Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 10, 2024
Alexander Nemerov The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2023. 336 pp.; 59 color ills.; 7 b/w ills. $35.00 (9780691244280)
Margaretta M. Lovell Painting the Inhabited Landscape: Fitz H. Lane and the Global Reach of Antebellum America University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2023. 352 pp.; 84 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. $94.95 (9780271092782)

Ecocritical art history has expanded the range of questions we ask of visual art, moving beyond landscape studies to consider the ways in which artworks are entwined with ecology as well as with global systems of trade, colonialism, and enslavement. Two new books about depictions of nature in the United States during the nineteenth century beg to be considered in this light. While neither author adopts the label “ecocriticism,” and each pursues a radically different methodology, together their books reveal the complex relationship between humans and the environment in the antebellum era.

Margaretta Markle Lovell’s Painting the Inhabited Landscape: Fitz H. Lane and the Global Reach of Antebellum America argues that Fitz H. Lane depicts the New England landscape as one in which people derive satisfaction and economic benefit from working with nature. Lovell highlights Lane’s ability to make visible the human-driven industry of his hometown, Gloucester, Massachusetts, and its position within a global trade network in which “ships, people, logs, lumber, and money moved in continuous productive cycles” (76). The portrait of nature that emerges from Alexander Nemerov’s The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s is more equivocal. As the title suggests, the reappearance of trees weaves together Nemerov’s loosely connected sequence of tales. However, the trees function not only as extractable resources for humans but also as agents, witnesses, totems, and physical and metaphorical markers. Nemerov’s research is as steeped in period sources as that of Lovell, but the resulting book is more analogous to historical fiction than cultural history; Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory (W.W. Norton, 2018) provides one intriguing parallel. As Nemerov explains in a prefatory author’s note: “Much of what follows is based on the historical record, though only some of it is true.”

One notable characteristic of Lovell’s book is her insistence on keeping a tight focus on Lane, his artwork and its reception, his base in Gloucester, and his patronage. The first three chapters emphasize Lane’s reinvention of himself from a shoemaker to a lithographer to a celebrated painter as well as trace his fluctuating critical reputation. Regarding the latter, Lovell formulates an informative narrative that documents Lane’s popularity during his lifetime, the sharp decline of his reputation after his death in 1865, and its resurgence beginning in the late 1930s—an account supported by the book’s two appendices that list the sales and exhibitions of Lane’s paintings during his lifetime, and the known locations of his paintings between 1865 and 1961. The next three chapters focus on extractive industries that drove Gloucester’s economy and made frequent appearances in Lane’s paintings: fishing, lumber, and granite. In this section Lovell also traces the emergence of a tourist economy, with summer visitors and their accommodation making subtle appearances in Lane’s coastal views. The final two chapters offer case studies of four of Lane’s most dedicated patrons, men whose global business interests were representative of New England’s embeddedness in broader economies. Along the way, we learn the stories behind some of Lane’s celebrated ship portraits as well as about Gloucester’s links to South America, California, China, and the Caribbean. The inclusion of many color plates throughout the book, including painting details, provides crucial support to Lovell’s arguments.

Lovell describes her book as a project of recovery, by which she means, in part, rescuing Lane from misguided interpreters of his work, including the critic Clarence Cook in the nineteenth century and art historians who formulated the stylistic category of Luminism in the twentieth. Lovell critiques Luminism as a scholarly construction of its period, built, in the author’s concise formulation, through a blending of formalism, nationalism, and Emersonianism. Against this historiographic backdrop, Lovell argues that the “incidental details” of Lane’s work, dismissed by many scholars, were precisely what made his work meaningful to his contemporaries (2). Her close reading of Lane’s Three-Master on the Gloucester Railway (1857) is representative of her approach. Centered on a dry dock in Gloucester, the painting began its life as a shop sign for the ship painter John Trask. Lovell draws attention to the many “inside Gloucester” references present in the artwork, including the three-masted ship of the title being painted by Trask’s employees and owned by another Lane patron, George H. Rogers, for use in the Surinam trade. Lovell also notes Lane’s strategic use of inscriptions, including “sail loft” in this painting, which not only references a necessary business in maritime Gloucester but the profession of Lane’s father. Lovell’s analysis of Three-Master thus matches her description of the book’s central project: “The focus is on paintings that emphasize localness and everyday human experience within identifiable settled landscapes, and the global reach of that localness” (2). Lovell is at pains to emphasize that Lane painted working land and seascapes and not the wilderness scenes favored by his Hudson River contemporaries. Although she makes the case that Lane had limited contact with other artists after he returned to Gloucester from time working in Boston as a lithographer, I would have valued her take on how his settled landscapes compare to those of his peers, including the salt marsh views of Martin Johnson Heade, a younger artist who also received the Luminist label and whose landscapes have been the subject of recent scholarship. For example, Kimia Shahi has drawn attention to the evidence of human labor in Heade’s marshscapes, placing the views within a broader ecological history of New England wetlands (see Shahi’s essay in Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, Yale University Press, 2018).

Lovell draws on painstaking research to introduce the larger contexts alluded to in Lane’s paintings. For example, she convinces us that it matters not just that Lane depicts a ship, but to consider what the ship is carrying, such as lumber from trees harvested in the Maine woods and processed in downriver mills. One economic engine of maritime trade that receives surprisingly less attention is slavery. Although Lovell raises the institution of slavery several times in the book, noting that much of the dried fish produced in Gloucester fed the enslaved in South America, for example, and that Lane’s patron Sidney Mason made his fortune in the plantation-driven economy of Puerto Rico, it is not subject to the same sustained treatment she accords other topics. This seems like a missed opportunity, given Lane’s and Lovell’s attention to the dignity of free labor, to acknowledge its inextricability from unfree labor more explicitly.

In the end, Lovell’s attention to the telling details of Lane’s artworks simultaneously provides an appreciation of his alignment with the artisanal values of his community and champions a particular type of art history. The “thick description” of her approach leaves virtually no historical or cultural context of Lane’s paintings unexplored, with great benefit to the reader since her care encourages us to look at the work with fresh eyes.

While Lovell’s book is claim-based, inviting the reader to assess its many forms of evidence, Nemerov’s displays a meditative approach. It originated in the author’s delivery of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 2017, and is composed of nine parts, each of which includes a series of fables (the author’s term) that range from three to five pages in length. The stories touch on many concerns of the period, including religion, science, slavery, and other forms of violence. The result is impressionistic, with Nemerov drawing together disparate sources to create narratives given titles such as “rush, rush, RUSH” and “The Glitter of the Argand Lamps.” The author replaces traditional endnotes with brief bibliographic essays provided for each fable. Similarly, the color plates, inserted as their own section in the book, run parallel to the text rather than being explicitly linked to it. Nature appears in multiple guises within Nemerov’s reimagination of the early nineteenth century, including waterfalls, disease, storms, and various animal and bird species. Particularly memorable for me was the resemblance he finds between the physical forms of “trail trees,” trees shaped by Cherokee people during their forced removal from their homelands in order to guide those behind them, and the characters making up the Cherokee writing system as created by Sequoyah. Unlike Lovell, Nemerov emphasizes the friction involved in humans’ relationships with each other and with their environment.

Throughout the book, we enter each fable without preamble or evident chronology. As an example, part three: “Come, Thick Night” pinpoints several events of the 1830s—Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), the sculptor John Browere’s death from cholera (1834), the creation of William Sidney Mount’s painting Dregs in the Cup (1838), and the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)—and weaves them into a fever dream loosely centered around the theme of prophecy and signs. The section opens with a description of Turner seeing signs in the trees around him encouraging rebellion in support of enslaved people. It then moves to the shattering of a life mask made by Browere to free his subject: an ailing Thomas Jefferson. Next comes a comparison between Mount’s genre painting, which depicts a fortune-teller reading tea leaves for two young women, and Caravaggio’s Incredulity of Thomas. The section concludes with an imagined meeting between Turner and Poe in the Great Dismal Swamp. Of this meeting Nemerov writes, “Swatting yellow flies and slapping mosquitoes, they eventually began their main business, talking not of duels or assignations but the interpenetration of plots, the tellers of tales, of lords, logos, and sacred signs; of holy wars, statutes, and chains; anarchies of the imagination and scriptures of the sane” (58). Part three’s sequence of tales alludes to a range of material objects, both illustrated (such as Turner’s extant bible, the mask of Jefferson, Mount’s painting), and unillustrated (the leaves providing a canvas for Turner’s visions, the crates in which Browere’s masks were sealed for forty-two years after his death, and the mysterious stone carvings that the title character encounters in Poe’s novel).

Interspersed among such lyrical acts of imagination, the reader finds snippets of more traditional comparative visual analysis. In a passage on Mount’s painting, Nemerov writes:

In Caravaggio’s picture the risen Jesus invites Doubting Thomas to place his finger

in the wound in his side, while two other apostles look intently upon the mystery.

In Mount’s painting the doubter’s finger has become the fortune-teller’s,

the spear wound in Jesus’s side turns into the teacup, and the staring apostles

morph into the two young women. As though in a great game of rumor, Mount is

the last person to hear a secret whispered from ear to ear across the centuries,

and thinking he has it straight, ends up painting a garbled and slurred version of

scripture, the dregs of tradition, the Resurrection of Jesus as a tableau vivant. (53)

What the two paintings share, Nemerov later concludes, is their “admonition to believe without vulgar proof, to accept a miracle on faith alone” (55). The power of Nemerov’s book is the way that it sustains this high-wire act of inventiveness.

While many of the fables and the connections they draw are successful, there are a few that are less convincing. In one, titled “Painter and Oak,” we encounter the artist John Gadsby Chapman walking in the woods outside Washington, D.C. An oak tree becomes the vehicle for various visions by Chapman, including the ceiling frescoes he had seen in Rome and the underside of a woman’s skirt. Chapman then has the sense that these celestial visions have come crashing to the ground. The narrative flows for me until Nemerov connects this fall from grace to Chapman’s later painting of the Baptism of Pocohontas for the US Capitol building, which he intimates conveys some of the loss of Chapman’s experience in the woods. Pocohontas in particular, according to Nemerov, aspires to the celestial but is trapped on earth. Somehow the interpretation doesn’t feel satisfying in relation to the complex figure of Pocohontas and the cultural work being performed by the Capitol murals.

Using the lens of ecocriticism, it is tempting to focus on the many differences between the books, such as the global connections accentuated by Lovell but downplayed by Nemerov, or Nemerov’s attention to environmental depletion, unmatched by Lovell. But an ecocritical perspective also reveals a shared concern that animates the authors’ respective subjects. Both landscape painting and the visual and verbal discourses of trees posit nature as a site of material transformation and continuous metamorphosis. Lane’s paintings are accurate transcriptions, yes, but also holders of personal and historical memory. Correspondingly, John Gadsby Chapman can summon up a vision of ancient gods and goddesses when looking up at an oak tree. It is a tribute to Lovell and Nemerov that they leave space for simultaneous realities, and it is in this aspect that their outlooks converge.

Maura Lyons
Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Design, Drake University