Heavenly Host, 1913
Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
Collection United States Military Academy
West Point, New York
Few shows can boast as varied a genesis as the Hudson River Museum’s Oh Panama! Jonas Lie Paints the Panama Canal. Lie, who immigrated to America from Norway in 1893, was originally inspired to travel to Panama to record its construction by a documentary he’d seen. The resulting masterworks, on show from February 6 through May 8, document one of the century’s largest engineering triumphs and address concepts that include industrialization, modernism, and land use.
We caught up with the exhibit’s curator, Bartholomew F. Bland, who also serves as the museum’s deputy director, to find out how and why this utterly unique set of paintings was selected. “My co-curator, Kirsten Jensen, and I became interested in Lie’s work through an exhibition called Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers we had at the museum in 2013,” shares Bland. “Those paintings inspired us to look at Lie’s Panama Canal series, done at right about the same time, in 1914.”
Serendipitously, the themes of Lie’s canal paintings dovetail nicely with much of the museum’s collection. “The transformative effect that the Panama Canal had on global trade and travel plays into the themes of water, rivers, and the transformation of landscape that we return to again and again at the museum,” notes Bland. “Artists like Lie that explored a ‘technological sublime’ in American Landscape painting made an artistic contribution that I don’t think has been fully recognized in the story of modernism.”
In viewing these fascinating images, Bland hopes that the museum’s visitors will gain a new appreciation for the scale of the canal’s undertaking and perhaps find some connections to their own lives. “These huge engineering projects are inherently dramatic,” says Bland. “Here in Westchester, I think visitors may draw a parallel to the current engineering and construction work going on to create the new Tappan Zee Bridge. It is interesting to reflect on a period before World War I, when such projects not only captured the public’s imagination but also became the subject matter for America’s leading artists.”