The fact that nature and nation share a common root—the Latin verb nasci, “to be born”—might rate as trivia to most people. But in the context of early American art, at least, the connection has profound cultural meaning. Paintings of natural vistas, from New York’s Hudson Valley to the purple mountains and red deserts of the West, became early symbols of a young nation and its so-called manifest destiny. In the minds of many early Americans and pioneers, the land was out there for “us” (as in, men of European decent) to celebrate—but also to conquer. The very idea of American civilization meant destroying some of those beautiful, natural vistas to build the cities, farms, and factories of the future.
That is just one of the contradictions set up—and rapidly deconstructed—in a sweeping reappraisal of American art seen through the lenses of environmental justice and the emerging theory of ecocriticism now on view at the Princeton University Art Museum. First developed in the 1990s as a cultural inquiry into the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau and others, ecocriticism has expanded into the study of the ecological significance of visual art, music, architecture, and other creative fields.
In Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, museum curator Karl Kusserow and Alan Braddock, a professor of art history and American studies at the College of William and Mary, play with the meaning of more than 100 paintings and objects from the Colonial period to the present day. With fresh research and interpretations, the exhibit peels back traditional views of early American art to raise questions about colonialism, racial and ethnic representation, pollution, and humanity’s ethical responsibilities to nature.
The free exhibition starts off with the juxtaposition of Albert Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, an iconic 19th-century Romantic landscape, and Valerie Hegarty’s 2007 Fallen Bierstadt, a facsimile of the same painting. Bierstadt, who visited Yosemite Valley in the 1860s, described it as America’s Garden of Eden and depicted it as a divine creation untouched by human hands. In Hegarty’s version, however, the painting has been slashed and burned, with its missing pieces sitting on the floor below. Hegarty, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, sullies Bierstadt’s scene in ways similar to how humans have damaged the environment, and in so doing, she skewers the antiquated notion of nature as sublime and beyond our reach. “She literally dematerializes that vision of nature to suggest it’s not necessarily the only vision,” says Kusserow.
The exhibit’s intention, however, is not to deny or disparage the power of artists like Bierstadt to shape prevailing views of the environment. Bierstadt’s popularity in the late 1800s helped encourage the creation of California’s first state parks and the launch of modern conservationism. Take, for example, the large-format 2002 photograph Caribou Migration I by Subhankar Banerjee, which captures a vast section of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as seen from an airplane overhead. Single-file lines of barely discernible female caribou cross the icy landscape on their way to calving grounds to the north.
The image has a quiet, peaceful quality to it but caused an uproar back in 2003 during the second Bush administration. As the Indian-born photographer was preparing a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, he became caught up in the political fight over Arctic drilling when a congresswoman displayed the caribou image on the House floor to counter claims that the refuge was a frozen wasteland. Suddenly, Banerjee’s major exhibition at the government-run museum was downsized to a gallery in the basement, an act that some saw as censorship. The move galvanized activism against drilling the Arctic, and Banerjee’s photograph is now an icon of the environmental movement.
Nature’s Nation also zooms in on the production of some earlier American works of art, such as a chest of drawers by Philadelphia cabinetmakers circa 1761. The exhibit presents the highboy of tulip poplar, white cedar, and imported mahogany as an artifact of exploitation. As the museum commentary explains, this gleaming mahogany, meant to embellish an elite Colonial-era home, was probably harvested in Jamaica or Central America by enslaved Africans living in cruel and deplorable conditions. In a short amount of time, loggers cleared much of the region’s tropical forests, along with the wildlife they supported. The land then became sugar plantations, where once again slaves suffered terrible fates.
The production origins of Morris Louis’s color field paintings of the mid-20th century are also highlighted. Louis used thin washes of color in large abstract compositions like Intrigue, 1954, by diluting acrylic paints with gallons of turpentine. Praised for their flatness and airy immateriality, Louis’s “veil paintings” are brought back to earth by an essay describing the notorious “turpentine camps” of the American South. A Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange accompanies the essay. The 1936 image shows a mother and her barefoot children and is titled Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. Needless to say, these mostly African-American laborers have, until recently, never been seen or acknowledged as playing a role in the production of museum-quality art.
Nature’s Nation argues that in the dawn of the Anthropocene period, in which humans play the predominant role in shaping the planet, we urgently need a new way of seeing the world around us—including within art and culture. “One of the great things about ecocriticism, which is the approach we take, is that it enables you to see as if through a new pair of glasses the environmental stories in any kind of work of art, not just in landscape paintings,” says Kusserow. For many viewers, this mind-expanding art show at Princeton will be the first step toward that new understanding.
Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, through January 6, 2019. Admission is free.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.