Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting

20.02.2019 in Book Review
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Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting,

1825-1875. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007

As it is seen from the title, Barbara Novak undertook critical research on the connection between art and its social and cultural environment in the field of landscape painting in the mid-19th century. Along with the artworks themselves, Novak uses all kinds of historical data such as publications, opinions, artists’ libraries, reading habits, and letters of the time as sources of interpretation. As a result of submerging herself into “the circumstances under which the objects of [one’s] studies were created,” Novak designates main concepts that served as a theoretical base for the depiction of American nature: Christianity, nationalism, and science.

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Novak’s understanding of driving forces behind American landscape is arranged into four theme-based parts. The first part proves that the union of aesthetics and religion resulted in an ideology of the nation. Believing in the interchangeability of the terms “God” and “nature,” American painters of the 19th century regarded native landscapes not only as “aesthetic view but a powerful self-image, a moral and social energy that could be translated into action”. According to Novak, the grandeur of American landscape was mostly expressed through large panoramic works of such painters as Cole, Bierstadt, and Church; while the smaller paintings of the transcendental luminists Heade and Lane conveyed “the frugality of classic understatement”.

In the second part, Novak turns to the geological, meteorological, and organic aspects of paintings. Through the development of geology, biology, and other natural sciences, the idea of Creation received its confirmation. The new knowledge about newly discovered types of rocks, vegetation, and even a classification of clouds contributed to the tight connection between art, science, and religion. That “trinity” was embraced by artists, clergy and scientists in equal measure.

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The third part of the book covers explorations of the American continent taken by artists in search of inspiration and scenes to paint. Novak mentions the paradox of that time: believing the wild nature to be the confirmation of God’s existence and His love to mankind, the wilderness quickly receded under the aggressive westward expansion of the white race. The symbols of the axe and the train express the idea of progress. However, the turning of wilderness into a garden verges on “an attack on America’s religion of God-in-nature”. Even the human figure can be read as a sign of progress and destruction while only the Indian one “as a function of nature symbolizes its unexplored state”.

In the final chapters, the author studies the relationship between America and Europe. Contrasted with young and unexplored America, Italy was perceived as “a museum of the past” “inundated with art” while France, England, Germany, and Scandinavia also had what to offer to aspiring artists (plein-airism, the Dutch influence, the Dusseldorf influence). Novak concludes that American artists, out of mentioned elements, created their own American art of landscapes. Some artists tried to produce both “the ideal and the picturesque” American landscape paintings, which were often perceived as “protoicons”.

To her credit, Novak gives a serious interpretation of a vast number of documentation. Not going off the beaten track of analyzing the artworks and the artists’ creative careers and biographies, Novak engages into reading the cultural signs of art through the prism of main events in science and social life, and pervading notions and concepts of the 19th century.

However, the abundance of quotes by numerous art critics and thinkers of that time with minimal author’s interpretation, or even without any, resulted in a text that sometimes is difficult for understanding and demands hard concentration. According to critics, the text is “dense with sources” and “lacks unity”. Marzio attributes “the unevenness of the book” to the fact that six of the ten chapters had been published earlier. Moreover, the book discusses only a small part of the landscapists of the 19th century, and definitely not all of them are used “to suggest a relationship between a particular literary, scientific, or philosophic idea and painting”. Such a tendency to generalization, which is inevitable in this kind of works though, is another problem with Nature and Culture. For instance, the chapter on clouds opens with a promising statement, “Sky in American art has a clearly identifiable iconography”, and the author proceeds without specifying what exactly is meant by that; we see Constable’s and Cropsey’s cloud studies, Howard’s classification of clouds, and sketches of clouds by a few other artists but never the promised in the beginning iconography.

Johns points out structuralism as the reason for Novak to create “a floating past seemingly unanchored in specific artists and paintings”. Saying that in Novak’s narrative “ideas have lives of their own” without connection to real people, Johns implies that the author of Nature and Culture uses too much abstract language which is difficult to attach to specific realities. Moreover, the reader should tread carefully around the term “The American Mind” freely used by Novak. Johns proves that as early as in the mid-1960s scholars rejected the American Mind approach as limiting and discriminating in favor of the pluralities of American culture.

Judging by terms and the lack of discussions of paintings in detail, Novak’s audience must be people knowledgeable about art, and American landscape painting of the 19th century in particular. For example, the author refers to Claudian clich?/”stamp”/formulae as early as on the first pages of the book; however, “the conventions of Claude” were defined only in chapter 10. Probably, the book could appeal to a much larger circle of readers if edited with respect to the possible lack of specific knowledge. In addition, there are cases when the author mentions a painting but does not provide an illustration. Those who are new to American painting may not always have the Internet connection at hand to fill the void in art knowledge and will feel disheartened.

Novak’s book was insightful and full of ideas for further development. John gives an example of Nicolai Cikovsky who, as a tribute to Novak, developed one of her insights on the tree stump in American art. As Novak mentions herself, in the preface for the third edition, “the interdisciplinary character of Nature and Culture has been reinforced eleven years after the 1995 edition by curriculum changes in many colleges”. Having been published thrice, Novak’s fundamental book has defined the field for future research.

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