I am inclined to agree with that young American writer who wrote:
…for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
to Nature’s teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice—
In thinking about the normalizing powers of nature, and the power of the open sky, I cannot help but think of a painting that I saw a few years ago by John Kensett which left me breathless.
Kensett, a contemporary of both Bryant and Emerson, distinguished himself in a manner all but forgotten today.
Yet Kensett’s worldview is in so many ways aligned with Emerson’s. Just as Emerson claimed that a person can behold nature anywhere at any time, Kensett often found himself painting the mundane- domestic scenes in calm inlets, a day at the beach, views from forested hillsides- in order to evoke a similar truth.
Emerson, however, placed all importance in the viewer- the transparent eyeball. Rather than assert the self in his paintings, Kensett asserts raw nature. Looking once again at that painting I first saw years ago, I am still mesmerized. In Beach at Beverly, 1860, Kensett all but entirely removes the artist. Brush strokes are invisible. (Notice that the eye through which we see the painting is not in a physical location; the view is raised above the sand, looking slightly down at the people, but also out into the ocean–this, I think, is Kensett’s way of telling us that we look through a lens beyond the human eye.)
Of course, the difference between Emerson and Kensett is largely attributable to the medium. Whereas in the art of writing prose, the artist must project the self, the art of painting allows Kensett to stay back. Rather than hear from the transparent eye ball, we can, in a sense, see through it. In this way, viewers may immediately commune with nature rather than partake in philosophical discussion (to the extent the two are different).
Kensett, a luminist, accomplished this difficult task of conveying nature through his use of light. Perhaps the most notable thing about the painting is the simplicity and sensitivity to the effects in the sky, which tie the whole painting together with a seemingly divine force. The horizon line is blurred, giving both the sky and the ocean a sense of infinitude.
I must admit that I often leave Emerson in a similar state as when I leave this painting. Emerson said, “A leaf, a sunbeam, a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the mind. What is common to them all, — that perfectness and harmony, is beauty.” “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind.” Still, with Kensett, rather than hearing a description about what it means to lose all egotism or the be part of God, it is nice to actually see the revelations associated with the self’s disintegration (or perhaps, the self’s immersion with the surrounding).