This is the presentation that I gave at the Master’s Level Graduate Research Conference at Brockport this past weekend. You can read more about the conference here, and see my abstract here. This presentation is rather similar to the one I gave at Brockport’s Scholar’s Day 2013, with less emphasis on the background of European Romanticism and more emphasis on the rural sanitarium movement in 19th century America.
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, “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.
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 new found sentimentality for the natural world was characterized by emotionally charged depictions of the natural landscape in art and literature and a growing appreciation 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 we as contemporary Americans perceive the natural world, but how we are instructed to view it, and how we perceive our relationship with nature.
Much of 19th-century America’s perception of the Romantic Movement was transmitted through European Romantic literature. American writer William Wordsworth adopted this natural turn in the arts. In his piece “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.Literary works such as this instilled within American culture an understanding of the natural world as something to be appreciated, studied and valued. 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.
19th Century American landscape painter Thomas Cole’s of the Hudson River School produced naturalistic paintings 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.” In his famous piece “The Oxbow,” Cole illustrates the dramatic recession of storm clouds, and contrasts them with the serene picturesque nature of the river. Cole frequently places human figures within his natural landscapes, but they are miniscule, and not at the center of the work, hierarchically deemed lesser in the greater scale of nature.
The change occurring within American sentimentality towards nature is visually apparent primarily through artistic works. The ideas associated with European Romantic landscape painters 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.
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 this 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.
Downing’s landscape designs served as inspiration for other realms of landscaping, most notably in the design of Rural Cemeteries. “America’s 19th 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.” Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts 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 constitutes “The first municipal Victorian cemetery in America.” Rural cemeteries served almost as a physical allegory for the sentimental attitudes towards the natural world present within American landscape paintings. Landscape architects utilized the same artistic tropes as landscape painters, drawing in the American populace and exposing them to the Romantic conception of nature as a powerful, ever-present, moralizing, and restorative force.
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.
The property on which the sanitarium sits was chosen and designed specifically as to create natural views that would provide 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 chose to describe the natural scenery of the Sanitarium are similar to the descriptions of a picturesque painting, and from it he drew both physical and emotional renewal.
Situated in the uppermost portion of the Adirondack region, the location of this sanitarium is essential to understanding its function. Not only was the open-air treatment suggested for the curing of respiratory ailments, but also hunting, hiking, swimming in the Adirondack lakes, and painting the natural scenery. In his autobiography, Trudeau writes of his familiarity with the natural world, and his belief in its healing powers (both spiritually and physically) for patients of respiratory disorders such as tuberculosis. He states, “when stricken with tuberculosis in 1872 I was driven, in spite of all the urgent protests of my friends and physicians, to bury myself in the Adirondacks – then an unbroken wilderness, and considered a most dangerous climate for a chest invalid – in order to lead an open-air life in the great forest, alone with Nature…” Upon his decision to move to the wilderness of upstate New York, Trudeau expressed a sentimentalization of the natural world that lead him to believe it was this climate that could heal his fatal illness. Trudeau writes of how being in the midst of the Adirondack forest inspired a rejuvenation of life within him. He states, “I was carried up onto my airy porch in the little cottage, with the stillness of the great forest all about me, the lake shimmering in the sunlight, and a host of recollections of many happy days… Again, imperceptibly the fever began to fall, and strength – and with it the desire to live – to return.” What Trudeau describes here is no less than a picturesque scene. Trudeau describes the imagery of the forest as if he is examining a work of art, and draws from it both physical and emotional renewal.
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 their natural surroundings.