Tony Foster | In Context


Painting at the Edge of the World

[Foreword from Painting at the Edge of the World: The Watercolours of Tony Foster.]

When Frederic Church toured Europe to show the paintings from is expeditions, thousands of people stood in endless lines paying fifty cents apiece to get their first views of America’s wilderness. The luminescent scenery of fellow Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran’s detailed western landscapes was so dramatic that incredulous art critics accused him of fraud. The monumental waterfalls of Yosemite, they charged, were impossibly grand. The breaking waves of Albert Bierstadt's Gulf Coast beaches were the exaggerated color of cotton candy. But modern travellers to these once remote wilds can easily confirm the detailed accuracy of these early depictions. Now, Tony Foster has assembled a magnificent book of equally breathtaking and inspiring portraits of the earth's last wild places. Like Church, Foster has included in his collection panoramic homages to other lands; the Andes, the odd iceberg, and even the Himalayas. But, like Moran and Bierstadt, his principal geographic allegiance is unmistakably to the American West.

Foster’s work gets its special authority from the time he spends painting in the field. In some of his winterscapes you can practically feel the paint freezing on the paper. Foster famously refuses the universal concession made by the Hudson River School and Rocky Mountain School painters to the extreme landscapes they painted. They all completed their work from sketches or photographs in studios. Not Tony Foster. When severe altitude sickness aborted his initial attempt to paint Everest, Foster rolled up his half-finished painting and awaited similar weather conditions the following year, when he returned to finish his work. It does not seem to have occurred to him to complete his portraits in warmth and comfort back home. The results are landscapes so breathtakingly real that you can almost live in them. Just don't stay too long—and be sure to pack out what you brought in!

Foster is the legatee to American art’s defining Hudson River School, which included its founder Thomas Cole (who like Foster was an Englishman); his prize student, Frederic Church; and Samuel F. B. Morse, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and Asher Durand. Inspired by America’s philosophers Emerson and Thoreau, these painters recognised the connection between wilderness and America's deepest cultural and moral values. In their art they reinforced the convictions of America’s writers and poets, that Americans needn't be ashamed that we lacked the 15,000-year cultural heritage of Europe; our relationship with nature—and particularly wilderness, which is the undiluted work of the Creator—would be the sacred source of our virtues, our national character, pride, and purpose. Like European romantics they saw in America’s rugged wilds a force that would anneal our nation’s inhabitants with the attributes of self-reliance, courage, beef-jerky toughness, and a hunger for equality and freedom—traits that would make our country significant to all humanity. Their art echoed the pronouncement by America’s great historian Frederick Jackson Turner that American democracy—our country's defining cultural and political institution—was rooted in the American wilderness.

In nineteenth-century wilderness paintings the only evidence of humanity was ant-like and in ruins. Similarly, Foster’s wilderness scenes do not include people—yet they are infused with Foster himself and his passionate plea that these inspirational wild places need to be preserved. Each painting is a warning that the majesty we treasure could soon be lost. The works of the Hudson River School painters helped build movements to protect wilderness and to create national and city parks. Foster now reminds us with his paintings that the wild places that give context to our character and communities and provide the source for our unifying values are themselves in danger. Despite their apparent durability, our landscapes, like our democracy, are vulnerable and fragile. Tony Foster understands that only our continually re-inspired passions can save these vital cornerstones of American heritage.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.


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