I share Sally's interest in things antebellum and in how we remember the past. And because I'm giving a talk on landscape art and property law on Thursday I thought that I'd talk some about that now, because I'm still rearranging my note cards and trying how best to present this material.
The talk, "Property and Progress" (cute play on Henry George, eh?) is on the relationship between landscape art and property law in the years leading into Civil War at one of my favorite--and one of our country's finest--art museums, the Westervelt Warner Museum. The talk centers around my favorite work of American art, Asher B. Durand's Progress (1853), which just so happens to be owned by the museum. This will be a huge treat for me, to have the chance to talk about that most magical of paintings at its home. And, in fact, this talk is part of welcoming it home from travels to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and then out to San Diego for a major exhibit on Durand.
I join two themes here--first, the centrality of property and particularly the hand of humans on the land, in antebellum landscape art; second, the ways that antebellum property law reflected and amplified those values. The correlation between them is not perfect. A substantial part of landscape art reveals concern over increasing human intrusions on nature. For instance, Thomas Cole's landscapes frequently disclose an ambivalence about the market. What Cole and a lot of other people celebrate--including Frederick Church's Above the Clouds at Sunrise--is nature freed from humans.
The romantics of the antebellum era worried that someone tried to own the landscape. So when Natural Bridge in western Virginia was offered for sale, John Thompson protested it in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger. Thomas Jefferson thought that the Natural Bridge, which he had once owned, should be treated as a public trust. (Frederick Church's image of the Natural Bridge, which is owned by the University of Virginia, is at right).
Landscape painters also captured farms and parcels of land, such as Thomas Cole's Ox Bow in the Connecticut River (right). It shows the landscape around Mount Holyoke. Look from left to right and see the increasing civilization. On the left is wild nature, twisted trees; over towards the right are fields, orchards, roads. Ox Bow was completed in 1836, the same year that Emerson completed Nature. You may recall that Emerson said of landscape that:
The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.Thomas Cole painted a number of such scenes. Sometimes I've used Cole's 1847 "Home in the Woods," which is in the Reynolda House Museum.
The idea here is to show the ways that humans put their imprint on nature--and how artists celebrated that imprint. George Inness' Lackawanna Valley (below) is a classic example. Look at the machine going through the the fields of cut-stumps; the railroad roundhouse in the background; the smoke stack even further off; what a strange juxaposition (it seems at first) of humans and nature. While it seems strange at first, my point is that landscape art is part of the celebration of human's use of land. The boy sitting in the foreground reminds one of Thoreau who talks in Walden of setting his watch to the railroad whistle. Where the image of Walden is of a secluded place, that solitude was often disturbed by the train whistle and then the sounds of the engine.
There’re some neat connections here between property law’s reverence for private property (and its preference for use of land) and the kind of art that Americans produced. It's fun cultural history, I think. And every now and then there are some unexpected connections between judges and landscape art. For instance, in a lecture in 1844 at Dartmouth, United States Supreme Court Justice Levi Woodbury referred to Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire to illustrate how nations evolved–“starting first in the rudeness of nature; then maturing to high refinement and grandeur-till, amid the ravages of luxury, time and war, sinking into utter desolation.” The series of five paintings depict the same landscape (look for the mountain in the background), as the country goes from a state of nature, to civilization, consummation, destruction, and then desolation. Sort of sobering, but in keeping with many nineteenth-century Americans’ belief in the cycle of nations.
Others, including Justice Woodbury, saw an unbroken chain of upward progress, often facilitated by the increasing respect for private property. And so there's an odd contrast between Cole, who was ambivalent about humans' imposition on nature and Woodbury and a lot of other jurists, who were enamored of the market. And you know what Woodbury's talk is called? How could it be anything other than "Progress"?!
Yup, colleges in the antebellum era were deeply interested in progress-- technological, economic, and moral (though what that meant was unclear). And so it should not surprise anyone that Jasper Cropsey painted the University of Michigan in 1855 (right). It has everything--the school buildings and church (at right), the fields, the roads, a horse drawn wagon, domesticated animals. The college in the garden, to paraphrase Leo Marx' brilliant book The Machine in the Garden. And another important source for this talk is Angela Miller's fantastic book The Empire of the Eye.
What, then, of the centerpiece of the talk: Durand's Progress? It’s a great canvass for seeing all sorts of images of what "progress" meant-–the shift from the native Americans over on the left (the state of nature), then moving across the canvass to the right, the telegraph wires, the steam boats, the canal, the peddler, the boy bringing the cattle to market, the church, the railroad roundhouse....
The talk is particularly meaningful for me, too, because it's the last lecture I'm giving in Tuscaloosa. So it'll be fun, but sad, too, because I'll be saying goodbye to a painting I love and a lot of friends, too.