The quick answer is that they moved rocks and trees, but not mountains.
Thanks to the work of John J. Henderson and Roger E. Belson of the White Mountain Art and Artists organization of New Hampshire, you can see for yourself. Mr. Henderson has taken photos from the same vantage points that the 19th Century artists used, giving us a remarkable chance to compare each painting with the scene that inspired it.
It’s hard to be exactly sure what foregrounds the artists were looking at 150 years ago, but it’s clear that they drew the mountain contours very carefully. They may have increased the height a bit, but they were faithful to the silhouette.
The issue of mountain contours was a hot topic among 19th Century landscape painters. Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), one of the co-founders of the Hudson River School, and its most influential writer, addressed the subject in his Letters on Landscape Painting (1855). The artist, he said, may:
“…displace a tree, for instance, if disagreeable, or render it a more perfect one of its kind if retained, but the elevations and depressions of the earth’s surface composing the middle ground and distance, the magnitude of objects, and extent of space presented in the view, characteristic outline, undulating or angular, of all the great divisions, may not be changed in the least perceptible degree, most especially the mountain and hill forms. On these God has set his signet, and Art may not remove it when the picture professes to represent the scene.”
I would warrant that these very words were ringing in the ears of each of the artists who painted these pictures. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)
For 12 more examples, visit http://whitemountainart.com/PhotoComparisons.htm.
For more about Durand, visit http://www.outdoorpainting.com/History/Asher-Durand.php
Full text of "Letters on Landscape Painting" appears in the book Kindred Spirits, by Linda Ferber, 2007
Tomorrow: Sky Panels