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one of the most interesting paintings by an American artist early in the nation's history is Washington Alston's Elijah in the desert it's dark it's brooding its melancholic and it seems to emphasize the supernatural these are all traits that are so at odds with most of the American painting that we know of from this period that's true but they were things that especially interested Washington Austin he was very much a romantic he was interested in the Gothic and the supernatural and the creepy and all of its form this is really creepy it is like so many American artists at the end of the 18th and early 19th century he went to London he learned the European methods in fact he exhibited at the Paris salon he actually went to Rome and spent a good deal of time with Coleridge spend time with John vanderlin another American artist but importantly focused on the ruins in ancient Rome you can imagine him strolling through the ruins of Rome in the moonlight that activity suited his romantic Sensibility we know that he was interested in the supernatural and just take a look at this painting I mean most prominent is this wonderful gnarled tree it looks like it has lived an enormous ly long life and suffered and is finally perhaps by lightning been blasted and is now dead and as if that wasn't enough there's this raven and its bow and then another down close to the figure of elijah himself and of course this is central to the story of Elijah right where Elijah is sent into the wilderness by God but cared for by God there by Ravens who feed the prophet and this is from the Bible from the Book of Kings Olsen was interested in these biblical subjects and using landscape as a means to convey these biblical stories so this is as much a landscape or more a landscape than it is the biblical story it anticipates some of the ideas that develop back in the United States that is this notion that the landscape in America could convey ideas of redemption could convey ideas of the ancient could convey spiritual themes right we didn't have cathedrals and palaces but we had our untouched landscape we had landscape which could be interpreted in these emotional and moral ways one way of also elevating landscape to a higher position in the subject matter of art is to place something significant happening within that landscape like a biblical story or something heroic otherwise landscapes were actually the lowest kind of art according to the Academy Austin is really making a very serious landscape painting this isn't simply a view of a landscape but it's not just a serious landscape subject it's also a serious attempt to elevate painting from the United States this is critical because if you think back to the kinds of paintings that were being done either during the colonial period or soon thereafter in the federalists period you have painting that is generally portraiture but here's an attempt to create a real narrative something that's serious but also informed by the European tradition quite strongly and you can see that I think in the colour in the way that all since painted this he learned a glazing technique while in London a way of applying paint in thin layers that really makes the color rich he was also especially in love with the work of Aaron AZ and of Titian and you can see the influence of the Venetians in this painting the color really is much more subtle than what we see in most American painting of this time we can see that really in the clouds in the mountains in the distance in the highlights of the Sun on that blasted tree in the foreground so I think you're right this moral serious biblical subject in this wild imaginative landscape is something a little bit odds with American culture its emphasis on the practical and the material I think for a lot of artists in America in the early 19th century and also in the late 18th century there was this conflict between wanting to create something very serious and meaningful and in a European tradition but also the needs of a more practical American culture maybe that's one of the reasons that this painting remained unsold for so long perhaps