i>Peaceable Kingdom</i> (1826), exemplifying Quaker ideals, depicts a peaceful encounter between predator and prey animals and, in the left, between Native Americans and Quakers, all placed within an American landscape.

Naïve, or folk, art was an important influence upon the development of Luminism, particularly as seen in the works of William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham. But other Luminist painters were influenced as well by the naïve style. Martin Johnson Heade's teacher and mentor was Edward Hicks, best known for his Peaceable Kingdom (1826), which depicts a Biblical scene in an American landscape, and was one of the 19th centrury's most reproduced works. While depicting an altogether different subject matter from Hicks and other folk art painters, Luminism drew upon the naïve tradition's linearism, bold outlines, and its minimalized elements to compose the landscape itself.

17th-Century Dutch Landscapes

Noted Luminist works like Lane's Owl's Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine (1862) and Kensett's View of the Shrewsbury River, New Jersey (1859) show the influence of Dutch landscape painting. A number of noted American art collectors who became patrons of the Hudson River painters had collections of 17th-century Dutch paintings, and works by the likes of Aelbert Jacobsz Cuyp, Aert van der Neer, Salomon van Rusdael, and Jacob van Rusydael were also shown at public exhibitions. As a result, the Luminists were influenced by Dutch subject matter of atmospheric landscapes with bodies of water as seen in Saloman van Rusydael's River Landscape with Ferry (1649), as well as the Dutch artists' horizontal compositions that emphasized spatial recession. The Luminists, though, gave less importance to the sky and more often emphasized the middle ground with its view of a body of water.

Luminism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends


Transcendentalism was an American philosophy developed and expounded by Ralph Waldo Emerson beginning with his essay "Nature," published in 1836. Influenced by the theology of Unitarianism as well as the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and European Romanticism, Transcendentalism emphasized communion with nature as a connection to a higher or 'transcendental' knowledge and objected to the corrupting forces of institutions on individuals. In "Nature," Emerson wrote that the human soul "is not an organ...not a faculty, but light...." Light, he felt, made the world "transparent" so the "light of higher laws than its own" can shine through it. Emerson established the Transcendentalism Club in 1836 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was joined by many of the leading writers and thinkers of the time.

The cover image of Thoreau's <i>Walden: On Life in the Woods</i> (1854), drawn by his sister, Sophia, depicts his simple cabin

Emerson became a lifelong friend and influence upon Henry David Thoreau who chronicled his simple self-reliant life in a cabin for two years in Walden: On Life in the Woods (1854), which became a founding text for later environmental and ecological movements. While none of the Luminsts were to explore such habitation practices, many of them followed in Thoreau's footsteps by living or spending parts of the year on the coast of Maine and the shores of New York where they not only engaged in painting but camping, fishing, and boating. Living not far from city centers, just as Thoreau's Walden Pond was not far from the town of Concord, they experienced nature not as wilderness but as restoration and inspiration.

Christopher Pearse Cranch's illustration (c.1837) of Emerson's famous 'eyeball' passage in his essay 'Nature'

Either through direct influence or an affinity with Emerson's views, Luminists focused primarily on light itself, its effects and atmospherics, and created canvases where brushstrokes and signs of the artistic process were all but invisible, so that the viewer would feel as Emerson wrote, "my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." Out of this philosophical foundation, the landscape artists of the second generation Hudson River School moved away from dramatic and sublime depictions of nature and toward a nature infused with a divine light.

Genre painting

Early Luminist works, like those of William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham combine genre painting with Luminist landscapes. Both Mount and Bingham were successful genre painters, and Bingham's most famous work, Fur Traders Descending the Mississippi (c.1845), depicts a genre scene of the American frontier but conveys a Luminist light and atmosphere. Unlike other Luminist painters, Mount and Bingham emphasized the human figure, using bold outlines and a more vibrant color palette. Their treatment of landscape pointed the way to Luminism and subsequent painters like Grant Wood and other American Scene painters of the 1930s.

Printmaking and Photography

Fitz Hugh Lane's <i>View of the Town of Gloucester, Mass.</i>, (c. 1835-36) shows his mastery of tone and detail as a lithographer

In addition to their paintings, many Luminists also worked in printmaking techniques such as lithography and engraving. Lane was well known as a lithographer and, as a result, had experiential knowledge of tonal gradations that he carried over into his paintings. The emphasis upon subtle gradations set the works of the Luminists apart from the more famous Hudson River School painters like Bierstadt and Church who favored spectacular contrast and dramatic light effects. Simultaneously, in America beginning in the 1840s, crystalline daguerreotype images were widely popular, and the affinity for scenes of distilled clarity carried over into precise detail depicted in Luminist painting.

In the 1840s, photography was called "photogenic drawing," which as historian Weston Naef explains, came from the idea that that photograph was "thought to draw its own image with light as the instrument." Because of the limitedness of photographic technology at this time, most photographs consisted of portraits taken in a studio where the light could be controlled. It was during the generation that saw the rise of Luminist painters that photographers such as Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan, also inspired by Emerson and Thoreau, used the technological advances to take their cameras outside to capture the transcendent beauty of nature.

Later Developments - After Luminism

Luminism came to an end in the 1870s but influenced the development of Tonalism in 1880. Tonalism emphasized atmosphere and effects of light but favored a darker palette and scenes associated with twilight or moonlight, as seen in the works of James Whistler and George Inness. However, in general, the works of the Hudson River School, including the works of the Luminists, fell out of favor with the rise of new art movements in the early-20th century. A revival of interest in Luminism and the Hudson River School occurred in the 1930s with American Scene painting that emphasized depictions of American rural life.

Following the definition of Luminism in 1954, major exhibitions and books continued to promote the work, as seen in the National Gallery of Art's exhibition American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850-1875 curated by John Wilmerding in 1980. As a result the Luminists have influenced a number of contemporary artists.

The Minimalist and Op Art artist Dan Flavin has acknowledged the influence of John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford, saying he identifies with "the exactitude of the precision of record and the accuracy of the light in John Frederick Kensett." Some noted artists draw upon the entire Luminist tradition, as seen in the Contemporary Realist Jane Wilson's American Light (1991), whereas others acknowledge the influence of particular painters, like the Post-minimalist Richard Tuttle whose work draws from his enthusiasm for Kensett's work.

Ian Hornik, a founding artist of Photorealism and Hyperrealism, often cited Frederic Edwin Church and Martin Johnson Heade as continuing influences and inspirations, and the postmodernist David Bierk has conceptually reinterpreted Heade's orchid and hummingbird paintings.

Simultaneously a number of artists, including James Doolin, April Gornik, Normal Lundin, Katherine Bowling, Keith Jacobshagen, Joan Nelson, Scott Cameron, Pauline Ziegen and Steven DaLuz, are reinterpreting Luminism into a contemporary idiom and have been referred to as Neoluminists. April Gornik has said, "I began to see that the luminists... attempted to recreate a landscape's experience for the viewer...Their paintings were not so much depictions as they were complex machines of special effects." Other noted contemporaries like the American Stephen Hannock and the Scottish Matthew Draper continue to explore the works and influence of the Luminists in their own artistic practice.

Do Not Miss

  • The Hudson River School was a nineteenth century American art movement that celebrated the wilderness and great outdoors. The Hudson River School artists were influenced by the Romantics, using dramatic scenes of nature to express the American ideals of their time: discovery and exploration.
  • The Tonalists aspired to emulate musicality and inspire contemplation. By arranging color and forms, they believed that landscapes could evoke emotion and harmony.
  • Naturalism is a movement within painting where the human subject is depicted in natural habitats and social milieus, with an emphasis on visual accuracy.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Luminism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 15 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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