How Landscape Became a Doctrine in American Art


Outside of his popular Modern Art Notes podcast, Tyler Green works to reinvigorate the tradition of Americana in art history. His first book, Carleton Watkins: Making the American West (2018), traced the influence of a photographer on the formation of national parks. Yosemite became the nation’s first act of “landscape preservation”, which was central to a burgeoning cultural identity in the United States. As border residents moved into the grounds of the park, Watkins captured “cathedral spiers” over the Sierra Mountains, showing the spiritual essence of nature and the Protestant underpinnings of Manifest Destiny.

Throughout the 19th century, nature served as an inspiration to American artists, in part thanks to the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose 1836 essay “Nature” encouraged the religious and aesthetic separatism of the old European muses. Green’s latest book, Emerson’s Nature and the artists, analyzes how the landscape passed from idea to doctrine in painting and photography. He associates Emerson’s text with a series of public domain and open access works of art, as well as his own essays, which provide historical context.

Martin Johnson Heade, “Newburyport Marshes: Passing Storm” (c. 1865-1870), Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Nature is not just a celebration of flora, it is one of the most important propositions of the 19th century for the basis of an American national culture, ”argues Green, locating Emerson’s thesis in a plethora of canvases and prints. From Thomas Cole’s landmark painting “The Oxbow” (1836) – which juxtaposes an overgrown storm forest with a cultivated landscape along the Connecticut River – to floral paintings by Fidelia Bridges and post-impressionist works by Marsden Hartley , Green shows that Emerson’s notion of direct experience formed the basis of a uniquely American sensibility, with artists who went to great lengths to find God and homeland in the branches and streams of their new homeland. .

“All things are moral; and in their limitless changes have a relentless reference to spiritual nature, “Emerson writes in” Nature, “articulating a dual commitment to spirituality and science. For early American artists, Green argues, the landscape was a “unity of nature” and an allegory for the developing country. Unity was crucial for the Republican project; The same goes for reflection and introspection, which Green identifies in works of art made during the Civil War era. Emerson’s text, a product of the pre-war period, attempted to resolve the ideological differences of the young nation under common artistic causes. Green’s curation illustrates how artists extended Emerson’s mission through tumultuous times, gradually resolving the landscape through color and composition.

Tyler Green, Emerson’s Nature oneand the artists: the idea as a landscape, the landscape as an idea, Prestel Publishing, 2021 (image courtesy of Prestel Publishing)

Green also recognizes colonialism as pervasive. It highlights the presence of settlers on Indigenous lands and details Emerson’s racial oversights, which have led historian Nell Irvin Painter to describe him as “the philosopher-king of American white race theory.” Like many white Americans, Emerson viewed the native tribes as too “primitive” “savages” to grasp the providence of individualism. Green calls these problems at the beginning of the book, apparently as a content warning.

Readers probably won’t need much to convince Emerson of white chauvinist leanings. Influenced by Unitarian and Christian values, he advocated for the pioneers’ divine right to conquer and espoused what Green calls “Saxon supremacy.” Emerson’s Nature and the artists points out that colonial activities plundered ancestral lands and pits national parks against perceptions of freedom in nature, arguing that landscape was Emerson’s method of glorifying the territories shaped and bordered by white men.

Now, if we broadcast Emerson’s problematic views – especially for a 21st century critique – then we need to look at the breed. in relationship with class and genre. His contempt for the poor, prominent in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841), is also evident in “Nature”. From the argument that debt is “most needed by those who suffer the most” to the claim that children must learn the “secret” that man can “reduce under his will, not just particular events but great classes, if not the whole series of events, and thus conform all the facts to his character, “says Emerson from a patriarchal position of power under capitalism. Green is just short of identifying it.

Carleton Watkins, “Mount Watkins and Mirror Lake” (1865-1866), Library of Congress

“Nature is completely publicized,” writes Emerson. “He is made to serve. He receives rulership from man as obediently as the donkey on which the Savior rode. This principle of classical economics left Emerson and the artists unable to view the extractive industries as anything other than random acts of sane commerce – and nature as the submissive muse for their ideological interests. Bringing these works closer to the politics of the time, particularly the influence of Andrew Jackson, may have proved useful in conceptualizing the artistic discourse the book seeks to define.

Green is the best with close readings; he is a very skilled critic who can guide readers to new interpretations of well-known works of art. Without linking race and class, however, this analysis risks reproducing the same repressive ideals that have left American exceptionalism unchallenged for so long. Complications from 19th-century intellectuals like Emerson, who opposed slavery but hesitated over poverty, indicate a deeper lack of ideological cohesion within American liberalism. In Green’s reassessment of Emerson, intersectionality always seems to be an afterthought.

Emerson’s Nature and artists: the idea as a landscape, The landscape as an idea by Tyler Green (2021) is published by Prestel and is available online and in bookstores.

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