Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2024
Andrea Pappas Embroidering the Landscape : Women, Art and the Environment in British North America, 1740–1770 London: Lund Humphries Pub Ltd, 2023. 192 pp.; 40 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth GPB50.00 (9781848226241)

Embroidering the Landscape: Women, Art and the Environment in British North America, 1740–1770 by Andrea Pappas is a fascinating study of large needlework landscapes from the mid to late colonial period carefully curated by the author for their narrative content in addition to their aesthetic and historical value. Rather than the samplers that readers might expect, Pappas focuses on the monumental overmantels that took pride of place in colonial homes, showcasing the adept needle skills of young girls and women. Such embroideries often originated from pattern books and predetermined designs, but the examples provided by Pappas diverge from this tradition to include botanically precise floral specimens, animal breeds, and women engaged in outdoor activities. In one regard, Pappas’s research on this topic is situated squarely within the larger tradition of decorative arts studies regarding the embellishment of the colonial American home. But there is a more intriguing and truly significant approach that Pappas brings to this work. By isolating the contingent details found within these embroidered landscapes, Pappas foregrounds the economic, geographical, and horticultural knowledge possessed by the women who produced them. In the author’s own words, “these embroidered landscapes communicate views of women’s worlds, interests, work and priorities that contradict the all-too-familiar image of women passively copying patterns in their dainty needlework” (126). Throughout its six chapters plus conclusion, this book reads as an in-depth exploration of material culture from the perspective of environmental history.

Pappas begins with an examination of pattern books and early educational opportunities for young women as a means to learn the artistry of needlework. On silk, wool, linen, or canvas, metallic and cotton threads stitched scenes of complex narratives that move beyond their source material and generalized forms. Pappas unpacks the imagery in a selected sample of large overmantels and convincingly demonstrates that the ideal is clearly enhanced by the real—truthful details of scenery known to the women who made these works of art—places where the physical terrain supported their families by financial, culinary, and environmental measures. Pappas continues her deep dive into the technical processes of these embroideries examining not just the fronts but the versos of these needlework pictures for clues about their construction and meaning. Pappas describes eloquently the difference between fluid drawing on paper and the looping process of needlework. Likewise, she denotes how spatial depth was achieved in these complex visual vignettes through both linear and parallel perspectives. In her words, “The result is a non-linear visual logic grounded in memory as much as, if not more than, optical fidelity to the world of things and places” (39). This is a critical point. There is little dispute over the degree to which painters such as Thomas Cole or Julie Hart Beers maintained visual verity in their landscapes of American scenery, often blending and combining sketches and drawings to produce the most elegant composition. Cole himself spoke of drawing a veil over nature as a means to justify artistic license. So too, these needleworking women used their stitches and knots to replicate textures and forms, blending standardized forms with site-specific details.

The artists selected by Pappas crafted scenes that were often familiar, and at times familial, to their creators. As an example, Pappas uses an embroidery by Love Rawlins Pickman made after 1747 to demonstrate how some of these embroideries read as snapshots of contemporary life, documenting places, the economy, and the environment. Through Pickman’s work, Pappas shows the real-time trade and active elements of the shipping industry that were so much a part of the Pickman family business in Salem, Massachusetts. The embroideries become important artifacts of contemporary reportage. While a fair percentage of the examples in this book were made by artists whose identities are currently unknown, Pappas was able to follow the lives of a few select women like Pickman. Specific breeds of sheep, cattle, fish, and fowl plus identifiable varietals of fruits and flowers—far from generic horticulture, farming, and fishing practices— are identified and suggested by Pappas in scenes created by women who tell the stories of their families in threads. While the source materials for these scenes may well have originated from engravings, porcelain motifs, or pattern books Pappas skillfully elucidates the details through which these women made these scenes their own with great specificity.  

These embroideries read as nonhierarchic scenes of figures within built and natural environments. Through horizontal, vertical, and diagonal stitches—Pappas brings to life this needlework tradition which has hitherto been relegated all too often as mere craft. She presents engaging visual analyses supported by exhaustive research. Each physical element required to construct these embroidered pictures is explored for its place within the larger natural and financial worlds of British North America before the Revolution. These pictures read as maps which speak to land and terroir. Even the materials used, Pappas asserts, are part of the global environment and reflect patterns in trade, commerce, and the market for luxury goods. For example, in chapter two, Pappas explores the dyes required for coloring threads and textiles, unpacking a discourse on global economics and the price of consumption. She includes the logging industry and the hazards of harvesting within Central American and Caribbean ecosystems that relied upon enslaved labor for mahogany used, for example, in the production of sewing tables. Building upon the work of scholars such as Jennifer Anderson, Pappas demonstrates how the accoutrements of the needlework trade are inextricably bound to environmental and economic history. Pappas examines the minutiae—scissors, needles, thimbles—every object on a sewing table as having a story of its own in the global web of production, sale, and desire. Her discussion of indigo in particular, builds upon a wealth of existing research with an inciteful and original approach to material culture.

In the proceeding chapters, readers learn of global trading ports, animal husbandry, botanical specimens, and the contents of kitchen gardens visually displayed in embroideries by women who have been given little agency in the scholarship of American art. While challenging artistic establishments past and present that have prioritized oil on canvas, Pappas explains how the makers she discusses were familiar with and drew upon artistic conventions. She repeatedly returns to the descriptive term “Georgic.” Whether or not these young women read or even had access to Virgil’s epic poem Georgics is to be determined, but the terminology does fit within the rustic environs pictured in these embroideries. To further underscore the artistic value of these overmantels, Pappas employs the vocabulary traditionally used to discuss landscape painting providing extended and fascinating instructions on how to read these scenes in terms of hierarchic scaling, foreground, middle ground and backgrounds, perspective, and atmospheric conditions. Seen in this light, these large needlework compositions, deemed “domestic,” take on new importance, particularly given the limited academic art produced in the American colonies before the Revolutionary War.

The final chapter on kitchen gardens is particularly noteworthy for its relationship to the horticultural acumen of figures such as William Bartram, and the blossoming field of botanical illustration which allowed for better identification of fruits and vegetables thus aiding women who maintained and relied upon the ecosystems of their gardens to sustain their families. Pappas’s research on colonial diet, animal husbandry, and horticultural propagation results in a standout study by the author. How these women “represent history,” (98) in the author’s words, is strikingly complex. Peppered with wonderful and instructive quotes from eighteenth-century men, we miss the words of women who constructed needlework landscapes. If there were anything that might enhance Pappas’s painstaking research, it would be greater inclusion of women’s voices throughout. Admittedly, Pappas does explain the rarity of journals, letters, and diary entries from the women artists she includes. Serendipitous fortune is what often provides such evidence and when the points of view of women embroiderers are present, it makes for a striking complement to Pappas’s research—reinforcing the author’s premise about women’s intricate knowledge of the natural world that surrounded them and which they used to navigate British North America.

Overarchingly, Embroidering the Landscape: Women, Art and the Environment in British North America, 1740–1770 is an important contribution to the study of visual culture as well as the complex ecosystem of British North America with its dependence upon a global economy for its very survival. This much-needed study will complement the fields of American art, decorative arts, environmental history, and women’s studies. The visual examples as selected by Pappas document the geography, botany, and environment of the American landscape decades before the Hudson River School artists painted their own geographically and horticulturally identifiable scenes thus adding to our knowledge of colonial perceptions of nature. Although the majority of the artists in Pappas’s book remain unidentified today, they leave a legacy and a roadmap of scholarship yet to be conducted on not only their identities but on the extensive and very personal knowledge and relationships that women maintained with their environments in British North America. As Pappas says, “in these images, work in and on nature never goes less than swimmingly” (102). Oh, to live in one of these embroidered landscapes.

Nancy Siegel
Professor of Art History & Culinary History, Towson University