Through the publication of Picturesque Views of American Scenery in 1820–21, Joshua Shaw provided a major impetus for the Hudson River School, which arose in the mid–1820s with the advent of Thomas Doughty and Thomas Cole. In this book, the first such venture in America, Shaw remarked that every inch of European terrain had been recorded by artists, “while America only, of all the countries of civilized man, is unsung and undescribed.” Moreover, he went on, “In no quarter of the globe are the majesty and loveliness of nature more strikingly conspicuous . . . [Here is] every variety of the beautiful and the sublime . . . unsurpassed by any of the boasted scenery of other countries.”1Nygren et al., 46. The words “picturesque” and “sublime” are key to understanding the poetic impulse by which Shaw and those who followed his lead modified their realistic depiction of American landscape.
View on the Kiskeminitas2Quoted by Waterhouse, 232. represents the English-born Shaw at his peak. The graceful configuration of trees is reminiscent of Gainsborough and the parklike expanse of land may be indebted to the topographic gouaches and watercolors of Paul Sandby. Above all, the atmospheric effects—an evocative shifting of light, a sense of changeable weather—appear in the paintings of Richard Wilson (1713–1782), the most important influence on Shaw’s style. John Ruskin wrote that with “Richard Wilson the history of sincere landscape art founded on a meditative love of nature begins in England.”3Nygren et al., 50, pl. 50. See Shaw’s early View in the Pennsylvania Countryside (1823; High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Shaw performed the same office for American landscape art. Here, the clouds and their shadows give a sense of the flow of time, just as the river does. Also English are the detailed yet painterly foliage in the foreground and the tall trees. There the artist used an ingenious technique, pressing a loaded brush against the canvas so that the hairs splay out, to suggest a fan of foliage.
Shaw’s panoramic view opens outward from the center of a light-filled clearing. The middle ground is abridged with a broad band of shadow, and the jump from the cows to the cabin behind them is far too abrupt, but this illogical shift in scale unexpectedly heightens the sense of space. The cattle and trees are pastoral props in other landscapes by Shaw (who assimilated much from the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp).4Jones 1970, 83.
The subject of this landscape is more complex than it at first appears, as smoke can be seen rising from industrial buildings on the far side of the river. Images of the progress of invention in pre—Civil War landscape paintings are often thought to be ironic. In this instance, however, there is no marked sense of collision between the natural and the manmade realms. The plumes of smoke bend with the lines of the hills and the Kiskeminitas (a tributary of the Allegheny River) and merge unobtrusively with the transient clouds, mingling earth and sky. Joshua Shaw was a product of the Industrial Revolution in England. One of England’s great painters, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), had also dealt with factories in the landscape without irony but with a keen sense of pictorial contrast, as Shaw does here. Himself an inventor (he received compensation from the American and Russian governments for his invention of the percussion cap and priming devices for firearms), Shaw clearly balances the pastoral part of his painting with details of the busy doings of modern industry. The sense of repose is most pervasive in the undisturbed canal gently clasped by the footbridge and its limpid reflection. Across the river, spanned by an impressive covered bridge, itself a symbol of commerce, are the industrial buildings and the town (possibly Freeport) behind them.
Surprisingly, the industries shown here are not the iron-ore blast furnaces usually associated with the Pittsburgh area. A Pittsburgh city directory of 1826 states:
On the Conemaugh and Kiskeminitas rivers, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh, there are twenty-five salt manufactories in operation . . . Of all these works now in blast, twenty-four are on the Kiskeminitas, situated within three miles of each other . . . These establishments give employment to at least 400 persons, and support, including managers, coopers, blacksmiths, colliers, boilers, &C. and their families, from 10 to 1200 souls.5It has been assumed that the Collection’s painting is the View on the Kiskeminitas exhibited in 1838 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (no. 32) and lent by its owner, James Reid Lambdin, a Pittsburgh native who had recently moved to Philadelphia to further himself as a portrait painter. It should be noted, however, that in the March 1841 exhibition of the Apollo Association, New York, Shaw showed Landscape, View of the Salt Works on the Kiskiminitus [sic] River (no. 81; “For sale”).The very specific tide makes it an equally acceptable candidate for the Collection’s picture, which has no provenance. Shaw’s interest in the subject is seen in other paintings, for example, his View near Saltsburg, Pa. (on the Conemaugh River) exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1840 (no. 45; “For sale”).
Shaw appreciated the importance of salt as a trading commodity and the local pride in its new abundance. In his harmonious painting, the ingenuity and industry of man in tapping earth’s abundance are celebrated, not lamented.6Rutledge, 201–2; and Cowdrey, 2: 325.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.