The History of American Landscape Painting Is Not Pretty

The first panel of a graphic essay shows the artist sitting on a rock in the desert. The text written across the sky says “I went to the desert, and I had a realization. (My apologies, clichés abound, but this really did happen.)” Elements of the image are labeled “light bulb,” “desert sunset,” and “tumbleweed, skull, etc.”

Image credit: Hyperallergic

Have you given any thought this week to landscape painting? No? To be honest, neither have we. But Steven Weinberg, a New York-based artist, children’s book author, and B&B owner, is passionate about landscape painting and its importance to both history and environmentalism. He explains it all in this November 2022 graphic essay on Hyperallergic, an online magazine. (Please note: a little background in US history will be very helpful to you here. We suggest you look up the names he mentions, but we’ll give you a little head start on one important concept. “Manifest destiny” was a 19th century belief that supported and justified the westward expansion of US territories and settlement by people of European descent at the expense of the native people who already occupied and made their homes on those lands.)

View it here.


1. Weinberg makes clear that he loves painting landscapes, but he also acknowledges a moral dilemma in doing so. What is the dilemma? How does he resolve it for himself? Do you think he offers a satisfactory explanation for his choice? Why or why not?

2. How effectively does Weinberg support his assertion that “the history is not pretty”? For your assessment, consider the images he offers as well as the explicit explanations and assertions. How did you arrive at your response? Explain your reasoning. Do you think Weinberg relies too heavily on readers’ recognition of and prior knowledge about the manifest destiny and the men depicted in his essay? Should he have offered more explanation? Why or why not?

3. LET’S TALK. Weinberg mentions visual clichés, and he even goes so far as to label a few of them in the first panel. Some of these, such as the sunset, are features of the landscape itself, while others, such as the light bulb, function as commentaries or additions to what he actually sees. Work with a few classmates to identify and analyze the items and features of each panel. Which ones are part of the actual landscape that is being depicted? Which ones function as commentary? Consider the colors of the items; are they significant? How so? (Here’s a very specific question to get you started: What is that object on the ground in the fourth panel? What is it doing there, and what meaning might it have in that panel?) Once you’ve found and analyzed all of the features, do you have a different understanding or appreciation of the essay as a whole? Explain your response.

4. AND NOW WRITE. According to Weinberg, landscape paintings—in addition to just being beautiful—served as 19th century “billboards” for westward expansion and settlement. Today we have high resolution closeup images of Mars, and the internet abounds with articles, queries, and speculations about the possibility of settling on Mars or another destination away from Earth. Might these images be serving as 21st century “billboards” for expansion and colonization? How comparable are these two situations? What are the similarities? What are the differences? Write an essay that addresses these questions and argues for your responses. In your essay, you may want to speculate about how Weinberg might address the questions as well.

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