Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 19, 2010 with permission of the Orlando Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Orlando Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Nature and Spirit: American Art of the 19th and 20th Centuries

by Hansen Mulford


...the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as an apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature


Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature, published in 1836, was an eloquent announcement of a new vision of nature for Americans. In this essay, Emerson proposed that there is a universal spirit that unites man and nature and one can discover that spirit in the fields and forests of the natural world. Emerson's essay was the foundation of the influential philosophy of American Transcendentalism, and his assertion that there is divinity in nature was widely appreciated by artists, poets, theologians and an American public of diverse religious backgrounds. By the 1840s, Americans, motivated in part by the perceived spiritual benefits of the unspoiled natural environment, began to spend leisure time in scenic places like the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains of New York, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the coastal retreats of New England. Many Americans also began patronizing artists and craftsmen who celebrated this new vision of nature in paintings and decorative arts. The connection between nature and spirituality that emerged in American culture in the early 19th century has remained a major theme in American art and intellectual life to the present.

Nature and Spirit presents paintings, photographs and decorative arts that reflect the importance of nature as a source of inspiration in American art. Landscape painters were among the first to develop a visual language to express the inspirational feelings and ideas evoked by nature. Paintings in this exhibition demonstrate this visual language with stirring effects such as sweeping panoramic vistas, snow-peaked mountains and skies filled with rolling clouds and rainbows. Other paintings present calm twilight skies or figures in peaceful bucolic settings that suggest the quieter inspirational moods of reflection and reverie.

Early American photographers captured similar effects of light, space and atmosphere while documenting the grandeur of American scenery. William Henry Jackson and Carleton E. Watkins were among the first to photograph landmarks that would become iconic features of the American west. Examples in the exhibition include photographs of Yosemite Valley, California and the nearby giant Sequoias of Mariposa Grove. Such spectacles of untarnished natural beauty were often described in spiritual terms. Of Yosemite the naturalist John Muir wrote, "No temple made by hands can compare with Yosemite."

The exhibition also includes decorative objects that translate the inspirational visual language seen in landscape painting to ceramics and glass. From the 1880s through the 1920s, American art pottery manufacturers offered lines of vases with painted scenic decoration based on popular landscape styles. Louis Comfort Tiffany created landscape masterpieces in stained glass for the windows of his wealthy patrons. His stained glass lampshades seen in this exhibition are like fragments of those lush landscapes. The brilliant color of the glass and the irregular organic energy of the designs capture the fleeting spirit of living flowers.

Today many people seek to spend time in places of natural beauty and find such experiences nourishing to the soul. Some people understand this experience in terms of traditional religious beliefs and others in an entirely individual way. This intimate connection between nature and spirituality, which many would now consider commonplace, has its origin in the cultural life of the 19th century. It is a heritage passed down by many generations of philosophers, theologians, writers, poets and artists and has shaped the value we now hold for nature and its preservation.

- Hansen Mulford, Curator


About the author

Hansen Mulford is Curator at the Orlando Museum of Art.


About the exhibition

The above text is from the exhibition "Nature and Spirit: American Art of the 19th and 20th Centuries," on exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art from January 9, 2010 through April 25, 2010.

Artists help shape our concept of what we see as beautiful and inspiring about nature. This exhibition will feature 25 paintings, sculptures, ceramics and other decorative arts of the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. The selections will offer a historical overview of the engagement of leading American artists with the landscape and show some of the ways in which evolving ideas about nature are expressed in art.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 19, 2010, with permission of the Orlando Museum of Art, which permissions was granted to TFAO on March 17, 2010. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Linda Cegelis of the Orlando Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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