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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Offering of the Day: A Serene Depiction of the Tropics by Eighteenth - century American Painter Norton Bush

Norton Bush (1834-1894)
A Memory of the Tropics
Oil on canvas
Canvas size: approx. 39” x 29”
Signed and dated l.r.: ‘N. Bush 1874’
Provenance: Private Collection, Carlsbad, California
The jungles of South America have fascinated the outside world from the time of their discovery to the present day, and during the nineteenth century interest in this continent reached its zenith.  Following Columbus's 1492 discovery of the New World, the Spanish government restricted travel to this territory and with only the early accounts of the conquistadors and missionaries as sources of information, the allure of South America grew.  It was a continent filled with mystery with recurring legends of El Dorado, the Enchanted City of Patagonia and the island of the Amazons. 

The nineteenth century heralded a new era for South America, however, as scientists and artists flocked to its shores.  Chief among these was the great German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled through the Andes and up the Orinoco River between 1799 and 1804, and wrote of his discoveries in Cosmos.  His own wonder and excitement about his discoveries stirred the outside world to follow suit. Humboldt described the overwhelming impression made by "that vigor and freshness of vegetable life which characterizes the climate of the tropics" and continued: "When a traveler newly arrived from Europe penetrates for the first time into the forests of South America, he beholds nature under an unexpected aspect.  He feels at every step that he is not on the confines but in the centre of the torrid zone; not in one of the West India Islands, but on a vast continent where everything is gigantic, - mountains, rivers, and the mass of vegetation . . . It might be said that the earth, overloaded with plants, does not allow them space enough to unfold themselves." Like Humboldt, the Maya explorer John Lloyd Stephens was also struck by the fecundity of the land.  He compared the scenery of Central America to that of the Near East, commenting: "The wild defile that leads to the excavated city of Petra is not more noiseless or more extraordinary, but strangely contrasting in its sterile desolation, while here all is luxuriant, romantic, and beautiful." 

Aware of the inability to capture the true wonder of this amazing continent in words, Humboldt enjoined artists to travel to the region and pointed out what a rich and yet untapped source of inspiration the continent offered.  Artists from both Europe and North America answered his call and we may be certain the author of this spectacular painting, Bush, was among them.  Writing in 1888 of the prospects that awaited the artist in the tropics, Vincent van Gogh predicted: "Surely the future of a great renaissance in painting lies here," and during the decades of the 1800s at least thirty painters from North America alone were to make the journey to South America.  Amongst them can be counted Frederic Church, Martin Heade, James Whistler, Titian Peale, and George Catlin.

These artists captured the luscious vegetation of the jungles, thus illustrating the words of Humboldt's text but also responded to nineteenth-century religious and philosophical ideas. The fertility of the tropical landscape was ultimately identified with the origins of life and artists not only responded to scientific discovery but also to John Milton's arcadian Eden as described in Paradise Lost. Milton's garden is an "enclosure green" with the lake that serves as a "crystal mirror" and "umbrageous grouts and caves of cool recess."  The South American landscape offered a New World paradise and it is exactly this that Bush responds to in his painting, A Memory of the Tropics.

Norton Bush was born in 1834 in Rochester, New York, where he studied painting with local artist James Harris. He moved to New Yok City at the age of sixteen and continued to study art, working under artist Jasper Gropsey. Bush heard of the artistic fervor in South America, and journeyed to California by way of Vanderbilt’s route through Nicaragua. Eventually relocating to San Francisco permanently, Bush visited South America on two other occasions, and the paintings he produced during his travels established him as California’s premier painter of the tropics.   

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