Landscape in America 1850-1890: Dreaming of Paradise

By Elizabeth Bryant

 



 

I remember when the world was new. We all do. I remember waking up at dawn, before I knew what dawn was, and seeing my first sunrise. My mother pulled back the heavy plum drapes in the still-dark living room, and said "look," and went back to bed, and there, through the plate glass window over the back of the couch, the pale blue sky was shot through with pink. I remember standing for a long time, dissolved by the light, as if the color entered into me through my eyes and emptied out my body, as if I became the light.

I remember, too, the summer night my brother showed me the stars come out, and we tried to count them all. I remember sheet lightning flashing the sky with color, and an autumn moon rising full and yellow over the neighbors' rooftops. I remember when the Skagit Valley was sleepy and green, when the way to Des Moines on Old 99 went through family farms, and when Marysville was a place of bakeries and cafe pies. I remember when the dirt road to the mountains was winding, narrow, and steep, and how on the top there was silence. I remember woods you could get lost in behind our cabin on the Olympic Peninsula, and an ocean beach littered with green glass fishing floats that had come all the way from Japan. I remember garter snakes in the back yard. I remember Eden.

Eden is what I see when I look at these landscapes: the Frederic Church mountain rising pink above the glow of the tropics; John F. Kensett's river light jelled in bell-jar stillness; William Trost Richards's June Woods -- each leaf, each stone, an opening door. Eden is what we're meant to see. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the apostle of Transcendentalism in the first half of the century, Eden was lost only because man was lost, the world was fractured only because we were. Regain the new sight of a child and Eden too would be regained: Nature revealed as the book of God.

"In the woods," Emerson wrote in his 1836 essay Nature, "we return to reason and faith. . . . Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe light, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."

This period saw a covenant of science, art, and theology: new discoveries in science were seen as keys to the profound study of God's book. Art was the interpreter of that study, and theology the framework in which the revelation took place. The embodiment of the book of nature for nineteenth-century Europeans -- both those who stayed in Europe and those who settled the New World -- was America. The continent stretched out before them like an unfurled carpet, unsullied by the failure of the Old World. It was a dream of possibility, of a new start, away from the corruption of a Europe gripped by the Industrial Revolution and the related revolutions of cannon and carnage; the human flood of immigrants and displaced workers that had inundated its cities, changing them beyond recognition; the poverty, the bloodshed, the moral disgrace. America was an open book, waiting for civilization to be writ anew, its blank pages fluttering toward the horizon, beckoning endlessly toward the West. America was Eden before the Fall.

The dream of Eden is structured into the paintings in Landscape in America 1850 - 1890, but so, already, is nostalgia: nostalgia for a memory of an imagined lost past, and for a present that was already vanishing. The earliest painters of the national landscape, Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, edited out the tourist accommodations in their paintings of nature, creating a fiction of pristine wilderness from well-trodden vistas. The artist-adventurer Church constructed his sweeping panoramas from precisely described botanical details in combinations which could never exist.

Paintings of the landscape as Eden told different stories, according to the artist and the changing tastes of the times. Where Durand points to the advance of civilization into the wilderness with a foreground stump, Church alludes to the cycle of cultural decay with a fragment of a stone balustrade in the jungle. These are different ends of the same story: the rise and fall of civilizations. But where Durand may have mourned the loss of the wild, Church's peculiarly classical remnant of ancient South American civilization provides a kind of justification for the man with the ax. That previous civilization has perished of its own decadence as Europe is perishing, as Rome perished. It is time for the new, for the Manifest Destiny of the European American. The American continents lie waiting for a new greatness, God's offering to his new chosen people: they are freshly wiped slates, a second chance at paradise.

Other artists, like Kensett and George Inness, seem to tell less of culture's rise and fall, and more of a Nature made for man. "Nature," Emerson wrote, "is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mould into what is useful." Nature inexhaustible, and man living lightly in harmony: another dream of paradise, in an age when the leather-stockinged Natty Bumpos of the woods retreated before the onslaught of the railroad, the vast herds of buffalo became heaping mountains of bones, and the tribes of Noble Savages were exiled to smaller and much less happy hunting grounds.

 


 

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