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Description: The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875
~IN THE SPRING of 1872 Thomas Moran was struggling to complete his huge canvas The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. He needed help, and he wrote for it—not to a fellow artist nor a professional art critic, but to the geologist Ferdinand Hayden with whom he had traveled in the Yellowstone region the previous summer. “[Y] our judgment of...
PublisherPrinceton University Press
IN THE SPRING of 1872 Thomas Moran was struggling to complete his huge canvas The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. He needed help, and he wrote for it—not to a fellow artist nor a professional art critic, but to the geologist Ferdinand Hayden with whom he had traveled in the Yellowstone region the previous summer. “[Y] our judgment of the truths of the picture,” Moran told him, are “of far greater value to me than that of any other man in the country.”
American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to separate epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies directed toward completely different ends. Yet in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a strikingly different model of the relationship between art and science prevailed in both popular perception and in practice.
In the United States between 1825 and 1875, geology and landscape painting were closely allied pursuits. Both disciplines, it was pointed out at the time, were rooted in a careful observation of the natural world, and both were dedicated to illuminating the diversity and order of God’s creation. Moreover, both geologists and landscape painters were self-conscious participants in the antebellum enterprise of nation-building. With a perception of their compatible methods and aims, geologists and landscape painters were able to collaborate in numerous social endeavors: promoting patriotism, spreading scientific knowledge, teaching moral lessons, inspiring religious awe, encouraging westward expansion, and fostering tourism. This rich, complicated, and productive relationship is the focus of this book.
The book had its genesis in the early 1980s when, as a graduate student, I read Barbara Novak’s Nature and Culture (1980). In her provocative chapter “The Geological Timetable: Rocks,” she summarizes some of the major geological controversies of the nineteenth century and offers evidence of American artists’ interest in them. Finishing the chapter I found myself, as I believe Novak intended, left with more questions than answers. Who was caught up in the geological enthusiasms of the period, and why? What was the nature of the relationship between artists and geologists? How did the artists’ engagement with the science shape the way they perceived and painted nature? And these were just the initial questions.
For answers, I looked to the published writings and unpublished papers of the era’s geologists and artists, as well as the writings of the artists’ friends, patrons, and critics. I have also drawn heavily on the newspapers and periodicals of the day, with their extensive treatment of both science and art, and on contemporary travel literature and art criticism. At the core of the book are the works of art themselves. Trying to understand better why they look the way they do, how they were perceived, and how they functioned in their time has been a major goal.
In pursuing this interdisciplinary study, I have drawn extensively on the work of colleagues in art history, the history of science, and American cultural history. The intersections of art and science have been a major topic of discussion in academic circles during the last two decades, and several scholars have paid particular attention to the relationship between geology and art. Focusing on European scientific illustration, Martin Rudwick’s writings, including Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Illustrations of the Prehistoric World (1992) have explored the emergence and development of a visual language for geological science in the nineteenth century—a language of columnar sections and imaginative recreations of bygone epochs, all shaped by the theories preoccupying geologists at the time of their creation. Charlotte Klonk, in Science and the Perception of Nature (1996), has argued that “phenomenalism” (the notion that the inquiring observer should approach nature “merely descriptively” or without preconceived theories) provided a discursive structure that shaped both British science and British landscape painting at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Timothy Mitchell, in Art and Science in German Landscape Painting, 1770–1840 (1993), has discussed how the “progressive rewriting of the earth’s history” at the turn of the nineteenth century informed the works of German Romantic landscape painters from J. A. Koch to Caspar D. Friedrich. Scholars of American art also have been working in this field. Elizabeth Childs, Kenneth Haltman, Franklin Kelly, Katherine Manthorne, Ellwood C. Parry III, William Truettner, and Virginia Wagner, among others, have offered insightful accounts of how particular geological theories have informed works by individual American artists. Their works are gratefully cited in the main text. The Anatomy of Nature is, however, the first book to focus on the relationship between geology and landscape painting in the United States.
The book is organized to illuminate the varied ways and the varied venues in which art and science intersected in the mid-nineteenth century. The introduction describes geology’s widespread popular appeal in the pre–Civil War era and examines the religious, economic, recreational, intellectual, and nationalistic factors that underlay it. Each of the six subsequent chapters focuses on a different artist chosen to emphasize a different facet of the geology-landscape alliance. These six were certainly not the only mid-century American landscape painters involved with geology. William Trost Richards, Jasper Cropsey, William Keith, Albert Bierstadt, Gilbert Munger, James Hope, Russell Smith, and dozens of others could be added to or substituted for the six discussed here. While I hate to omit any of them, I think that the works of the included artists exemplify well the varied forms, meanings, and functions that geologically informed landscapes assumed at mid-century.
The chapters progress in a roughly chronological order, beginning with a consideration of Thomas Cole’s work of the 1820s and 1830s. Launching his career when landscape was just gaining a following in the United States, Cole argued for the study of geology as a way to bolster the status of his chosen genre. Through his study of the science, he aligned his interests with those of his wealthy and powerful patrons and developed an expressive vocabulary of landscape elements, which he used to underscore his paintings’ moral themes. His friend Asher Durand, working from the later 1840s into the 1860s, drew on geology’s revelations to create some of the most powerful, acutely observed rock studies of the nineteenth century. They embody his meditations on mortality and his allegiance to the philosophical paradigm of the microcosm, while belonging firmly within the developing therapeutic culture of the era. He posited the contemplation of nature studies as a restorative exercise, an antidote to the hectic pace and materialistic tenor of his times.
Cole’s pupil Frederic Church, whose mammoth landscapes toured the country in the 1850s and 1860s, collaborated with scientists in educating the populace about the natural world while simultaneously underscoring the nationalist ideology of the era and encouraging a Christianized perception of nature. John F. Kensett joined geologists in promoting the development of American landscape tourism. At a time when many of the best-selling guidebooks and travelogues were written by geologists, and geologizing was one of the pleasures pursued on wilderness vacations, Kensett crafted his pictures to allude to and accommodate this mode of apprehending the world. William Stanley Haseltine’s paintings of The Rocks at Nahant, dating from the 1860s, became intertwined with definitions of social status in antebellum New England, as well as with the transcendental geology of Louis Agassiz. Thomas Moran, in the 1870s, participated in several geological surveys of the American West, and through his works promoted the surveys’ discoveries and helped to both imaginatively and practically open the western lands to settlement and other forms of economic exploitation.
Unifying these six artists (and the six chapters) is their shared interest in the intersection of geology and religion. These men were not drawn to all aspects of geology—Darwin’s materialist science, for example, held few attractions for them. At a time when many geologists, including Darwin, were fighting to liberate their science from revealed religion, these artists staunchly maintained their allegiance to the older, conservative geology, a geology that found evidence of God’s shaping hand in the fabric of the earth, a geology that could draw moral and spiritual lessons from stones. This is the geology that the painters drew upon and gave expression to in their art. But it was a geology that was doomed to extinction. In some ways this book is the story of the artists’ valiant yet ultimately futile effort to preserve the unity of God and nature.