Scholar’s Day 2013 Presentation: Romanticism and Ruralism

Today was my last Scholar’s Day presentation at Brockport. It was a brief introduction to my graduate research, “Romanticism and Ruralism” which will be presented in full at a graduate research conference on April 20th.

Here is an outline of what I discussed today, (keep in mind, this is a very watered down version of my research).

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In the year 1833, a Swedish tourist visited Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Constructed just two years earlier, the cemetery was the first of its kind in America – a picturesque, rural park designed for the enjoyment of the living and the nostalgic sanctification of the dead. Upon experiencing Mt. Auburn, the tourist wrote, “Here stands man alone in the presence of his creator and his conscience. … Death inspires here no dread: on the contrary, a glance at this beautiful cemetery almost excites a wish to die.” This statement marks an important shift in mentalities, away from a negative view of death to a positive one, and a movement away from distaste for the natural world to a love of landscape and natural surroundings.

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Understanding the diffusion of Romantic ideology into American culture goes hand in hand with understanding the changes occurring with the individual’s perception of the natural world. Romantic literature, art, and ideology crept into the American mindscape, and inspired a change in the conceptualization and representation of nature. A newfound sentimentality for the natural world was characterized by emotionally charged depictions of the natural landscape in art and literature and a growing notion of the mental and physical healing powers of the natural world. The changes in American perceptions of nature as a result of Romantic ideology and aesthetic tradition remain a pervasive influence over not only the way that contemporary Americans perceive the natural world, but how they are instructed to view it, and how to perceive their relationship with nature.

Romantic thought grew out of a shift in European mentality, fostered by enlightened intellectuals who emphasized sensory experience over empirical knowledge. This concept influenced the flowering of landscape art and landscape appreciation in 19th century America. It was a commonality for European Enlightenment thinkers to devalue the role of the natural world as it pertained to learning, drawing from Aristotle who also preached the value of reason over sensory experience. Theologians often regarded the nature as depraved. However, European intellectual Francis Bacon saw the opportunity to learn from the natural world, and as a Protestant, applied this concept to his religious conviction, believing that “studying nature was a Protestant act of piety in the service of God.” Bacon argued that knowledge could come not only from intellectual pursuits, but also from experience – going out into nature and learning from one’s environment.

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Much of 19th-century America’s perception of the Romantic Movement was transmitted through European Romantic literature, most notably in the poetry of Lord Byron, who emphasized natural themes and sentimental experience. Byron’s piece “There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” emphasizes the new natural turn propagated by European Romantic intellectuals. Byron writes,

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more.”

This sentimentalization of nature paired with Romantic ideology presented to America a perspective of the natural world that was both positive and reassuring to the individual. Nature was likened to sentiment and emotion, and thereby became a conduit of expression through literature, art, and design.

Similarly to Bryon, American writer William Wordsworth adopted this natural turn in the arts. In his piece “Prelude: Book III: Residence at Cambridge,” Wordsworth wrote

“To every natural form, rock, fruit, or flower/ Even the loose stones that cover the high-way/ I gave a moral life, I saw them feel/ Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass/ Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all/ That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”

Wordsworth imbues the natural world with an almost animistic power, appreciating the value of nature and drawing self-rejuvenation from it. He expresses the attachment between the individual and the natural world through heavily sentimental, Romantic language.

The works of authors such as Lord Byron and Wordsworth instilled in American culture an understanding of the natural world as something to be appreciated, valued, and even loved. They created a sentimentality associated with nature that grew throughout the 19th century, promoted through various channels of aesthetic experience such as landscape painting and landscape design.

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Much of the American landscape tradition can be attributed to influence from great European landscape painters such as Claude Lorraine, whose works demonstrate the picturesque incorporation of ruins into the natural landscape, and invoke sensations of the magnitude and sublimity of nature. The natural world always holds a higher place in Lorrain’s works– humans are small, innocuous guests in the greater realm of nature, and are hierarchically deemed lesser in relation to nature’s magnitude.

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Thomas Cole‘s naturalistic paintings are filled with dramatic landscapes and iconography indicative of the power of the natural world. “For Cole, like other romantics, the sublime and the beautiful formed not only part of an imaginary geography of nature but also part of the self.”

Cole also frequently places human figures within his natural landscapes, but they are miniscule, and not at the center of the work, a trait clearly derived from the works of Lorrain

The change occurring within American sentimentality towards nature is visually apparent primarily through artistic works. The ideas associated with European Romantic landscape painters like Lorraine found themselves transplanted into American artistic schools, and functioned as pedagogical tools providing people with a means of viewing the natural landscape as a piece of art – and even manipulating it as such.

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Works of landscape art such as those by Cole instructed the American public how to view the landscape as a piece of art. The work of American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing also represents such a visual indicator of the growing culture of sentiment.

Downing desired the dissemination of “livelier perceptions of the beautiful, in everything that relates to our houses and grounds.” Drawing from the notion that the external directly reflected the internal, Downing proposed to his clients that “if we become sincere lovers of the grace, the harmony, and the loveliness with which rural homes and rural life are capable of being invested, that we are silently opening our hearts to an influence which is higher and deeper than the mere symbol.” Downing could only have crafted such views of the beauty and purifying ability of nature through a complex interplay of influence from European Romantic ideology and the American picturesque ideal.

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Downing’s landscape designs served as inspiration for other realms of landscaping, most notably in the design of Rural Cemeteries. American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead was a proponent of Downing-style design. “America’s nineteenth-century cemeteries emerged from both the need for larger and healthier burying grounds and a nostalgia for the pastoral view of death culled from classical authors.” Rochester serves as a prime example of some of these ideological changes happening in the landscape, most notably Mt. Hope Cemetery.

As opposed to 17th and 18th century American graveyards which were situated beside churches at the center of towns and generally unkempt, rural cemeteries were located outside of cities, immersed in nature. Families would visit these cemeteries for leisure activities such as picnics, walks, and commemorating their ancestors. This association between nature and death served as a means of sentimentalizing mortality and welcoming the living into these newly beautified necropolis.

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Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a tangible conglomeration of the interweaving of European Romanticism and the American conception of the picturesque. Mt. Auburn boasts all the elements of picturesque funerary landscaping, and served as an appropriated model for almost all future rural cemeteries. “The creation of Mt. Auburn marked a change in prevailing attitudes about death and burial. It was a new type of burial place designed not only to be a decent place of internment, but to serve as a cultural institution as well.”

Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester presents a slightly later version of a picturesque rural cemetery. Mt. Hope was also designed by Olmstead and constitutes “The first municipal Victorian cemetery in America.”

The visual experience of a rural cemetery such as Mt. Auburn or Mt. Hope would have served almost as a physical allegory for the sentimental attitudes towards the natural world present within American landscape paintings. The same ideas that Thomas Cole was expressing in his recreations of famous landscape images were being exploited by Olmstead and other landscape architects. They utilized the same artistic tropes and cannons as a means of drawing in the American populace and exposing them to the Romantic conception of nature as a powerful, ever-present, moralizing, and restorative force.

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A visual and ideological culmination of the transmission of Romantic ideology into American culture is the creation of rural sanitariums, drawing from landscape images and beliefs in the rejuvenating powers of the natural world. These institutions were moved away from cities and into a natural setting as a means of employing nature as a healing agent for the patients within. A key example of such a sanitarium is the Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, NY. Within this institution founder Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau utilized conceptions of the natural world as a means by which patients with pulmonary tuberculosis could seek a cure.

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The property on which the sanitarium sits was chosen and designed specifically as to create awe-inspiring natural views that would in themselves be a means of healing for the patients. Upon carefully choosing the particular location to build, Trudeau wrote “Here the mountains, covered with an unbroken forest, rose so abruptly from the river, and the sweep of the valley at their base was so extended and picturesque, that the view had always made a deep impression upon me. The grandeur and peace of it had ever brought refreshment to my perplexed spirit.” The way Trudeau choses to describe the natural scenery of the Sanitarium are akin to the description of a picturesque painting. The assertion that American landscape portraiture provided American citizens with a tool-kit for reading and interpreting the natural landscape as a work of art is demonstrated here, along with Trudeau’s nostalgic and cathartic experience with the vistas of Saranac Lake. Trudeau describes the imagery of the sanitarium as if he is examining a work of art, and draws from it both physical and emotional renewal.


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Now to return to the Swedish visitor to Mt. Auburn cemetery, who was so awe-inspired by the beautiful scenery, that it “almost excited a wish to die.” His expression of sentimentality and appreciation of the natural world comes into much clearer focus when you step back and examine the larger processes at work behind the changes occurring within 19th century American mentality. Romantic ideology forged a connection with the everyday American through the arts, training individuals as to how to view the natural landscape, as to give them greater aesthetic pleasure, moralize them through nostalgic reminders of their neoclassical past, and heal their minds and bodies through a great appreciation for the connectivity between the human being and the natural world that surrounds them.

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