Compass for Surveyors: 19th Century American Landscapes

Art of the Americas Building, Level 3
December 21, 2012–April 20, 2014

Throughout the 1800s, painters and photographers helped interpret the changing landscape as Americans settled and explored the shifting western frontier. This exhibition features all of the nineteenth century American landscape paintings from LACMA’s collection, and a selection of photographs from the same period. Thomas Eakins’s famous painting, Wrestlers, is also featured, and a surveyor’s compass from 1856, on loan from The Autry National Center, occupies the center of the gallery. The installation emphasizes the uneven and subjective nature of LACMA’s collection: the East Coast works, hung salon-style, dramatically outnumber the museum’s canvases portraying the West. Conversely, representations of the West abound in the museum's holdings of early photography, while there are fewer photographs depicting the East.

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Image: Surveyor’s Vernier Compass with Box, c. 1856Wm. J. YoungUnited States, 1800–1870, Wood, metal, brass, glass, Courtesy of Museum of the American West, Autry National Center; 87.64.2.

Boston Harbor, Sunset
Fitz Henry Lane
Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
Thomas Hill
Eagle Creek, Columbia River
Carleton Emmons Watkins
Glass Globe at Fort William Henry Hotel, New York
Seneca Ray Stoddard
circa 1885

Surveying the American Landscape

Just before the holidays LACMA opened a dramatic new installation of the American art galleries, titled Compass for Surveyors: Nineteenth-Century American Landscapes. I spoke to curators Austen Bailly and José Luis Blondet about the new installation, which examines not only the history of American landscapes, but also the very nature of LACMA’s collections...

Rediscovering American Landscapes

My first position at LACMA, in 1991, entailed assisting curator Ilene Susan Fort in the American Art curatorial department, so I had a great introduction to the paintings now on view, and many of the landscapes became my LACMA favorites. American photography has been an interest of mine, as well, since the medium, introduced to America in 1839, literally grew up with the nation. So the whole idea of Compass for Surveyors is fascinating...