Enchanted Views of Distant Lands
In October 1871, artist and Loomis Institute Founder Osbert Loomis purchased a landscape painting by German artist Otto Sommer. Acquired for his brother James, the artwork depicts majestic, rugged snow-topped mountains with a stream rushing toward a still lake. This scene, juxtaposed with two small human figures tucked into the landscape and descending from alpine heights, leaves no question about the artist’s respect for the grandeur of nature.
Osbert found the painting in Munich, Germany, during a five-month stay in Europe and England. He described the art market of Munich as “a feast” and sent James four oil paintings, two by Sommer. His nearly 100-page travel journal, letters to friends, and the paperwork required to ship art to America recount Osbert’s adventures in seeking out art, making art, and seeing Europe through the eyes of an artist.
Osbert traveled by ship, ferry, stage coach, train, and foot. American travel writer Henry Morford accompanied him for some of the trip, and Osbert wrote in his journal of their ferry crossing on the English Channel with a misbehaving poodle, and an English gentleman who freely extolled his solutions to the public sanitation issues of the day. Osbert visited artists and art collections throughout Europe and was especially moved by the ruins of Pompeii. Mineral hunters, herdsmen and their cows, fellow travelers, and country folk populate the journal’s accounts. Joining a party of seven walkers on the way to Mer de Glace in the French Alps, Osbert could not keep up with their conversations in French and German. They discovered Spanish to be “a familiar tongue … to communicate freely,” a nod to Osbert’s long painting career in Cuba.
In Aachen, Germany, Morford “called my attention to the picturesque and quaint cut which the Market women, men & boys presented. … I felt an irresistible desire to sketch it. M had the same artistic fit come down over him.” A crowd of merchants, customers, small children, dogs, and geese gathered to watch the artists at work, and “the whole business of … [the] square was totally suspended.” A few months later, Osbert sketched the image of a town house damaged in the 1871 Prussian Siege of Paris. His friend was to be a translator at a secret meeting arranged for that home, but having misplaced her muff, she was late to arrive, only barely missing the intense shelling.
Walking in the mountains near Chamonix, France, during the second week of August, Osbert stopped for a rest. He observed: “How beautiful and yet how grand, approaching the sublime, is the scene around me.” Without warning, natural events interrupted the respite. “[W]hat is that rumbling like thunder in a cloudless sky? … [M]y sight caught the first crackling and breaking away of those immense blocks of ice snow, as a Grand avalanche fell over the rocky precipice, and rolled down over. … It made an impression of its power which cannot be conveyed by words. … Though lucky to have an opportunity to see one so advantageously, still I must confess distance lends enchantment to the view.”
A year after Osbert returned to America, the first souvenir picture postcards for travelers were produced in Europe. As a storyteller, artist, and art connoisseur, Osbert collected and crafted his own impressions of Europe. Like the souvenirs that soon followed, Osbert’s images — and Sommer’s landscape — helped to bring enchanted views of distant lands to family and friends. ©
Karen Parsons is archivist and teaches history.