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Each of these slender, beautifully produced catalogues accompanied exhibitions focusing on landscapes painted by one American artist during the first decades of the twentieth century. Prompted by the desire to highlight the paintings in their collections, both museums chose to showcase a small number of related works. Each catalogue contains contextual essays and full-page color reproductions of every painting in the exhibition. No doubt owing to the contingencies of resources and audiences, however, the curators made different decisions about the scope of works presented, the questions asked, and the issues explored.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wisely capitalized on the interest in John Singer Sargent generated by the retrospective at the neighboring Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, by presenting a smaller show inspired by their own,little-discussed Sargent painting, Yoho Falls, of 1916. Rather than a single-object focus exhibition, however, the museum chose to offer a more general sampling of Sargent’s late landscapes.
The catalogue’s scope is broader than what could be presented in the Gardner’s small exhibition space, but overall the three essays complement the show’s emphasis on Sargent’s style and his thoughts about landscape painting. The first essay, an engaging, breezy romp through a history of American attitudes about nature from 1820-1920 by cultural historian T. J. Jackson Lears, offers a useful framework for an academic course on the subject. Touching on texts by Americans from Jonathan Edwards to John Burroughs, Lears discusses an impressive range of material in a short space, liberally sprinkled with quotes and anecdotes both entertaining and apt. His narrative considers the early nineteenth-century religious awe toward nature, the mid-century national pride and drive for progress and conquest, and the turn-of-the-century nostalgic, back-to-nature movements.
Lears is most interested in the historical assumption of a human/nature dualism and the shifts in American thought toward ecological alternatives that emphasize the interdependence of humans and nature. Anthropocentrism, according to Lears, characterized traditional notions of the sublime throughout most of nineteenth-century America, evidenced typically in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. Alternative strains of thought in texts by Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville, for example, challenged the popular assumption of humanity’s centrality, but not until the social transformations and Darwinian thinking of the late 1890s did popular anthropocentric attitudes give way to widespread expressions of ontological doubt and nihilism. Evocations of the sublime decreased, while back-to-nature movements strove to “reenchant the world” (p. 18). Lears sees a “more sophisticated version of the sublime” rising in this turn-of-the-century crisis, as individuals such as John Muir “cultivated awe for the cosmos” while emphasizing the complex interdependence of all living things (p. 6). In considering artistic productions, Lears equates anthropocentrism with the need to impose meaning and narrative on nature, as seen in the cyclical paintings of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. In contrast, Sargent’s works, camouflaging humans within nature and emphasizing pattern and form over meaning and narration, participated in the turn-of-the-century “move beyond anthropocentrism,” according to Lears. In a short footnote, however, his argument deflates as he rightly acknowledges that the opposite assertion could also be made about Sargent’s work: his landscapes could be understood as “an everyday record of la dolce vitaamong upper-class cosmopolites” (p. 33, n. 86).
Ironically, while Lears celebrates an antianthropocentric stance which he equates with being ecologically sensitive, he does so in an essay that is more Cole-like in its panoramic narration than it is Sargent-like. Diverse, synchronic strategies for understanding humans’ relation to nature, nicely emphasized, are subsumed within a cyclical Cole-like structure suggested by the chapter’s title, “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the American Sublime.”
Ultimately, the extent to which Lears’ essay is the most apt context in which to frame a discussion of SargentÍs late landscapes is debatable. Because Americans like to claim Sargent as their own, and indeed Sargent considered himself American, his work often falls under the purview of scholars of American art and culture predisposed toward interpreting his works within the contexts of their own fields of expertise. Both the intellectual culture and specifics of place that informed Sargent’s aesthetic choices, however, were, for the most part, more European than the specific American climate of Lears’s essay. Only one work in the exhibition was actually painted in the United States (a small watercolor of palmettos—not one to be most usefully considered in the context of the American sublime). In addition, Sargent’s traveling companions during these years were mostly friends and family who resided in England and Italy. Finally, we know from his friends’ accounts that he was partial to reading French, not American, literature on his painting excursions, and the contents of his library confirm this predilection. Work still needs to be done in understanding his landscapes in the context of attitudes toward nature more specific to Sargent’s European social and cultural milieu.
The second essay, by Erica Hirshler, is a well-written, informative consideration of Sargent’s landscapes in the context of his career and the aesthetic styles of his time. Hirshler discusses Sargent’s exhibition strategies; she astutely analyzes his compositions in relation to the art of Claude Monet, Albert Bierstadt, Gustave Dore, Adrian Stokes, Linked Ring photographers, and his own mural projects; and she identifies a shift in his style after 1900. Her essay concludes with the now familiar question of whether Sargent was a modernist, and like scholars before her, she suggests that his work is “suspended between the old and the new” (p. 71).
The last essayist, Hilliard T. Goldfarb, was prompted by the Gardner’s notable collection of Sargent correspondence to explore what little Sargent did say about his travels and landscape work. Goldfarb’s chronology details Sargent’s desire to give up portrait work, his devotion to family, his attraction to the Middle East, his experiences in the Canadian Rockies and Florida, and his thoughts on the war front, much of which has been documented in other books on Sargent as well. Readers nevertheless gain useful insights into Sargent’s thoughts, interests, and personality through the numerous excerpts quoted. Unfortunately, while half of the show’s paintings depict Alpine and Carrara locales, no Sargent letters about these places survive. By contrast, while Goldfarb quotes liberally from Sargent’s correspondence about the Villa Vizcaya in Miami, for instance, we are not treated to the watercolors of the outdoor gardens he painted there. Overall, the Gardner catalogue, wide-ranging in scope, should inspire scholars to conduct more in-depth investigations of the works presented.
By contrast, Barbara MacAdam, the author of the Hood Museum of Art’s catalogue, has so thoroughly documented and discussed her more narrow topic from multiple angles that I am certain it will remain the definitive work on Willard Metcalf’s winter landscapes of Cornish, New Hampshire. The exhibition it accompanied showcased a recent museum purchase, The First Thaw,1913, and included fifteen additional related landscapes by Metcalf. Unlike the Gardner, the Hood focused its exhibition on the painting’s subject and theme rather than on an overview of the artist’s landscapes from that time period. This led MacAdam to explore more specific questions concerning turn-of-the-century cultural meanings of winter, thawing brooks, and New England regions.
The Hood catalogue consists of two chapters followed by extended catalogue entries for each painting in the exhibition. The first chapter presents a chronology of Metcalf’s work and critical reception. The author conscientiously details the artist’s trips to New England, the social connections that determined the contingencies of his sojourns, the practicalities involved with painting outdoors in winter, and the artist’s choices of what to paint and not paint in the region. In addition, she chronicles his training, influences, exhibition strategies, and patronage; and she considers both the stylistic and symbolic import of his aesthetic strategies.
The more fascinating second chapter joins recent scholarship by Sarah Burns, Kathleen Pyne, Julie Rosenbaum, Roger Stein, and William Truettner, to name a few, in examining a turn-of-the-century enthusiasm for New England and its characteristic winter scenery. MacAdam’s essay offers archival evidence, specific to Metcalf’s social and cultural milieu, that supports the existing scholarship. Utilizing popular periodicals, art reviews, and letters from Metcalf’s colleagues, MacAdam outlines the multifarious reasons for winter’s popularity and considers how promotions of winter bolstered the New England economy. Winter was understood to offer physical and spiritual renewal, and came to be associated with elite Anglo-Saxon culture and refined, cultivated taste. MacAdam nicely shows how Metcalf’s winter scenes both reflected and reinforced such cultural thinking. She argues that Metcalf’s audience understood his works as both “soothing meditations on nature” and “nostalgic evocations of an arcadian ideal” that served as antidotes to industrialization and its effects (p. 9).
Ultimately, these two exhibition catalogues suit the main audiences and institutions for which they were intended. The more engaging writing and general sweep of the Sargent catalogue rightly targeted the educated tourists and weekend museumgoers of a large cosmopolitan city gripped by Sargent-mania. The narrower scope and dense research and documentation presented in the Metcalf catalogue make it likely to serve more frequently as a scholarly resource; an apt function, coming from an academically affiliated institution.
University of Maryland