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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Compare: How Can Landscape Speak to Issues of National Identity?

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail
Artist / Origin: Albert Bierstadt (American, born Germany, 1830–1902)
Region: North America
Date: 1834
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 54 in. (137.2 cm.), W: 84 ¾ in. (215.3 cm).
Location: Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
Credit: Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Vincenzo Ardenghi

Bleaching Ground in the Countryside Near Haarlem

Bleaching Ground in the Countryside Near Haarlem
Artist / Origin: Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628/9–82)
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1670
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 24 5/8 in. (62.5 cm.), W: 21 ¾ in. (55.2 cm.)
Location: Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland
Credit: Courtesy of Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

How can landscape speak to issues of national identity?

The way one sees and represents the natural world is filtered through a series of changeable lenses—social and political, as well as cultural. It follows that all landscapes are constructs which embody and express, sustain and serve human values, interests, and aspirations. As the examples of Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valleyand Ruisdael’s Bleaching Ground demonstrate, art has often functioned to define nationhood and national identity.

Questions to Consider

  • The relationship between humans and the natural world is central to both of these works. How is it figured in each case? What do these differences suggest to you about the artist’s (or larger society’s) attitudes toward nature?
  • Each of these works is painted from the perspective of a viewer standing on high ground looking down. What is the effect of this vantage point on you as a viewer? How does it shape the way you look at and understand the work?
  • Both nineteenth-century American landscapes and seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes have been interpreted in terms of national identity. On what grounds are such arguments made? Why do you think that landscape painting might be an effective way to define one’s national identity or express patriotic feeling? Do you think it would do so effectively in your country today?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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