Trans-American Landscape Art

Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros & Olana in dialogue in the exhibition OVERLOOK

May 11, 2017

Latin American nineteenth-century landscape art, in the rare instances when it is publically displayed, appears in relation to its national school: Velasco with Mexican Art, Ferrez with Brazilian photography, Church or Heade with other artists from the U.S. The exhibition Overlook: Teresita Fernández Confronts Frederic Church at Olana is a pioneering merger between the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) and Olana, the historic home of Frederic Church on New York state’s Hudson River that affords a rare opportunity to see the artworks in a new international context, prompting fresh insights and reinterpretations. Church and other artists represented in the CPPC not only traveled across the Americas but also put their work into circulation, crossing national borders and awakening wide international audiences to places far from home. A selection of works from Overlook combined with others not included in that show illustrates that not only the artists, but the artworks and their influences traveled between borders in centuries past.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), U.S.

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi (1853). Oil on canvas. 24.8 x 36.8 cm

Church’s Cotopaxi provides our starting point: a physically small (9 ¾ x 14 ½”) but conceptually signficiant point of intersection between the art worlds of Latin America and the United States, of Quito and New York City, from its creation in 1853 until today. It therefore offers the perfect emblem of the relationship between the CPPC and Olana that this exhibition celebrates.

Consider it first from the viewpoint of the artist Frederic Church, a leading landscapist who popularized the tropical landscape as a subject for art. He painted it on his first visit to South America in 1853, during his initial exploration of the Andean peaks guided by Alexander von Humboldt’s writings. Unlike many of the larger scale canvases he painted upon his return to New York, this one was completed while he was still in South America and therefore represents his immediate response to place. From the moment when he stood before the perfectly shaped volcanic cone so enthusiastically praised by Humboldt, the young Hudson River painter found his signature motif that would continue to evolve in his art over the subsequent twenty years.

Ponder it next from the viewpoint of the picture’s recipient: Antonio Salas, patriarch of the artistic dynasty of the Salas family, who had provided colonial Quito with religious paintings, and the post-independence nation with portraits of the heroes of the revolution. During his stay in Quito, Church notes in his diary: “Visited the studio of the most famous painter here, Sr. Salas,” and presented his Cotopaxi as a gift to the elder Salas. The picture was kept in the possession of the family and hung in the city’s first art academy, which they helped to found, where it was available for students to study. It must have been especially meaningful to Antonio’s son Rafael Salas—a teenager in 1853—who subsequently transitioned from religious pictures to the study of nature, and helped found a native school of landscape art.

Finally, meditate on the meaning of this picture now that it has been acquired by the CPPC and hung—for the first time—on the walls of Olana, Church’s home on the Hudson River.  While the two institutions evolved at different times and under diverse conditions, they converge in a shared vision and philosophy. Church aimed in part to educate audiences through his pictures about what was then the little-known southern continent. Often accompanied by explanatory texts, they were recognized in their day as “geography lessons in paint.” During his travels he acted as a cultural ambassador, and upon his return he welcomed many Latin Americans visiting New York to Olana.  In the 1880 and 1890s the artist traveled by rail to Mexico, where he acquired two Aztec relief slabs that he presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the hope they would become the core of a gallery of the Americas. The philosophy of the CPPC shares much with that of Church and Olana: acquiring a broad, representative sampling of Latin American traveler art and broadening international awareness of Latin America through art and cultural diplomacy.  Cotopaxi has come full circle, providing a link between the CPPC and Olana, and the inspiration for our dialogue about a trans-American landscape art.

Further highlights, some selected from Overlook, are discussed below to demonstrate the varied motivations and movements that animated the creation and dissemination of work by traveler artists, allowing their fluid participation in an expansive, hemispheric initiative begun two centuries ago and continued today.

Frans Post (1612–1680), Netherlands

Frans Jansz Post, View of Frederica City in Paraíba (1638). Oil on canvas. 61 x 87.3 cm

Painter Frans Post arrived in northeast Brazil in 1637 to record the natural scenery of this Dutch colonial outpost. At the time, landscape painting was still in its infancy. His countrymen Rembrandt and Hobbema were among the pioneers of the genre, along with Claude Lorrain working in Rome. While Rembrandt painted the flat Dutch countryside and Claude, the Roman Campagna, Post distinguished himself as one of the first trained European landscapists to paint the New World from direct observation. But look more closely: do you detect any oddities in the composition? Note the slight bending of the horizon line on the far shore. It suggests that Post studied optics and perhaps employed optical devices like his contemporary Vermeer. And it remained a mystery how his birds at right were so startlingly realistic, until drawings made on the spot were recently discovered. The alchemy Post performed on his canvas helped transform landscape into a discrete branch of art and established the foundations for nineteenth-century traveler artists. Presented as gifts to foreign rulers, his pictures helped disseminate, from the seventeenth century on, a cultivated image of Brazil across Europe.

James Mason (born 1710), United Kingdom

James Mason after George Roberton, A View in the Island of Jamaica, of the Spring-Head of Roaring River on the Estate of William Beckford Esq. (1778). Line-engravings. 38.1 x 52.7 cm. No. 5 of a series of six engravings titled Views in the Islands of Jamaica

In 1814 Jane Austen published Mansfield Park, her novel set on a large country estate in Nottinghamshire. The narrative revolves around Sir Thomas Bertram and his extended family and creates a detailed portrait of their opulent domestic life. The source of their wealth and status, by contrast, was only identified obliquely, with vague references to ownership of a plantation somewhere in the West Indies. But as Edward Said points out: “The Bertrams could not have been possible without the slave trade, sugar, and the planter class.” James Mason’s published engravings make visible William Beckford’s Jamaican sugar plantation, one of many that financed upper class British life. Beckford had financed George Robertson’s transit to Jamaica in the early 1770s to paint its picturesque beauties. Robertson’s images were subsequently engraved by James Mason and published by John Boydell, an important purveyor of books and engravings in late 18th century London. The artist cast the Caribbean scenery into the same picturesque mode applied to British landscape—now embellished with palm trees and dark-skinned figures—thus ensuring investors back home that peace and prosperity prevailed. The insertion of  African slaves into the scene demonstrated the presence of a cooperative work force on the island at a time when antislavery activities were threatening to cut off the supply of labor. As some of the first pictures of Jamaica to be circulated to British audiences, Robertson’s engravings advanced a colonial perspective of the island.

Robert H. Schomburgk (1804–1865), United Kingdom

Robert H. Schomburgk and Charles Bentley, Esmeralda on the Orinoco. Site of a Spanish Mission, plate 8, from Twelve Views in the Interior of Guiana (1840). Lithograph. 37.5 x 54.6 cm

Robert H. Schomburgk set off to explore the interior of Guiana in 1835, four years after it became Great Britain’s sole colony in South America (which it would remain until 1966). Upon his return he published Twelve Views of the Interior of Guiana that interweaves text, maps and lithographic images produced by a team of artists, engravers, and colorists, including this one: Esmeralda on the Orinoco. In spite of its exotic name, Esmeralda was a modest settlement with no intrinsic merit to the success of the expedition but was rather the object of the explorer’s personal quest, as he explained:

At length we came into view of the fine savannah extending to the foot of the mountain, which I knew, from Humboldt’s description, to be that of Esmeralda… I cannot describe with what feelings I hastened ashore; my object was realised [sic], and my observations commenced on the coast of Guiana, were now connected with those of Humboldt at Esmeralda.

This desire to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps was shared by the majority of Spanish American travelers. In Schomburgk’s case, he overlaid Humboldtian science and aesthetic appreciation of landscape with political appropriation of Guiana, “a colony comparatively so little known in Great Britain.” Sold by subscription in 1840, Twelve Views of Guiana complemented the far more numerous accounts of travels in the Andes and the Amazon, and brought to the fore the imperial politics that shaped the Atlantic coast of South America.

Frederick Catherwood (1799–1854), United Kingdom

Frederick Catherwood, Gateway, Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal, plate 10 from Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America: Chiapas and Yucatan (1844). Hand-colored lithograph. 52.7 x 35.6 cm

Frederick Catherwood (English artist, architect and surveyor) traveled with John Lloyd Stephens (lawyer, diplomat and writer from the U.S.) to Central America and the Yucatán Peninsula in search of the ruins of Maya cities on two expeditions between 1839 and 1842. Upon his return Catherwood’s pictures enjoyed “best-seller” status internationally through his portfolio of lithographs published in London in 1844 and the line engravings for Stephens’ books Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). The appeal of his hand-colored lithographs exemplified by Gateway, Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal is evident: he places the ruin centrally in the visual field, so that we can “read” the intricately rendered details and inscriptions on the buildings while the figures in the foreground invite the viewers to feel we are alongside them, discovering these amazing structures hidden among the vegetation.  Mesoamerican history and geography was little known at the time, and Catherwood’s work set the gold standard for future archaeologists Desiré Charnay, Alfred Percival Maudsley and others. Along with his prints Catherwood created large-scale panorama displays of the Yucatan that convinced the public at large that a sophisticated culture on a par with ancient Egypt once peopled the Americas.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Camille Pissarro, Street Scene (c. 1848). Pencil and watercolor on paper. 17.15 x 25.4 cm. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY; Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

A key figure in the development of French Impressionism, Camille Pissarro traces his artistic roots to the Caribbean. Born in 1830 on the island of St. Thomas (then Danish Territory, now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands), he studied as a teenager in Paris, where his artistic leanings were awakened. Back home, he met peripatetic Danish artist Fritz Melbye and in 1852 he went with him to Venezuela, where they sketched and painted side by side. When Pissarro returned to St. Thomas two years later, he left his artworks in Melbey’s care. He never retrieved them after next moving permanently to Europe, where  his career was shaped by his experiences of the light-reflecting Caribbean waters and mixed-race society of its ports and markets. Melbye continued his travels, and arrived in New York with Pissarro’s works in tow. There he met Frederic Church whose status as the leading traveler-artist in Latin America seemed to recommend him as the ideal keeper of Pissarro’s work once Melbye was on the move again. This cache of his drawings remained in the Americas, traveling from St. Thomas and Caracas to arrive at Olana, where they became part of Church’s extensive library and art collection that inform people to this day about the landscape of Latin America. This single pencil drawing then tells an extended story of trans-Atlantic and trans-American artistic relations. 

José María Velasco (1840–1912), Mexico

José María Velasco, Valley of Mexico (1875). Oil on canvas. 16 x 44 cm

Velasco was one of great delineators of New World landscapes and a seminal figure in Mexican art history. A student of the Italian-born Eugenio Landesio at Mexico City’s Academy of San Carlos, his schooling in the tradition of the seventeenth-century master Claude Lorrain was blended with close observation of his native countryside, including its geology, flora, and atmospheric effects. The valley of Mexico was Velasco’s home and his primary visual subject. Born in Temascalcingo, he moved as a young boy a few miles south to Mexico City, and remained there during his studies and early years of marriage. In 1874 he relocated his growing family to La Villa de Guadalupe, and a few years later painted his masterful Valley of Mexico from the Hill of Santa Isabel (1877; Museo Nacional de Arte): a sweeping panorama of the valley that invites the viewer to travel through it, metaphorically following the path of the ancient Mexica people, searching for an island within a lake where, according to the prophecy of the god Huitzilopochtli, they would find an eagle perched on a prickly pear, devouring a serpent.[1]  The CPPC’s Valley of Mexico was done on an earlier foray with the snow-capped volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl prominently featured. Like Church’s Cotopaxi of 1853, Velasco’s Valley of Mexico initiates his career-long series on the subject. It represents the synthesis of natural history and art he went on to impart to the next generation of painters through his teachings at the Academy of San Carlos. He exhibited another version of this subject in 1876 at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition and even organized the Mexican art exhibit at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where international visitors could see the Mexican landscape through the eyes of a native artist.

Conrad Wise Chapman (1842–1920), U.S.

Conrad Wise Chapman, The Valley of Mexico (1870). Oil on wood. 13.3 x 20.3 cm

Conrad Wise Chapman was one of the first US-based artists of consequence to work extensively in Mexico, where he lived with occasional interruptions for twenty-five years.  He provides a link between the two national schools, having enjoyed personal contact both with José María Velasco and Velasco’s teacher Eugenio Landesio, whom he had first met in Rome. Raised in Italy where his artist-father worked, Conrad found Mexico “the most thoroughly picturesque country I ever was in. The mountain scenery surpasses anything I have seen before. I have a splendid chance to make studies and sketches and get all the material I want.”[2] Painted on a 5 ¼ x 8” wood panel, Valley of Mexico approximates in scale the postcards he was forced to paint when larger canvases did not sell. It moves beyond the merely topographical to demonstrate a deep emotional connection with the country. From 1865 until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, Chapman served as an art-ambassador between the US and Mexico. He exhibited and sold his work on both sides of the border, and kept the image of Mexico vivid before U.S. audiences.

Norton Bush (1834–1894), U.S.

Norton Bush, On the San Juan (1871). Oil on canvas. 50.8 x 91.5 cm

Painted more often on commission than speculation, Norton Bush’s Latin American landscapes were shaped more decisively by US business interests than many of his contemporaries. Born in Rochester, New York, he moved to New York City for study but soon realized that competition there was stiff and looked around for opportunities. In the aftermath of the Mexican American War (1846-48), Gold Rush (1849) and statehood of California (1850), Bush headed to California by way of Nicaragua. After settling in San Franciso he was commissioned by local banker William Ralston to go to Panama and delineate scenes related to his enterpises. Bush’s third trip took him to Peru in 1875, when he painted, on order, scenes of the railroad being constructed under the direction of Henry Meiggs, as well as Andean scenes of his own choosing. His painting On the San Juan depicts a river flowing through Nicaragua, which he had visited almost two decades earlier. But by the 1870s it was much in the news as various nations were working to construct a canal that would facilitate traffic between the Atlantic and Pacific through Latin America. Before the final decision to locate it in Panama was made, Nicaragua, with its deep lake and relatively healthier climate, was favored by the U.S. for the canal. The calm waters, gently smoking volcano and sun breaking through the mist in Bush’s painting belie the turbulent political controversy swirling around this region of Nicaragua. But it was that controversy he hoped to capitalize on to bring attention to his artworks.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), U.S.

Martin Johnson Heade, Tropical Orchids (1870–1874). Oil on canvas with period frame. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY; Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Martin Heade’s friendship with Church contributed to his own decision to travel in Latin America three times between 1863 and 1870, when he visited first, Brazil, and then Nicaragua, Colombia, and Jamaica. While Church’s art highlighted Andean peaks rendered with geological specificity, Heade preferred the organic world: the hummingbirds that had been his obsession since childhood and seductive flowering plants, especially orchids.  In Brazil Heade studied the hummingbirds in preparation for an illustrated book to be entitled The Gems of Brazil. Although the book was never realized, Heade displayed the painted studies at an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, where the appreciative Emperor Dom Pedro II awarded them the Honor of the Rose. With roots in natural history, Heade’s vision of the Tropics evolved into a syncretism of his varied experiences—combining birds native to one country with plants from another—cast in a dark, moody manner in keeping with a post-Darwinian worldview.  Unlike many of his contemporary traveler artists, Heade moved beyond landscape conventions applied so effectively to Latin America beginning with Frans Post. His many close-up flower studies, like this Tropical Orchid acquired by Church, demonstrated his ability to cross boundaries of artistic genre as well as nations to create original responses to his personal journeys. 

Marianne North (1830–1890), United Kingdom

Attributed to Marianne North, Study of Pelican Flower, Aristolochia grandiflora (c. 1872). Oil on unstretched canvas. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY; Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

New York was experiencing a “frightfully hot” spell one summer day in 1881, when Frederic Church was on business in the city and heard that the British botanical artist Marianne North was in town.[3] In her words, he “came off at once to see me at nine o’clock, making me promise to go home with him the next day to see his new house, and Mrs. Church, up the Hudson.” This was her second visit. She had been there in the autumn of 1871, when the family was still nestled in Cosy Cottage. She was then in her fortieth year and grieving the death of her father, whose substantial fortune now allowed her to “tour around the world to paint the distinctive wild flowers of each country,” as the NY Times reported. Church told her about his adventures and showed her his pictures, which – as she recalled – inspired her:[4]

The studio was a detached building, with a picture in progress of Chimborazo, which seemed to me perfection in point of truth and workmanship. He showed me other tropical studies which made me more than ever anxious to go and see these countries.

Jamaica constituted her first experience of the tropics, and the one location both she and Church shared.  Pelican Flower is depicted on a small panel of the type she hung from floor to ceiling in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens, which constituted a global botanical inventory that still inspires visitors today.

Marc Ferrez (1843–1923), Brazil

Marc Ferrez, Tijuca Falls (c. 1885). Vintage photographic print. 39.4 x 27.9 cm

Brazil was the most consistent of the South American countries in promoting its self-image worldwide through a network of of world’s fairs, photographic albums, and tourist postcards. This was due in part to Emperor Dom Pedro II, an amateur photographer and great supporter of Rio de Janeiro’s native son and best-known photographer Marc Ferrez.  Thanks to imperial patronage, Ferrez was able to avoid portraiture and instead devote himself to the Brazilian landscape.  Epitomizing how Brazilians pictured their country for foreign audiences, Ferrez shot a range of landmarks from the iconic Pão de Açucar Mountain to Tijuica Falls. Intended for tourists and foreign investors, these photographs had to negotiate the prevailing stereotypes of Brazil as an untouched paradise and a threatening wilderness inhabited by cannibals. Over a fifty-year career, Ferrez constructed an extensive body of work that complemented natural wonders with  newly constructed railroad lines, reservoirs and urban architecture to convey a modern American nation. Tijuica Falls underscores the cost of those conflicting forces, for the forest that provides the setting for the falls is populated by young plant growth, which sprang up after the area had been stripped bare for the cultivation of coffee.


[1] The standard monograph is Maria Elena Altimirano Piolle, National Homage. José María Velasco (840-1912). 2 vols. Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1993.


[2] Conrad Wise Chapman to John Gadsby Chapman, Monterrey, July 13, 1865, University of California at San Diego and Mayo Collection (the two parts of the torn letter are divided between these two collections) quoted in Ben L. Bassham, Conrad Wise Chapman: Artist & Soldier of the Confederacy (Kent, Ohio & London: Kent State University Press, 1998), p. 195.


[3] Downie Church recalled that the visit was in May or June 1881, according to Karen Zukowski.


[4] “Art Notes,” New York Times March 6, 1881.

Frequently Citied Sources

Kornhauser, Elizabeth M. and Katherine Manthorne, Fern Hunting Among These Picturesque Mountains. Frederic Edwin Church in Jamaica. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Manthorne, Katherine, ed. Traveler Artists: Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection. Seattle, WA: Marquand Press, 2015.

__________________. Tropical Renaissance. North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.