How Landscape Became Doctrine in American Art

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How Landscape Became Doctrine in American Art

Outside of his popular Modern Art Notes podcast, Tyler Green is working to reinvigorate the tradition of Americana in art history. His first book, Carleton Watkins: Making the West American (2018), traced the influence of one photographer on the formation of national parks. Yosemite became the nation’s first act of “landscape preservation,” which was central to a burgeoning United States cultural identity. As frontiersmen settled the park’s surroundings, Watkins captured “cathedral spires” on the Sierra Mountains, gesturing at nature’s spiritual essence and the protestant foundations of Manifest Destiny.

Throughout the 19th century, nature served as inspiration for American artists, thanks partially to transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose 1836 essay “Nature” encourages religious and aesthetic separatism from Europe’s old muses. Green’s latest book, Emerson’s Nature and the Artists, analyzes how landscape went from idea to doctrine in painting and photography. He pairs Emerson’s text with a curated series of public domain and open-access artworks along with his own essays, which provide historical context.

Martin Johnson Heade, “Newburyport Marshes: Passing Storm” (c. 1865–70), Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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

“All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing 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 “unit of nature” and an allegory for the developing nation. Unity was crucial for the Republican project; so, too, was reflection and introspection, which Green identifies in artworks made around the time of the Civil War. Emerson’s text, a product of the antebellum period, attempted to resolve the young nation’s ideological discrepancies under common artistic causes. Green’s curation exemplifies how artists expanded Emerson’s mission across tumultuous periods, gradually resolving the landscape through color and composition.

Tyler Green, Emerson’s Nature and the Artists: Idea as Landscape, Landscape as Idea, Prestel Publishing, 2021 (image courtesy Prestel Publishing)

Green also acknowledges colonialism as omnipresent. He points to the presence of settlers on Native land and details Emerson’s racial oversights, which led historian Nell Irvin Painter to describe him as “philosopher-king of American white-race theory.” Like many white Americans, Emerson regarded Indigenous tribes as “savages” who were too “primitive” to grasp the providence of individualism. Green calls out these issues early in the book, seemingly as a content warning.

Readers likely won’t need much convincing that Emerson exhibited white chauvinist tendencies. Influenced by Unitarian and Christian values, he advocated for the pioneers’ divine right to conquest and espoused what Green calls “Saxon supremacy.” Emerson’s Nature and the Artists emphasizes that colonial pursuits pillaged ancestral lands and contrasts national parks with perceptions of freedom in nature, arguing that landscape was Emerson’s method of glorifying territories shaped and bordered by white men.

Now, if we’re airing out Emerson’s problematic opinions — especially for a 21st-century critique — then we must look at race in relation to class and gender. His contempt for the poor, prominent in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841), is evident in “Nature” as well. From arguing that debt is “needed most by those who suffer from it most” to claiming children must learn the “secret” that man can “reduce under his will, not only particular events, but great classes, nay the whole series of events, and so conform all facts to his character,” Emerson speaks from a position of patriarchal power under capitalism. Green falls just short of identifying this.

Carleton Watkins, “Mount Watkins and Mirror Lake” (1865–66), Library of Congress

“Nature is thoroughly mediate,” Emerson writes. “It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode.” This principle of classical economics left Emerson and artists incapable of viewing extractive industries as anything other than random acts of sensible commerce — and nature as submissive muse for their ideological interests. Bringing these works closer to politics of the time, particularly the influence of Andrew Jackson, may have proven useful in conceptualizing the arts discourse the book seeks to define. 

Green is best with close readings; he is a very skilled critic who can guide readers toward new interpretations of familiar artworks. Without connecting race and class, however, this analysis risks reproducing the same repressive ideals that left American exceptionalism unquestioned for so long. The complications of 19th-century intellectuals like Emerson, who opposed slavery but wavered on poverty, point to a deeper lack of ideological cohesion within American liberalism. In Green’s re-evaluation of Emerson, intersectionality still feels like an afterthought. 

Emerson’s Nature and the Artists: Idea as Landscape, Landscape as Idea by Tyler Green (2021) is published by Prestel and is available online and in bookstores.

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