Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Robert Rosenblum

I first came to Robert Rosenblum’s Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (1967) in search of antecedents to John Trumball’s painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In an effort to establish themselves as worthy artists, Trumbull and other eighteenth-century American painters emulated their European counterparts. The style that Trumbull and others worked to master was what Rosenblum calls Neoclassic Stoic, “a viewpoint which looked toward antiquity for examples of high-minded human behavior that could serve as moral paragons for contemporary audiences.” As well as classical antiquity, didactic painting had its origins in the rise of the bourgeois class and served its purposes. Warren’s death showed viewers an act of self-sacrifice at a time when self-sacrifice (albeit less extreme than Warren’s) was important to building the new republic.

Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975) was crucial to my understanding of early nineteenth-century American landscape painting. He argued that, contrary to the traditional view that modern art emerged out of Paris, there was also an important northern mystical tradition that greatly influenced painters in both Europe and America. In painting of the “Protestant North,” Rosenblum wrote, “we feel that the powers of the deity have somehow left the flesh-and-blood dramas of Christian art and have penetrated, instead, the domain of landscape.” His exploration of this tradition in its early stages creates a kind of typology of Hudson River School painting. The concluding chapter of Modern Painting demonstrates that the Abstract Expressionists were trying to work through the same dilemma as Caspar David Friedrich one hundred and twenty years earlier. Rosenblum’s pioneering work opened up a line of thinking that makes us now take for granted the landscape characteristics and spirituality of Rothko and Newman.

Robert Rosenblum died on December 6, 2006. Today the Guggenheim Museum held a memorial service for him. Herbert Muschamp’s fine article about Rosenblum appears in The New York Times.

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