Battleground of the Eye

In the Pacific Northwest, more than any other region of America, landscape painting embodies all our conflicting views—our hopes and delusions, our regrets and ambitions—about the natural world and the place of human beings in it. The author travels across time and ideology, canvas by canvas

Landscape—if you give that rather slippery term its full weight—is one of the great divisive issues in the Pacific Northwest. The landscape paintings of the region, from the eighteenth century to the present day, are pictorial dispatches from a long war that is more heated now than at any time in the past 200 years.

Landscape is land shaped—land subordinated to a vision or a use. A picture frame or a Claude glass* converts land into landscape; so, too, does a logging road or a barbed-wire fence. The railroad magnate and the painter of majestic wilderness scenes have in common their designs on the land: James J. Hill and Albert Bierstadt are brothers under the skin.

Consider this curious tale of two pictures of the Pacific Northwest. In 1999 Slade Gorton, the Republican senator from Washington State, tacked an ingenious rider onto a bill intended to provide American aid for Kosovo. Gorton's rider concerned a proposed cyanide-leach gold mine in Okanogan County (he was for it). Eighteen months later, in the race between Gorton and his Democratic challenger, Maria Cantwell, the gold-mine rider came back to haunt him. (It may have lost him the election, which Cantwell won by a cigarette-paper-thin majority.)

In the Gorton-Cantwell race landscape turned into the central topic of debate, as the candidates fought over such questions as the Okanogan County mine, logging in national forests, and the breaching of dams on the Snake River. From the barrage of television ads that were broadcast by both sides, two pictures emerged, each executed in a style familiar to any Northwest gallery-goer. Gorton's was a tame Augustan landscape, with irrigated farms and gardens and orderly plantations, in which nature was tailored to human needs and specifications. Cantwell's was a landscape in the manner of Bierstadt or Thomas Cole—a Romantic wilderness, with free-swimming salmon and untouched stands of tangled old-growth forest (spotted owl calling to spotted owl), a realm of aboriginal solitude and grandeur.

Rural voters east of the Cascade Mountains showed an overwhelming preference for the Gorton picture, with its promise of money and jobs. West of the mountains, along the urban corridor that stretches north and south from Seattle, the Cantwell landscape found favor with hikers, bird-watchers, fly-fishers, and the mass of college-educated white-collar voters, who bear out the interesting paradox that Seattle is the first big city to which people have swarmed in order to get closer to nature.

One might hear echoes of that debate almost anywhere in the United States, but in the Pacific Northwest it is conducted with a peculiar and obsessive intensity, because here the wilderness itself seems to possess a tenacious memory. In this damp, dauntingly fertile climate the creeping salal and salmonberry, and the green spears of infant Douglas firs, are bent on restoring everyone's back yard to the temperate rain forest that it once was, not so long ago. The towns and cities of the Northwest tend to have a makeshift, provisional air, as if the forest might yet swallow them alive. Because the region was settled by whites more recently than elsewhere, its Indian past—10,000 years of it—lies very close to the surface, and Native American conceptions of landscape and land use remain live political issues here.

Last year's Senate race was fought on terms that go back to the eighteenth century, as the painted landscapes of the Pacific Northwest remind one, with their endless variations on the themes of wilderness, white settlement, tribal rights, and the competing claims of industry and nature. These paintings haven't dated. The questions they raise are all around us, even now.

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The Portrait of Captain James Cook by John Webber
Webber's portrait of Captain James Cook, along with biographical information about both Cook and Webber. Posted by the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

John Webber was the first white artist to unpack his paint box in the Pacific Northwest. In the spring of 1778 Captain James Cook's Resolution put in to Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, after a long northward haul up the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand, with stops in Tonga, Tahiti, and Hawaii. En route through Oceania, Webber, the official expedition artist, had painted a series of watercolors that are dominated by exotic tropical greenery in which every palm frond has a life of its own.

Cook's ship left the palms, wili wilis, breadfruit, and hibiscus of Hawaii on February 2; on March 29 it sailed into the great funnel-shaped approach to Nootka Sound, on the same latitude as the mouth of the English Channel. To British eyes the Pacific Northwestern light falls at a familiar and homely angle. The vegetation is Scottish, the weather Irish. After Hawaii, Nootka Sound must have felt to the voyagers like a wet and windy corner of their own country, named New Albion, in honor of its teasing similarity to home.

Webber, who trained as a painter first in Switzerland and then in Paris, clearly seems to have experienced a bout of déjà vu. In sharp contrast to his Tahitian and Hawaiian watercolors, his Nootka sketches render the local scenery (and "scenery" it is) in brisk pictorial shorthand, the water, rocks, pines, and mountains composed into a strikingly efficient and conventional landscape. We might be on the shore of Lac Léman or Lake Windermere here.

Like Cook, in his posthumously published Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784), Webber seems to have barely noticed the land itself, so preoccupied was he with the Indians in the foreground—their swan-necked cedar canoes, their curious timber dwellings, the frames on which they dried their salmon. In Paris he had specialized in "picturesque peasant scenes," a useful preparation for his studies of Indian life. Though the figures are small on the page, they are exquisitely detailed and individuated. With a magnifying glass one can pick out their conical hats, woven from cedar bark, and capes made from sea-otter hides. Given his education, Webber almost certainly had encountered the ideas of Rousseau, and his Pacific Northwest is the habitat of "natural man," drawn with the fastidious zeal of a keen amateur anthropologist.

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