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James Hart was distinguished among the Hudson River School painters for faithfully and quietly rendering transcriptions of nature and avoiding the more theatrically sublime, panoramic landscapes of many of his colleagues. "I strive to reproduce in my landscapes the feeling produced by the original scenes themselves", the artist declared, "If the painting were perfect, you would feel precisely as you feel when contemplating such a scene in Nature." As one contemporary critic noted concerning Hart's paintings, "weed, vine, rock [...] and the wondrous débris of the primeval forest, are all given with the marked faithfulness to form and color so characteristic of this artist: and yet with such mastery of handling that the minutest weed holds but its relative bearing to the great mass."
A large outcropping of venerable rocks, their surface covered with lichens, occupies the left foreground of Summer in the Catskills. A flowering meadow separates the hoary boulders from the distant landscape of cultivated hills. One is reminded of the English critic, John Ruskin, who wrote that "a stone, when it is examined, will be found a mountain in miniature." "The work of the Great Spirit of nature", Ruskin felt, "is as deep and unapproachable in the lowest as in the noblest objects", and is as visible in the "mouldering stone, as in the lifting of the pillars of heaven, and settling the foundation of the earth."
The moss and lichen covered rocks in Hart's painting were more than a replication of the distant mountains. They represented the passage of time; they were America's history. The artist was finding within the microcosm of the rock, the fulfilment of the grandiose plan of a creator. As Asher B. Durand admonished the artist in his Letters to a Landscape Painter, it is by reverent attention to the forms of Nature alone that Art is able to reproduce "the profound and elevated emotions which the contemplation of the visible works of God awaken."
But the unity of God, Nature and man, as portrayed in Hart's Summer in the Catskills, would soon be disturbed. A writer for the important 19th-century art periodical, The Crayon, noted in an 1859 article, "Relation between Geology and Landscape Painting", written at the very time Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species was published, that: "Each stone bears upon its surface characters so plainly legible that he 'who runs may read.' The particolored lichens add grace and symmetry to the massive boulders, which have journeyed from the Polar seas, as they reposed upon the breast of some crystal iceberg. These the artist sees and enjoys, and when the last touch is given to his sketch and the pencil is laid aside, his thoughts revert to those old times, when fauna and flora existed supreme, since breath had not yet given life to man."
The artist is a geologist, the writer concludes, who meeting with different strata, asks "why this diversity?" To the artist, therefore, "properly belongs the study of geology, as he more thoroughly than any other can imitate what nature has produced." But an artist's painting, the writer also reminds us, is not simply an imitation of nature, it "is a representation of moral principles and sentiment." Hart's modest canvas with its meticulously-rendered, errant boulder brings to the fore the great geological debates regarding Creation and evolution in the 19th century as Americans pondered and struggled with the relationship between nature and God, God and science.
Kenneth W. Maddox