The Human Made Natural
Landscape painters of Downstate Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
These notes were taken from the draft of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. See Publications for more about that project.
This roster of painters is far from comprehensive. An ongoing series in Illinois Heritage, the popular history magazine published by the Illinois State Historical Society, has profiled dozens of woman artists in Illinois; another resource, accessible to the non-subscriber, is the invaluable website of the Illinois Women Artists Project. The fine collection of works owned by the Illinois State Museum ought to be displayed in a proper museum or web site, but funding for either is beyond the imagination as well as the means of the State of Illinois; we should be grateful those works haven’t been auctioned off to pay the museum’s light bill. See also my Flat Land into Landscapes.
Worthy painters of regional significance in northern Illinois —praise not meant to be as faint as it sounds—include Edgar Spier Cameron, who was born and raised in Ottawa, from which he left at age 28 in 1890 for a career in Chicago; among Cameron’s works were murals (in 1908) for the Illinois Supreme Court Library in Springfield. Wilson Henry Irvine was born in Byron and lived there and in Rockford between 1869 and 1890; Grace Ravlin grew up in Kaneville, in western Kane County in the 1870s and ‘80s; Orrin Augustine White, born in Hanover in 1883, earned a modest national reputation as a landscape painter out West in the middle years of this century, after an apprenticeship that included a stint as a textile designer in his parents' factory, the Hanover Woolen Mills.
Among visual artists with a western Illinois background, the best known is probably Bishop Hill’s Olof Krans. Betty Madden, one of the important critics of Illinois folk arts, calls these works ”naïve, at times grotesque, frequently amusing, and yet most often delightful.” In addition to his painterly journalism about colony life, Krans did roughly one hundred portraits of Bishop Hill worthies which Calkins found “the most surprising collection of designs in whiskers ever beheld.”
Western Illinois was briefly home to a better, if less known painter. Born in New York in 1801, James Quidor lived and worked in the East before moving to the Quincy area in 1837. Quidor was not a major artist but he produced canvases that are lively and full of humor. His masterpiece of this period was the Return of Rip Van Winkle (1829), which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. As a businessman Quidor proved to be a good painter; he agreed to paint seven biblical scenes that measured in square yards in exchange for a Quincy farm, but after laboring for five years found the property had been sold to someone else. He then returned to New York and to a more rewarding career illustrating Irving’s characters and incidents such as Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.
Virtually forgotten at his death, Quidor re-appeared, Rip Van Winkle-like, in 1942 when his works shown at the Brooklyn Museum revealed him to have been one of the most original genre painters of 19th-century American art. It is perhaps a pity that there are not similar works on Illinois legends that Quidor might have illustrated, but Illinois has not yet produced its Washington Irving.
Artists, like corn, are a product that central Illinois grows mainly for export. A few of the region’s artistically-inclined citizens elected to stay. Impressionist painter Robert Root was born in 1863 in Shelbyville. At age twelve he began making drawings of houses in town and selling them for a dollar to the owners. Youthful odds jobs around central Illinois (and a brief exposure to New York City) led to the Fine Arts School of Washington University in St. Louis and then Paris. At this point in her career, an Illinois artist of talent, the artist usually goes off to find success in Chicago or New York; Root returned to Shelbyville to open a studio, and lived there until his death in 1937.
Root made a successful living by painting portraits of locals, mainly businessmen and politicians, two classes of people most likely to want portraits and able to afford them, if not always the most deserving. Root also painted pleasant if unremarkable portraits of the local landscape, such as 1918’s “Shelbyville on the Kaskaskia.” His most famous painting is of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston, done for the Illinois Centennial celebration of 1918. It was shown at the State Fair and so impressed members of the General Assembly that it was purchased for the statehouse, where it still hangs, in the Governor's Office. The historic Chautauqua Auditorium in Shelbyville’s Forest Park features Grecian statues designed by Root.
Not all the public art in central Illinois hangs in the capitol. Vivid depictions of less august but no less essential central Illinoisans may be found in its post offices and other public buildings, a legacy of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Artists on the dole decorated post offices and other government buildings with works that celebrated the common Illinoisan. Among the region’s collection of WPA works are "Illinois Pastoral," the 1939 mural by James Daugherty in Virden, John Winters’ “Lincoln at New Salem at the Petersburg Post Office, and "Going to Work" at the Staunton post office by Ralph Henricksen, from 1941. Looking at them, one can almost hear the strains of Copeland playing in the background.
The old Grand Prairie of east central Illinois boasts a landscape as majestic as the one that inspired the painters of New York’s Hudson Valley School in the mid-1800s. The trouble is, that landscape is buried under some 300 feet of old mud and rock, a loss to travelers and tourism promoters alike. In few places is it truer than in the Grand Prairie that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The farmer and the town jobber each found the Grand Prairie beautiful for their purposes, as did the railroad engineer for his. Tourists have had to look harder, including those with paint brushes in their hands. As one critic put it, painters from the East who visited Illinois in its early years were “artistically uneasy” with the flatness they encountered in Illinois. The picturesque then meant mountains and trees. Romantics in search of the sublime—or in search of scenes sellable to patrons—thus found nothing in the Grand Prairie to paint. Painters seldom lingered in Illinois therefore, but moved west in search of the elevated topography that might inspire elevated sentiments.
More recent painters have seen the Grand Prairie with more open eyes. Billy Morrow Jackson was among the first of a wave of contemporary painters and photographers who found a subject in the Grand Prairie beginning in the 1970s. Some 50 miles up I-74, Harold Gregor was doing similar canvases. Gregor gained national prominence in the early 1970's. Widely shown and collected, Gregor also was one of the most influential teachers in the Midwest, and in 1993 was awarded the Illinois Academy of Fine Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jackson and Gregor were part of the photo-realists reaction in the late 1960's against Abstract Expressionism that then dominated American painting. Their painstakingly rendered images are realer than real, with a clarity at every point of perspective unachievable by the eye, even (on this scale) the camera.
Jackson and Gregor had successors, if not followers. The rediscovery of the Grand Prairie as a subject—or more accurately the revelation of it, since it had never before been looked at artistically—was part of a wider movement to root images in the American plains. Among the younger painters who put rural east-central Illinois on canvas is James Winn, a former student of Gregor who grew up in Metamora, on the western edge of Illinois’s Wisconsinan landscape, and lives in Sycamore, on its northern fringe; Winn’s work been compared to Constable’s and Turner’s, and his canvases have been praised as “beautiful soliloquies on the act of light.” James D. Butler’s canvases recreate the world he first saw as a child from atop a hillside of his native Iowa. George Atkinson uses pastels to render scenes from the landscape that lies mostly within a drive from Springfield. Since the 1980s George Atkinson, a master of contemporary Midwestern rural realism, has used pastels to render scenes from the landscape that lies mostly within a short drive from Springfield. Less known are Michael Dubina, Edward Herbeck, Ann Coulter, and Fred Jones.
Winn’s pictures embrace, even celebrate the results; Winn is said to feel humility and wonder at looking at the old Grand Prairie and seeing, as one writer put, “seeing order everywhere proclaimed.” Most of his fellow painters and photographers are less impressed; as J. B. Jackson once put it, the qualities that make land habitable do not necessarily make it beautiful. Landscape photographer Gary Irving once wrote that his favorite parts of Illinois the Grand Prairie, remind him of the African veldt.[Intro, Beneath an Open Sky] The comparison seems generous, if not ludicrous; the wildest critter on these plains is chickweed. Irving however was referring to the Grand Prairie’s flatness, not its fauna.
Lumped together as “heartland painters” or “prairie painters” for purposes of shows or sales, these artists constitute a group, if not a true artistic school. They share strong ties to the region’s universities. Gregor was a Distinguished Professor of Art (later Emeritus) at Illinois State University campus in Normal from 1970 to 1995, and Dubina and Winn studied there. Jackson took a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Illinois and returned there as a professor beginning in 1954. And all use light in ways that suggest the American Luminists of the 19th century (in Butler’s case Martin Johnson Head, in that of Atkinson, Frederick Church).
Of course, the subject of most of these works is not landscape (or at least not only landscape) but skyscapes. (An exception is Jackson, who usually reduces his to a monochrome backdrop, the better to bring the viewer’s eye down to earth.) The sky (more accurately, clouds) are the mountains of the Grand Prairie. The skies of Winn, Butler, and Atkinson in particular are stages for meteorological melodrama. No wonder that so many of these artists have been compared to Turner and Constable.
Mountains’ grandeur makes our physical insignificance moot by putting us in touch with the sublime. The open prairie on the other hand merely leaves one feeling small. Even the Brobdingnagian scale of the modern farm—a 12-row combine is not much smaller than a GI Bill bungalow—is rendered inconsequential by its surroundings. As photographer David Plowden observed about his photo, Sunrise on the Prairie Near Funks Grove, Illinois, “The farms seem always to be in the distance . . . looking like scale models, so vast is the flatness.”
The iconic farmstead of old scarcely exists in today’s Grand Prairie. Most traditional barns are long gone. Built for wagons, they are too small to house many of today’s giant machines and have been replaced by multi-purpose prefab metal sheds that are all engineering and no craft or character. Such traditional accoutrements of animal husbandry as silos and chicken coops are absent as well, since grain farmers are specialists who keep few if any animals apart from pets. The ideal farmstead consists of a suburban-style ranch house amid a manicured lawn, more like an exurban estate than a working farm. Such a farm is an expression of economics and technology. Its virtues are efficiency and ease of maintenance—not beautiful to a painter or photographer, however much it inspires bankers.
One can still see a corn crib here and there. (Corn can be stored on the ear to dry in corn cribs for several months while its owner waited for the best possible price before selling it.) Corn cribs figure iconographically in Jackson’s painting; Gregor has painted a whole series of them, as Monet did haystacks. Such works may come to have documentary value, because corn cribs are becoming rare too, as today's farmer is more likely to shell corn in the field with a combine and dry it in mechanically heated and ventilated bins, nature being dilatory and undependable.
Atkinson in particular has devoted himself making a faithful record of such farms. His work on these lines harkens back to the artistic convention of the late 1800s, when, a generation of itinerant painters moved through Illinois and commemorated the state’s transformation of the wilderness. In these (usually commissioned) works the natural was typically reduced in such works to a line of trees in the distant background while human contrivances—buildings, fences, grazing stock (themselves artifacts of human invention, thanks to selective breeding), orchards, and of course the farm house—were thrust into the foreground where they might be admired properly.
The latter-day idylls of Jackson, Gregor, et al offer no such progressive balm. They are romantic in very different terms. In his 1887 novel, The Graysons, Edward Eggleston described a then-old farmstead that had lost its “raw look of newness,” indeed that its aspect had been so softened by weather as to have become a part of the landscape. Critic Robert Bray, rereading the book, noted that after only a half-century or so such farms no longer showed evidence of having been imposed on the face of the land by humans but looked as if they belonged in and to nature.
This is the subject of the Heartland Painters: not humanized nature, but the human made natural. To the mind inclined to see them that way, these relics of the golden age of Illinois farming. With their peeling paint and drooping fences they are as romantic, as doomed, as tragic as were the Indian ruins or the old French settlements along the Mississippi, whose “its luxuriant verdure and quaint eighteenth-century atmosphere” charmed such itinerant artists of the 1800s as Seth Eastman or Rudolph Kurz.
If Illinois’s best landscape painters paint like photographers, one of the best landscape photographers of the 1990s used his camera to paint with. As Larry Kanfer points out in the title of a published collection of photographs, it is not the quick look that allows one to see the beauty in east central Illinois but the second, and third glance. And a second glance is not what most travelers give it. (Illinoisans drive through the countryside as if they are hurrying to get out of the rain.) Under the blaze of midsummer glare or the leaden gray of Illinois’s winter overcast, things are a dull as dirt. The beauty of the Grand Prairie is a matter of a shadow from a fence falling here, a mist there, the sun coming out after a summer storm and glinting off a wet road and turning it into a shimmering ribbon draped across the landscape.
What they so often miss can be seen in Kanfer’s “Equilibrium.” Here Kanfer applies a lesson Dutch landscape painters learned 350 years ago, which is that flat land is beautiful only when revealed by angled light. In the photo, light reflecting from water collected in swale reveals a subtle curve that is otherwise invisible; were a viewer at the scene to take a few steps in one direction or another, or were the sun to slip slightly in the sky, that light would disappear, and with it the curve. As Champaign photographer Raymond Bial has said, it is usually no more than an hour, and often only a few minutes, before “the light changes, and the first pickup [of the day] roars down the blacktop to shatter that mood.”
Ultimately nostalgic, the least of these images come close to the banalities of calendar art. (Literally; Kanfer’s 2000 “Prairiescapes” calendar was named the best scenic wall calendar in the U.S. by the International Calendar Marketing Association.) They may be damned by the cognoscenti as “accessible” because of their popularity with a public that stubbornly clings to its preference for figurative art. But while these images may not be great artistically, they are greatly Illinoisan. They are popular with a broader public, one suspects, not merely because they are pretty but because they validate the region’s landscape as worth looking at. Thus the photo-realists of the Grand Prairie perform the same role performed by painters in Illinois’s pre-camera days. They convey the mysteries of the land to people who otherwise might not see it—including those who live just up the road.
Egypt has been home to people of culture from the start. One of the earliest libraries in Illinois was at Albion; the English gentlemen who settled Edwards County had brought with them engravings and paintings of the sort that were then as rare in Illinois as powdered wigs, and Betty Madden assays that George Flower, the founder of Albion who like most gentlemen of the time Flower was tutored in drawing and water color painting, may also deserve the title of the state’s first resident artist.
Egypt was not, however, a fertile field for the fine arts. Betty Madden unearthed this lament by the Swiss painter Rudolph Kurz, whose journal entries for 1848 could have been taken from any number of colleagues. “In the United States, just now, a painter in the fine arts has no prospect whatsoever,” he wrote, in part because “the inhabitants outside the cities are a farming class, who have no taste for works of art. They regard such things as extravagance.”
The earliest painters in the region were the anonymous Native Americans. Petroglyphs, or designs that have been chiseled or otherwise etched into a rock face, are another common form of local Native American rock work. Indian rock carvings can still be found near Ava in Jackson County, among other places; several have recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places. South of Ava, near Gorham, rock carvings at Fountain Bluff at the north end of Big Hill take the shapes of wolves, crosses, deer, birds, humans, and geometric figures. Human footprints were carved into rock too, apparently along trails used as trade routes. Their purpose is not obvious, but it is possible they served as road signs. One that was found on Sugar Creek just outside Creal Springs was a tourist attraction back when the springs made the city a resort town; the best known is Footprint Rock in Johnson County.
While people of the Mississippian culture dwelt on the crest of the hill now known as Millstone Bluff in the Shawnee National Forest in Pope County 900 years ago, they decorated rock faces there with images of birds, among other designs. Its carvings earned Millstone Bluff a place on the National Register of Historic Places—the only prehistoric site in the region so recognized. The site also is open to the public, which makes it even rarer; authorities usually do not identify rock carvings in the region because so many have been vandalized or stolen.
The four prehistoric rock-art sites that make up the 111-acre Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve west of Du Quoin and south of Steeleville on the Randolph-Jackson county line compose a rock art Art Institute. One site alone—the Piney Creek site—is the largest documented prehistoric rock-art site in the state. It is crowded with more than 150 petroglyphs and pictographs—images painted on stone using various natural pigments mixed with animal fat. Most of which appear to date to between 450 and 1500 A.D. Many of the figures are winged or horned, which suggests that the art had a role in shamanistic ceremonies, a surmise that is consistent with their location in caves or other hidden places.
Self-taught painters were common on the frontier in the Euro-American era as well. They were treated by their clients rather like itinerant cabinet makers, and most painted like them too. An exception was Vandalian James W. Berry. Ordinarily the General Assembly’s judgments on the fine arts are suspect—they usually amount to attempts to ban them—but Vandalia historian Paul Stroble notes that Berry was commended by the General Assembly when he made a gift of portraits of two governors to the State of Illinois. Berry was commissioned to do full-length portraits of Washington and Lafayette (actually, copies of works in the U.S. Capitol) for the new statehouse in Springfield, where they may be seen today; such works reveal him to have been what Illinois arts historian Betty Madden has called “a spare-time artist of considerable talent.”
Public painting of a different style may be seen in Egypt in the local post offices decorated by artists working for the Depression-era WPA. Some 13 survive in the region, most murals of oils on canvas, plus three cast stone bas reliefs in Carlyle. They include some earnest examples in the style of Socialist Realism with titles such as “Service to the Farmer” and “Assimilation of the Immigrant into the Industrial Life of Madison,” but all are vigorous and colorful.
Charles Lesueurat, a Frenchmen then living in Indiana, was not a painter but a scientist who painted. We owe Lesueurat for many of early views of southern Illinois, such as Shawneetown, Battery Rock, Cave-in-Rock, Trinity (now Cache) and Golconda, the town of America, the river bank at Grand Chain, and Bird’s Point, now part of Point Fort Defiance State Park at Cairo. In 1826, Lesueurat sketched views of the English Prairie settlements such as Wanborough and Bon Pas (which became Grayville in 1837). A true artist was the young Swiss Karl (Charles) Bodmer. He became famous for his paintings of western Indians, but as a young man he ventured into Illinois to paint Albion, Cave-in-Rock, Cairo, and Kaskaskia. “Bodmer’s Illinois paintings . . . . are unequaled in their artistic quality,” says Madden, “depicting with great charm yet without romantic exaggeration some rare early Illinois scenes.”
The works of painters such as Rudolph Kurz and John Caspar Wild, reproduced on paper, were the picture postcards of their day. Similar, if less skillful works were a specialty of Roscoe Misselhorn. Born in Sparta in 1902, Misselhorn’s sketches of Illinois and Missouri historic locations earned him a reputation—good or bad depending on one’s view—as the Norman Rockwell of the Midwest. His training was in cartooning and commercial art, and his work is most often found in note cards and calendars. ●