Images of Property in American Landscape Art
posted by Alfred Brophy
For a number of years I’ve been giving a lecture at the end of the year to my property students about images of property (and particularly development of property) in landscape art. It’s a fun talk, which I give when I realize that folks are tired after nearly a year of law school and need a break from the typical routine. I got the idea from Leo Marx’ Machine in the Garden and then refined it while reading Angela Miller’s Empire of the Eye. I often begin with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Something along the lines of:
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.
Then I begin to show some ways that American artists have depicted (and celebrated) our development of land. I use George Inness’ Lackawana Valley (shown 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.
I also show some Thomas Cole, like Notch in the White Mountains (see the house with the smoking chimney, the cut stump, the rider on the path). What we celebrated in the nineteenth century was imposition of humans on nature, not nature itself. Grant Wood’s 1931 Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, is another celebration of humans on the landscape, as is his 1939 Haying. In fact, just about the entire landscape, from the rows of hay to the barn, is an imposition of humans on the landscape. This continues throughout the early twentieth century. Check out Charles Demuth’s My Egypt (the grain elevator as modern pyramid and it’s from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is a place I have very fond memories of).
What’s one of the symbols of progress during the Great Depression? The smokestack! It conveyed images of full employment and prosperity. My, how times have changed.
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, of course, saw an unbroken chain of upward progress, often facilitated by the increasing respect for private property.) That’s a long story for another time.
At the center of the talk is one of my favorite paintings — Progress by Asher Durand. It’s a great canvass for seeing all sorts of tropes–the native Americans over on the left (the state of nature), then moving across the canvass to the right, check out the telegraph wires, the steam boats, the railroad roundhouse,
I don’t want to sound too much like a Tuscaloosa booster, but there is a fabulous art museum here (the Warner Westervelt Museum). And I mean fabulous. It’s run by our local billionaire. Some years ago, when I first visited the collection (which was then housed in the offices of the Gulf States Paper Corporation) as I approached the picture I said to myself, “that looks like Progress by Asher Durand.” And then, “wow–that is Progress by Asher Durand!” So the painting I’d been showing to my students for some years turned out to be housed a couple of miles from my office. Another example of what Ralph Ellison refered to as the “unexpected outdoing itself in its power to surprise.”