Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 by Barbara Novak

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Brief Written Statement

In Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875, Barbara Novak researches the cultural context of that time that will help better understand painting of the mid-century period. In the book, Novak places a great stress on interpreting contemporary documents. Steering away from a traditional approach of art historians to analyze and compare an artist’s paintings and biography, Novak gives a serious interpretation of social, philosophical, and scientific events that created the context of the mid-century American art. Reconstructing a cultural context for the American art of 1825-1875, Novak traces the cultural signs through letters and publications.

The book consists of four parts. The first one explains how Americans saw an ideology of the nation in the union of aesthetics and religion, which resulted in a veneration of nature and landscapes. The second part takes a closer view at separate segments that constituted landscapes such as clouds, rocks, and plants. In the third part, the author plunges into the wilderness to regard the way white men behave, finding them aggressive and unprotective of the revered nature and indigenous people. The final part compares the American input into the European art and their mutual influences.

Being written initially for publications in specialized art journals, Novak’s Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 may seem sometimes lacking consistency and theme, as well as more detailed descriptions of the paintings and clarifications of unclear terms as, for example, “the conventions of Claude.” However, taking into consideration the interdisciplinary character of the book, Novak’s work is ground-breaking and innovative in many ways, which makes it interesting and useful to read for a wide audience.

Book Review

Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.
The art always reflects the time that begot it, and, therefore, the knowledge of cultural context of a given art greatly contributes to its better understanding and appreciation. Such a line of thinking is at the core of art historian Barbara Novak’s Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 that covers fifty years of the 19th century. Novak sees the portraying of nature as “a governing idea” of the pre-Civil war years, supported by “an undisputed Christian consensus, a missionary zeal, [and] a largely benign interpretation of progress” (Novak, 2007, p. xvii). As a researching method, the author applies Panofsky’s method of iconology, that is interpretation of an artistic work through symbols, the authors’ religious beliefs, and ideas circulating in the society of that period. Basically, Panofsky’s idea was to understand the past in order to be able to interpret its art, and Novak does it by studying contemporary publications, letters, periodicals, and other reading materials that could reveal additional layers of meaning, apart from the obvious ones.

In an attempt to “move the borders of a narrowly defined art history outward,” Novak (2007) decides to consider the context of the 19th century art in terms of several backgrounds: religious, scientific, ecological, and nationalistic (p. xi). Demystifying of the past begins with outlining the integral Christian component of the early nineteenth century social life in general. According to Emerson, “the terms “God” and “nature” were often the same thing, and could be used interchangeably” (Novak, 2007, p. 3). Thus, the artists became worshipers and priests of some kind. Novak explains that in the understanding of the Americans, nature was seen in a few different ways: “as Primordial Wilderness, as the Garden of the World, as the original Paradise [and as] America awaiting the regained Paradise attending the millennium” (Novak, 2007, p. 4).

Novak mostly singles out the landscapes of two kinds. Such painters as Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Church worked on large-scale paintings and produced grandiose panoramic works. They are contrasted with the luminists Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Henry Lane, who produced modest transcendental paintings (Novak, 2007, p. 24). Paying special attention to the changing category of the sublime, Novak notes that seeing God in the grandeur of mountains did not prevent people of the 19th century from an obvious contradiction of not seeing humans in the Indians. While laymen and artists saw nature as the continuation of God, at the same time they were mercilessly destroying indigenous people of the Wilderness – the Indians.

Next items in the Novak’s iconology are such aspects of nature as rocks, clouds, and plants that are supposed to have a particular meaning. In the 19th century, science was developing with the fast speed, and, together with art, it was seen as a close companion of religion (Novak, 2007, p. 41). Obtaining new knowledge about freshly discovered types of geological and organic matters, artists and viewers perceived it as the confirmation of Creation. Novak (2007) remarks that, both in the art and in the science, there were two polarities in studying and learning natural phenomena, such as realism and idealism: “polarities were blurred by the reciprocal transactions between opposing ideas that had more in common than their proponents thought” (p. 114). However, artists did not feel obliged to choose between these opposites; they simply switched between them, depending on their aims in painting.

In the third section of the book, the author takes a technological viewpoint considering the way progress was demolishing the wilderness. Wildlife was explored by the scientists and artists with the “idea of the West as a “natural church” (Novak, 2007, p. 129). The symbols of progress of this time were the axe and the train that cut wilderness despite the palpable people’s admiration of it. In this case, the paradox was that while seeing the wildlife as the confirmation of God’s love to the mankind, people, nonetheless, began aggressively turning the unexplored land into a man-made garden, which Novak (2007) calls “an attack on America’s religion of God-in-nature” (p. 136). An interesting detail is that a figure of a white male became a similar symbol of destruction, like the train and the axe, while that of the noble savage, the Indian, was perceived as an “emblem of the “old nature” and “a function of nature [in] its unexplored state” (Novak, 2007, p. 149; 162).

The last part contrasts the American painters with their European counterparts. Both continents reciprocally influenced each other, with every country having something to offer. Italy was generally acclaimed as “a museum of the past… inundated with art” (Novak, 2007, p. 176). Being under Dutch influence, France still had a plethora of its own influential painters such as Cézanne and Courbet. At the same time, Novak (2007) notes that America made its valuable contribution to European plein-airism (p. 200). Germany and Scandinavia asserted the influence of Düsseldorf and Caspar David Friedrich’s Dresden circle, while England promoted its landscape tradition. Novak concludes that American painters distilled the learnt elements into their own unique way, creating what they believed were “protoicons” (Novak, 2007, p. 231). The concept of nature as God dominated in the American landscape painting, combining “the real and the ideal, the tangible and the ephemeral” (Novak, 2007, p. 231).

In Preface to the Original Edition, Novak (2007) explains her intentions of writing the book as an attempt to “show how the history of ideas flows freely through the membranes that compartmentalize the various disciplines comprising a culture” (p. xxv). Indeed, the author succeeded in creating a cultural context of the period. However, sometimes Novak pays little attention to the art itself. The reader hardly sees the specific details of the paintings discussed. The author places emphasis on interpreting the texts. The answer to this peculiarity may come from the Acknowledgements. There, Novak (2007) mentions that several chapters of the book had been published during 1972-1976 in the specialized literature (p. xxvii). Indeed, reading the book sometimes felt as reviewing a number of essays without a uniting theme.

On the one side, the readership for Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 is supposed to be quite knowledgeable about art, as the author does not take care to come up with certain definitions. For example, “the conventions of Claude” is often mentioned throughout the book but defined in chapter 10. On the other side, fine art students will find the book mind-opening because it gives insights into the lives and work of not so widely known artists, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, or the controversial relationship between Louis Agassiz and Asa Grey. However, those readers who hoped to enlarge their artistic intelligence would probably find themselves asking for more general information on the subject. Additionally, the author sometimes fails to provide an illustration for a painting she is discussing. Therefore, a wider audience will probably be vexed coming upon such slip-ups.

Another difficulty with Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 was a great number of quotes. Sometimes, it was difficult to follow the line of reasoning, and it demanded hard concentration. It would be easier to have more explanations of the author between the quotes and the excerpts of contextual literature.

All the mentioned shortcomings aside, Barbara Novak’s Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 is an influential work, which helped to change the way the American art was approached. After Novak’s work became part of the American Studies curriculum in many colleges, its interdisciplinary character has been acknowledged. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 laid a ground for future research, and a lot has to be done in that direction.

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