During the 1800s, artists journeyed through the Americas, transforming their views of the land into romanticized landscape imagery while projecting the hopes and values of European settlers onto newly occupied territories. They responded to the distinctive topographies of the hemisphere, creating images that would come to represent different regions.

These works became iconic as they circulated throughout the Americas, Britain and Europe on popular tours and as reproductions. The sense of wonder and openness they captured encouraged settlement and investment in the Americas. These are not neutral images; they reflected the politics and practices of the time and helped to shape national identities.

Landscape painting in the Americas started with direct observation and sketching in the field. Driven by a desire to depict some of the hemisphere’s most remote and distinctive sites, painters undertook arduous journeys to reach these faraway places. They often made detailed notes and drawings en route, filling sketchbooks with their observations of plants, animals and topography.

Later, in their studios, artists turned their sketches into ambitious composite paintings. Art and science came together as natural history was reimagined in highly detailed works, which were artists’ interpretations of places rather than exact representations.

“These images are from a period of erasure and colonization, and the myth of human progress at the expense of Indigenous people.” – Hayden King, Anishinaabe writer and educator, 2015

The works in this exhibition span from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, a period during which Indigenous peoples were subjected to intense violence and forced assimilation. Many of these landscape paintings are devoid of people, furthering the idea of terra nullius, which suggests that uncolonized land is an empty and untouched wilderness. In fact, highly sophisticated cultures and civilizations of Indigenous people had thrived in the Americas for thousands of years.

Paintings that did include Indigenous people often romanticized and exoticized them, casting these individuals in an imaginary narrative that promoted expansion by settlers. Ultimately, this historical moment saw the large-scale appropriation of Indigenous land, the suppression of Indigenous languages and cultures, and the death of many Indigenous people by violence and disease.

During the same period, settler nations engaged in lengthy battles and wars across the Americas to establish political borders, many of which are still contested today. The paintings on view here foreground nature as the setting for conflict and conquest.

The grand vistas of waterfalls, mountains and plains reveal the psychological and spiritual pleasure offered by the natural beauty of the Americas. Artists also created paintings to showcase the bounty of the land, promoting the hemisphere as a safe, fertile place for investment and exploitation—a land of plenty. Framed by European ideas of land use and ownership, these works appealed to the landowning classes and helped to encourage the extraction of products such as fur, timber and precious metals and minerals, and the establishment of agricultural crops such as sugar, tobacco, coffee and cotton. The immense effort of working the land is depicted as effortless and romantic; there are few hints of backbreaking slave labor in these gentle scenes.

In the early 1900s, landscape painters searched for a new visual language with which to represent a rapidly changing world. As cities grew and the industrial landscape emerged, artists used geometric forms to depict the forces of modernization, such as ports, factories, industrial farms and power stations.

Despite this change in style, many landscape paintings continued to emphasize beauty and direct experience in nature. Ideas of progress were counterbalanced by works in which artists reaffirmed the rural and natural realities of their specific regions. Other painters sought solitary and remote experiences in order to achieve an authentic or spiritual connection with nature.

In the early 1900s, painters in the Americas began to emphasize their individual responses to nature and the beauty of the land. They painted places they knew and understood well, expressing a deep sense of belonging through their art. In pursuing the essential truth of being through painting, many artists gave their own memories and lived experiences precedence over observable details. Their unique visions, expressed in the bold, simplified language of modernist art, in time came to stand for the spirit of the nations they painted.