ARTISTS OF THE CASCADES
By Victoria Chick, Figurative Artist and Early 19th & 20th Century Print Collector
The Cascade Range runs from well into Canada, south through Washington and Oregon and dips east into northern California. It includes a number of spectacular still-active volcanic mountains including Mt. St. Helens, notorious for its gigantic eruption in 1980.
Artists have recorded the major peaks of the Cascade Range since at least 1792 when visual records were a part of British exploration. Before U.S. overland routes were established, sailing expeditions were aware of the great peak now known as Mt. Rainier which could be seen from the Pacific Ocean. The Louis and Clark expedition brought back drawings of Mt. Rainier in the first decade of the 19th century, observed from their vantage point on the Columbia River. These drawings were made into engravings in 1854 when studies were being made for the idea of a transcontinental railroad. One of the earliest artists was Paul Kane who followed in the tradition of George Caitlin in his desire to record the wilderness before it disappeared, yet he was a fine artist with a good color sense and the drama of his paintings makes him a precursor to the Romanticists. A Mt. St. Helens painting by Kane is particularly interesting because we can see what it looked like during a period of volcanic activity from 1800 to 1857 and before the last major eruption in 1980.
Some early artworks of Mt. Rainier are titled Mt. Tacoma. The railroads, citizens of Tacoma, Citizens of Seattle, Congress, and two U.S. Presidents were part of a naming dispute that lasted over 50 years.
By the mid-to-late 19th century enough was known about the West and Northwest that a few East coast artists ventured by ship or stagecoach to see for themselves the natural wonders that had been reported. These painters had a dramatic, Romantic intent in their art rather than factual recording as previous artists had done. The most famous of the Romanticists was Albert Bierstadt, who had painted the Sierras of California and eventually went to the coastal areas of Washington and Oregon in the late 1890s where he also painted Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, and Mt. St. Helens.
East coast painters continued to visit the Pacific Northwest into the 20th century but drifted away from the Romantic style toward some of the newer ways of painting. For example, Childe Hassam, an American Impressionist, painted Mt. Hood in pastel tints with loose brushwork.
The Seattle/Tacoma area had many art influences by the early years of the 20th century. The indigenous tribal art using flat color shapes, the influence of Asian painting and philosophy, as well as the introduction of abstract trends picked up in NY by visiting West Coast artists, made Seattle and Tacoma rather a hothouse for new art, especially in painting and sculpture. The area rivaled New York in the art produced, but was quieter in promoting itself. Some of the Pacific Northwest artists had exhibitions in major galleries and modern art museums in NY where their work was lauded as radical. It took some time for NY critics to understand that Pacific Northwest artists were building on and reinterpreting older ideas and cultures. Interestingly, few of these artists painted the spectacular landscape around them. One reason might be that the invention of photography made painting Mt. Hood or Mt. Rainier less interesting to artists using traditional mediums by the 20th century. Possibly they felt all had been said about it, visually. Instead, expressive figure painting, cubist still life and figure painting, and organic or geometric sculpture forms seemed to be of more interest to serious artists of the 20th century. 1940’s abstract artists, like Mark Tobey who was influenced by Oriental Calligraphy, were even more appreciated after WWII when more Americans had had direct experience with Japan, Korea, Oriental thought, and aesthetics.
Some WPA era artists residing within the Cascade Range were inspired by the landscape and supported themselves by providing art that was understandable to everyone. The Cascade Range as an art subject has not diminished in its appreciation by numbers of viewers even today.
The magnificence of the Cascade Range has a long history of artists trying to capture it that continues, whether through paint or through digital images. The surrounding lands and history and culture of the Pacific Northwest also foster a creative environment for visual artists of any medium or subject.