April 19, 2006
Images of Property in American and Hawaiian Landscape Art
Last fall I posted a little bit about a lecture that I give to my property students at the end of the year, about images of property in landscape art. As the end of the year is fast-approaching, I dusted off those notes and changed them up a bit, too, in memoriam of Augusto Camara, a student at the University of Hawaii Law School who recently passed away.
This year I began with Ralph Waldo Emerson's discussion of the centrality of property to America in his 1841 address, "The Conservative":
Now you touch the heart of the matter, replies the reformer. To that fidelity and labor, I pay homage. I am unworthy to arraign your manner of living, until I too have been tried. But I should be more unworthy, if I did not tell you why I cannot walk in your steps. I find this vast network, which you call property, extended over the whole planet. I cannot occupy the bleakest crag of the White Hills or the Allegheny Range, but some man or corporation steps up to me to show me that it is his.
Now, though I am very peaceable, and on my private account could well enough die, since it appears there was some mistake in my creation, and that I have been _mis_sent to this earth, where all the seats were already taken, -- yet I feel called upon in behalf of rational nature, which I represent, to declare to you my opinion, that, if the Earth is yours, so also is it mine. All your aggregate existences are less to me a fact than is my own; as I am born to the earth, so the Earth is given to me, what I want of it to till and to plant; nor could I, without pusillanimity, omit to claim so much. I must not only have a name to live, I must live. My genius leads me to build a different manner of life from any of yours. I cannot then spare you the whole world. I love you better. I must tell you the truth practically; and take that which you call yours. It is God's world and mine; yours as much as you want, mine as much as I want. Besides, I know your ways; I know the symptoms of the disease. To the end of your power, you will serve this lie which cheats you. Your want is a gulf which the possession of the broad earth would not fill. Yonder sun in heaven you would pluck down from shining on the universe, and make him a property and privacy, if you could; and the moon and the north star you would quickly have occasion for in your closet and bed-chamber. What you do not want for use, you crave for ornament, and what your convenience could spare, your pride cannot.
(Ok, that's a little more than used in class, but I wanted to give you the flavor.) Then I showed a slide of Thomas Cole's 1839 Notch in the White Mountains from the National Gallery's collection (above, right). Then I went to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s discussion in Nature of the way that though individuals own parcels of property, poets "own" the landscape:
The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.
Landscape painters also captured farms and parcels together, such as Thomas Cole's Ox Bow in the Connecticut River (above, right). The slides I use are largely of landscape paintings that show not just nature, but property being used. The theme here is the way that Americans love property–-and how we celebrate the way that we impose our stamp on nature. The antebellum landscape painters are my favorite.
Lest you think that this is too untethered to property and judging, Justice Levi Woodbury, in a speech to the Dartmouth Phi Beta Kappa Society in a speech called, of all things, Progress, spoke about Thomas Cole's series of five pictures, "The Course of Empire." Justice Woodbury spoke of how Cole depicted nations: "starting first in the rudeness of nature; then maturing to high refinement and grandeur till, amid the ravages of luxury, time and war, sinking into utter desolation." (Todd Zywicki and David Brooks have both recently revived interest in addresses to college students, though in a somewhat later period than Justice Woodbury's talk.)
My favorite landscape painting is Ashur Durand's 1853 Progress, to the left, which has lots of tropes of progress--the telegraph lines, a peddler, the cattle being driven to market, steam ships, a canal.... And the native Americans are looking on from the lower left edge. It captures well how much Americans are excited about the use of land, and that's reflected in the optimism about economic and geographic expansion. (It's also housed in the fabulous Warner Art Museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. So next time you're in Alabama, make a trip to see it.) (Angela Miller's Empire of the Eye is a great source on this general topic.)
You can link the images of art with the literature of the time, too. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden about the place of locomotives in American life. Where the image of Walden is of a secluded place, that solitude was often disturbed by the train whistle and then the sounds of the engine:
The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods
winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some
farmer's yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are
arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country
traders from the other side. As they come under one horizon, they
shout their warning to get off the track to the other, heard
sometimes through the circles of two towns. Here come your
groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man
so independent on his farm that he can say them nay. And here's
your pay for them! screams the countryman's whistle; timber like
long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city's
walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that
dwell within them. With such huge and lumbering civility the
country hands a chair to the city. All the Indian huckleberry hills
are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city. Up
comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down
goes the woollen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving
planetary motion -- or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows
not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever
revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning
curve -- with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in
golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have
seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light -- as
if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take
the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron
horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the
earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils
(what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the
new Mythology I don't know), it seems as if the earth had got a race
now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the
elements their servants for noble ends! If the cloud that hangs
over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or as
beneficent as that which floats over the farmer's fields, then the
elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their
errands and be their escort.
I watch the passage of the morning cars with the
that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular.
Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and
higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals
the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a
celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the
earth is but the barb of the spear. The stabler of the iron horse
was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the
mountains, to fodder and harness his steed. Fire, too, was awakened
thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off. If the
enterprise were as innocent as it is early! If the snow lies
they strap on his snowshoes, and, with the giant plow, plow a furrow
from the mountains to the seaboard, in which the cars, like a
following drill-barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and floating
merchandise in the country for seed. All day the fire-steed flies
over the country, stopping only that his master may rest, and I am
awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some
remote glen in the woods he fronts the elements incased in ice and
snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning star, to
start once more on his travels without rest or slumber. Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of iron slumber. If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied!
Ok, that's more than I use of Walden, but it fits well with the
theme of progress and the way that railroads promote and illustrate
that progress--and how they disturb nature at the same time. I use
George Inness' Lackawana Valley (above, right) to go along with Thoreau's discussion
of the railroad. There is an grand depiction of the place of the railroad in conquering space.
Here're the changes I made for Augusto. A visit to the Honolulu Academy of Arts taught me that there’s a whole lot more, which I’ve been ignoring. They have a terrific exhibit on right now, treasures that Captain Cook’s crew brought back to Great Britain. (The captain himself didn't make it home; he died in what is often termed a misunderstanding. On further inspection it appears that his men took a native noble hostage and that brought down the wrath of the natives.) The treasures found their way into Germany–-and so they’re now on loan from several German museums. The exhibit is absolutely fascinating; I highly recommend it. There are clothes, including a stunning mourning dress and simple but beautiful and elegant garb. They ought to inspire some modern clothes designer; they're simply beautiful. A lot is made out of coconut fibre. (I wrote about this a while ago, in the post "Who Owns (and will profit from) Native Culture?")
The Captain Cook exhibit is what got me in the museum. But that’s aside from my key point: the Honolulu Art Museum has a fantastic collection of landscape art from the early nineteenth century. And, though people who write on antebellum paintings rarely write about Hawaiian landscape, there are some great parallels between what’s happening on the mainland and on the islands. (Professor Laura Ruby of the University of Hawaii teaches about this.) For much of the landscape art of Hawaii from the early nineteenth century is, as that of the Hudson River School, concerned with nature and with humans' imprint on it.
Due to concerns about copyright for the images of Hawaii, I have
posted only links to pictures, rather than the images themselves.
Please click on the links--they're worth the look.
James Gay Sawkins’ 1852 Hilo from the Bay illustrates well the humans (and particularly westerners’) impact on nature. In the front are two men in a canoe; there are fishing nets on the middle left; on the middle right are schooners; in the background is the town of Hilo. The National Library of Australian has a copy of Sawkins' Hilo Landing and of his My residence at Waiakapu.
Perhaps my favorite is Enoch Wood Perry’s Rose Ranch on the island of Maui, which depicts . . . a sugar factory. Check out the smokestack! What an amazing and unexpected site. Men riding on horseback, white-washed buildings, and the sugar factory in the background. When people went to Hawaii they painted images of property--as one would expect--but often they are images of people imposing their stamp on the land. Where Leo Marx wrote of the Machine in the Garden, for artists in Hawaii, it's the machine in paradise. Think of this, in a remote part of the world, Americans before the Civil War were putting down sugar plantations and cattle on the land. And then painting pictures of it. The process of colonization deserves a lot more study, through all sorts of sources, including Native Hawaiian sources and the writings of missionaries, like Hiram Bingham's Twenty-One Years Residence in the Sandwich Islands. (You may have seen a short post about Bingham's grandson and Peruvian art and I hope to put up a longer one on Bingham's image of the common law in the not-too-distant future. (My working title is "What the Missionaries Thought: About Property Law, For Instance.")
Perry also painted more pastoral settings, including one of the Manoa Valley. That's where I work these days. Looks a little different today. Even in this romanticized picture (which may fit better with post-war romanticized versions of a largely uninhabited nature than the pre-war use of nature), Perry paints the humans on horses and s the native house in the background. And in some of Perry's other landscapes, like his Mokolii Island From Kualoa, depicts agriculture--the humans' use and occupation of the land, which is so central to American thought in the nineteenth century. This keys into such important legislation as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the requirements of adverse possession.
Of course, some of the early European visitors to Hawaii also drew portraits of the Native Hawaiians' use of property. Professor Laura Ruby has an 1816 picture of the Kii Temple on the Island of Hawaii. I'd like to know more about native patterns of land use. And also more about what the temples looked like. The print is certainly suggestive--grand buildings on raised, stone platforms, with substantial totem poles in front. One missionary whom I read recently celebrated the burning of native statutes and temples, which may explain why so little has survived.
And then at other times, artists depicted the land with no humans or human structures on it. This was rarer, though particularly volcanoes drew attention. I think in the case of landscapes of volcanoes, one sees more the awe of exotic nature. Those landscapes are about power of nature, not the dominion that humans over land. Here is Jules Tavernier's post-bellum landscape of a volcano on the island of Hawaii (late 1880s). Wow. There's a certain romanticism to the post-bellum landscape, which even on the continental United States focused more on nature and less on humans than antebellum landscape art. Perhaps that shift is related to the emerging environmental movement of the late nineteenth century. But on this I am not prepared to even an educated guess yet.
And here is Tavernier's landscape of Pali on O'ahu. Again, as with pre-war landscape, there is a human on it. However, there are few other signs than the man on a horse, which suggest human's occupied the land. Again, it seems to be a romanticized version of the landscape--nature with little human contact.
Of course, photographs of the Hawaiian landscape today mix the themes of pastoral and technology. Here's a picture of the H3 "Interstate" (go figure), taken from the Aiea Loop Trail, running through an natural setting. Talk about the machine in paradise! In this case, it's automobiles and concrete in the valley.
On the property aspects of colonization, Stuart Banner has very pretty interesting things to say in, among other places, the Law and History Review and, of course, in How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier. And on that, I hope to have some insightful things to say shortly.
Endnote: All the images of paintings are from the National Gallery of Art, except Ashur Durand's Progress, which is from the Warner Art Museum, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Alfred L. Brophy
[Comments are held for approval, so there will be some delay in posting]
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Images of Property in American and Hawaiian Landscape Art: