What follows is the opening of “Landscape and the Imperial Subject: U.S. Images of the Andes, 1859-1930”, an essay by Deborah Poole included in the book Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations:
In 1859 a doorman opens the Studio Building on 10th Street in Manhattan to let in the crowd that has been gathering outside for several hours. After showing their prepaid twenty-five-cent tickets, small groups are ushered up the stairs and through heavy black curtains. There, within the darkened studio, stands a five-by-ten-foot oil painting of a lush mountain landscape. The canvas is mounted in a thirteen-by-fourteen-foot frame carved in the form of a casement window and designed to bring the landscape’s horizon line to just above eye level. A skylight above is directed to as to illuminate only the brilliant surface of the canvas. At the far left, a massive snow-capped mountain shines through a clearing in dark clouds. Nestled in the verdant plain below is a small hamlet and church. In the foreground, there is a cross before which two Indians kneel. Below them to the center right, a cascading waterfall gives way to a shimmering pool of water.
The effect on the spectators is immediate. When confronted with its immensity, the crowed becomes hushed. Women feel faint. Both men and women succumb to the dizzying combination of terror and vertigo that they recognize as the sublime. Many of them will later describe a sensation of becoming immersed in, or absorbed by, this painting, whose dimensions, presentation, and subject matter speak of the divine power of nature. As one critic commented after seeing the painting, “The observer feels that the canvass [sic] has depth and that he is looking open eyed, out upon nature itself.” Later, on the painting’s national tour in 1861, precautions will be taken to monitor these reactions: Spectators in Boston are advised to use opera glasses when viewing the painting. Elsewhere, visitors prepare themselves for the exhibition by studying one of the several pamphlets that have been published to guide viewers on their tour of this immense and strangely refracted Andean landscape.
If you’re like me, you don’t associate paintings with these kinds of physical reactions. Fainting? Maybe if you go see Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity at the IMAX, not if you drop by the local art gallery. But this is 1861, before cinema. In 1861, you, too, would be quiet, being ushered up those stairs, your heart beating in your chest, trying to imagine the still image that you know will take your breath away…