Monday, May 12, 2008

Property and Progress: Antebellum Landscape Art and Property Law

Durand_progress (Doing some cross-posting from this morning....)
My time in Tuscaloosa is rapidly drawing to a close.  Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending graduation and on Thursday I'm going to give a lecture on the relationship between landscape art and property law in the years leading into Civil War at one of my favorite--and one of our country's finest--art museums, the Westervelt Warner Museum.  (The Westervelt Warner owns one of Hiram Powers' statute's The Greek Slave, which is under discussion over at Althouse's shop. The statue served for antebellum Americans as a reminder that Greek Christians could be put into slavery and that we should treat others as we would want to be treated.  In essence, it tried to put Americans into a mindset that would cause them to oppose slavery.  That trope has a distinguished lineage in antislavery advocacy.)

The talk centers around my favorite work of American art, Asher B. Durand's Progress (1853), which just so happens to be owned by the museum.  This will be a huge treat for me, to have the chance to talk about that most magical of paintings at its home.  And, in fact, this talk is part of welcoming it home from travels to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and then out to San Diego for a major exhibit on Durand.  (Alice Walton's  Kindred Spirits , which is the centerpiece of her art museum Crystal Bridges was also a centerpiece of the show.)

I try to join two themes here--first, the centrality of property and particularly humans' footprints on the land, in antebellum landscape art; second, the ways that antebellum property law reflected and amplified those values.  I don't think either of those themes is controversial; however, I have not seen them put together.  The correlation between them is not perfect--a substantial part of landscape art reveals concern over increasing human intrusions on nature.  Just not Durand's Progress.  It’s a great canvass for seeing all sorts of images of what "progress" meant-–the shift from the native Americans over on the left (the state of nature), then moving across the canvass to the right, the telegraph wires, the steam boats, the canal, the peddler, the boy bringing the cattle to market, the church, the railroad roundhouse....

I've written about pieces of this talk in a bunch of places--years ago back at co-op, then here at propertyprof (focusing on Hawaiian landscape art) and ratio juris, and earlier this year at legalhistoryblog.  So major chunks of this have already been "workshopped" on blogs already.  I'll be posting a paper about this by the end of the summer.  In the meantime...

Colenotch What's the evidence from the art side look like?  One of the highlights is Thomas Cole's Notch in the White Mountains (at left).  Though because this is at the Warner Museum, I'm going to use some of their fabulous collection, including Thomas Cole's Catskill Mountain House.  And, as I say, some of the artists are rather apprehensive about the market.  Thomas Cole, for one, is bothered by the imposition of railroads on the landscape, the interference of them with the quiet of the River in the Catskills.  And what he and a lot of other people celebrate--including Frederick Church's Above the Clouds at Sunrise   (another painting in the Westervelt Warner collection) is nature freed from humans.  It's just wild nature and God.

Church_naturalbridge_2 The romantics of the antebellum era worried that someone tried to own the landscape.  So when Natural Bridge was offered for sale, John Thompson protested it in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger.  Jefferson thought that the  Natural Bridge, which he had once owned, should be treated as a public trust.   I'm going to use one of the Westervelt's paintings of the Natural Bridge, but I have at right Frederick Church's image, which is owned by the University of Virginia.

Yet, at the same time, people begin to understand and celebrate the role of human institutions (like law) in bringing order to nature.  So we have paintings--and certainly a lot of culture--that celebrates law, that draws a distinction between civilization and wild nature.  We see this in judicial opinions like Johnson v. M'Intosh. 


Landscape painters also captured farms and parcels of land, such as Thomas Cole's Ox Bow in the Connecticut River (right).  It shows the landscape around Mount Holyoke.  Look from left to right and see the increasing civilization.  On the left is wild nature, twisted trees; over towards the right are fields, orchards, roads.  That was completed in 1836, the same year that Emerson completed Nature.  You may recall that Emerson said of  landscape that:

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.

Fisher_blue_hill_village_2The 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.  But many pictures depict the celebration of humans on the landscape.  I'm also going to use some of the museum's other art like a Jonathan Fisher image of Maine landscape.  (The one at right, A Morning View of the Bill Hill Village, is similar to the one owned by the Westervelt; it's from the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland Maine, which has a fabulous collection of Fisher paintings).   What extraordinary images of property--fences, houses, fields, humans and their animals.   

The idea here is to show the ways that humans put their stamp on nature--and how artists celebrated that stamp.  So the usual standbys like George Inness' Lackawanna Valley (below).  Look at the machine going through the the fields of cut-stumps; the railroad roundhouse in the background; the smoke stack even further off; what a strange juxaposition (it seems at first) of humans and nature. While it seems strange at first, my point is that landscape art is part of the celebration of human's use of land.   The boy sitting in the foreground reminds one of Thoreau who talks in Walden of setting his watch to the railroad whistle.  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 summer and 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 writes them.

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with 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 same feeling 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 deep, 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!


There’re some neat connections here between property law’s reverence for private property (and its preference for use of land) and the kind of art that Americans produced. It's fun cultural history, I think. And every now and then there are some unexpected connections between judges and landscape art. For instance, in a lecture in 1844 at Dartmouth, United States Supreme Court Justice Levi Woodbury referred to Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire to illustrate how nations evolved–“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.” The series of five paintings depict the same landscape (look for the mountain in the background), as the country goes from a state of nature, to civilization, consummation, destruction, and then desolation. Sort of sobering, but in keeping with many nineteenth-century Americans’ belief in the cycle of nations.

Others, including Justice Woodbury, saw an unbroken chain of upward progress, often facilitated by the increasing respect for private property.  And so there's an odd contrast between Cole, who was ambivalent about humans' imposition on nature and Woodbury and a lot of other jurists, who were enamored of the market.  And you know what Woodbury's talk is called?  How could it be anything other than "Progress"?!

Cropseyuniversity_michigan Yup, colleges in the antebellum era were deeply interested in progress--technological, economic, and moral (though what that meant was unclear).  And so it should not surprise anyone that Jasper Cropsey painted the University of Michigan in 1855 (right).  It has everything--the school buildings and church (at right), the fields, the roads, a horse drawn wagon, domesticated  animals.  The college in the garden, to paraphrase Leo Marx' brilliant book The Machine in the Garden.  And another important source for this talk is Angela Miller's fantastic book The Empire of the Eye.

The talk is particularly meaningful for me, too, because it's the last lecture I'm giving in Tuscaloosa.  So if you're around Tuscaloosa on Thursday at 5:30, stop by the Warner Museum.  It promises to be a ton of fun!

Alfred Brophy

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Dear Prof. Brophy,
I applaud your attention to the cultural meanings of "property" as expressed in landscape painting. And I share your affection for the pictures your discuss. Last summer, I went to the top of Mt. Holyoke to see the landscape depicted in Cole's painting. I have some concern that you overstress the theme of celebration of the human stamp on the landscape. A painting like Cole's Ox Bow, like Walden, expresses anxiety about the effacement of nature by technolgy, the substitutionof material values for spritual. Very little of this is evident in common law decisions, I think. In any event, your post very much whets my appetite for your promised paper. Best wishes for your lecture.

Posted by: Peter Byrne | May 13, 2008 3:00:00 PM

Hi Professor Byrne--thanks so much for joining the conversation.

Cole is certainly apprehensive about development; we know this from his lectures on art, as well as his paintings. But it's significant that Cole, like Thoreau and Emerson, deals with technology and development. (Ox Bow's more positive on this than some of Cole's other work. Course of Empire?! That's downright pessimistic about our future.) In those people we can see the fascination (obsession?) of antebellum Americans with property and progress.

Durand's a lot more clearly in favor of "progress." Along those lines, I think we can also see in Cole and Durand some of the changes in Whig ideology from 1830s to the 1840s/early 1850s. Where Cole was fearful of the future, Durand was more positive on it.

Looking forward to your comments when the full paper goes up later this summer!

Posted by: Alfred | May 27, 2008 7:08:14 PM

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