Natural Histories: YSE Scientists Collaborate on New Landscape Art Exhibit
Craig Brodersen and Marlyse Duguid analyze the depiction of the environment in Alexander Lawrie’s painting "Pleasant Valley, Essex County, New York," which shows deforestation on the eastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains. Credit: Jessica Smolinski, Yale University Art Gallery
The era of landscape painting in the mid-1800s in the U.S. occurred at a time of industrial development, deforestation, and explosive population growth. A new exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery, developed in consultation with Yale School of the Environment scientists, focuses on this changing landscape and what it reveals about the time period.
The “Natural Histories” exhibit features 10 paintings, most set in New England, which reveal aspects of human impact on natural lands. Craig Brodersen, YSE professor of plant physiology ecology, and Marlyse Duguid, Thomas J. Siccama Senior Lecturer in Field Ecology and director of research at Yale Forests, developed the installation in coordination with the gallery.
From the depiction of a ridge near the Central Pacific Railroad at California’s highest point to an inlet on Boston’s North Shore, the presentation explains that the paintings illuminate “rapacious development” in the 1800s and “change, loss and vulnerability.”
“There is a lot of interest in trying to understand relationships between artist, audience and nature in this period as human impact reached a truly industrial scale. How do these paintings speak to us about the experience of the landscape in a period when deforestation was at its peak? How does the careful recording of the landscape help us to see it a bit differently in that context?” asks Mark Mitchell, Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at YUAG, who collaborated with Duguid and Brodersen on the exhibit.
The exhibit is part of reconsideration of landscape art known as ecocritical art history, which broadens historical art inquiry through a lens of environmental interconnectedness, sustainability, and justice.
“When historically oriented, ecocriticism may bring attention to neglected evidence of past ecological and proto-ecological sensibility or it may cast canonical works and figures in a new light by revealing previously unnoticed complexity regarding environmental concerns. What distinguishes ecocriticism is an effort to reorient and widen the scope of cultural studies by emphasizing the ways in which human creativity — regardless of form (visual, verbal, aural) or time period (ancient, modern, contemporary) — unfolds within a specific environment or set of environments, whether urban, rural, or suburban,” art historian Alan C. Braddock wrote in the journal American Art.
Working with Mitchell, Brodersen and Duguid helped verify the environmental accuracy of the scenes depicted by the artists and provided information for visitors to the exhibit about the ecological effects the paintings illustrate.
In the 1867 landscape “Pleasant Valley, Essex County, New York” by Alexander Lawrie, Brodersen and Duguid explain that the scene shows the transformation of the region’s landscape by agriculture when 60-80% of the land in this region had been cleared. “The near photographic image encompasses several aspects of human impact on the land: the town’s growing center is visible on the valley floor, and sheep pastures on the distant mountainsides show the expanding horizon of deforestation for firewood and gazing,” the YSE team explains in the wall text that accompanies the painting.
Winslow Homer’s 1871 painting “Old Mill,” set in Palenville, New York, depicts cultural transformation after the Civil War as women worked long hours in factories. The YSE team notes that it also shows how the land around the town had been deforested for the bark of its hemlock trees that were used in the tanning industry and then replaced by a young generation of pines.
Brodersen says the paintings set context for hidden histories of the landscapes. He notes that students often do not realize that the forests that are thriving in New England now have recovered from the logging and agricultural land clearing of the 1800s.
“Having a visual depiction of what it actually looked like gives us a peek into what the landscape was at that time,” Brodersen says.
Duguid says the ecocritical review brings into focus the larger question of whether humans are part of nature or apart from nature.
“It’s a nice interplay of how humans interact with landscapes,” she says. “There’s a little bit of propaganda in the way we rewrite our histories through our art and science. It is important to reflect on what our culture was and what our landscape actually looked like.”