A Brief History of Nature and the American Consciousness

When Frederick Jackson Turner announced in 1893 that "the American character did not spring full-blown from the Mayflower," but that "it came out of the forests and gained new strength each time it touched a frontier," his speech punctuated nearly three centuries of examinations into the American wilderness.1 From Jamestown and Plymouth Plantation to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the subsequent expedition of Lewis and Clark, to Turner's "Frontier Thesis" at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the geography and ecology of the American continent was the center of debate among Americans. Two primary views of the wilderness were contested: the wilderness either contained savagery and temptation which threatened the authority of the community or it represented a new Garden which could flourish with the proper cultivation by the European settlers. Although these contrasting views of the wilderness shared the goal of establishing a civilization by removing the obstacles presented by the natural environment, the state of wilderness that originally characterized the young nation eventually became the source of national pride and identity for America.

In an essay entitled "The Cultural Significance of the American Wilderness," Roderick Nash notes that early settlers in the New World were not Americans at all, but transplanted Europeans who regarded the land as a spiritual and physical void which had to conquered and civilized in the name of Christianity and progress.2 Because it was an unknown entity with bizarre animals, unusual topography, and strange indigenous inhabitants, the wilderness represented a place where community and consensus would be put in peril by the total absence of European law, religion, and civilization. Early New England literature, art, and folklore presents the wilderness as the place where reason succumbs to passion and the devil can seduce and corrupt even the holiest in the community. In other early colonies, particularly Pennsylvania and Virginia, the wilderness represented the Garden--a place to be tamed and cleared for the establishment of a human community. In this outlook, however, the land supplied the raw materials for building a society, and nature was to be used, not feared. Despite the different outlooks, the goal was the same: to destroy the savage wilderness and make it bloom with European civilization.

In this Thomas Cole painting of 1836 entitled The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton), the tension between wilderness and garden, savagery and civilization, is recorded visually as European conventions of landscape painting are employed to comment on the state of the physical place of America. The savagery of the storm clouds over the wilderness retreats from the advancing cultivated landscape of civilization. And, as Cole scholar William Cronon has suggested,"in the lazy turn of the great oxbow--echoed by the circling birds at the edge of the storm-- we can make out the shape of a question mark: where is all this headed?" The concerns expressed in Cole's painting reflected the debate among Americans. Would the wilderness disappear completely for the sake of civilization, or would the two exist in perpetual tension with one another?

During the Lewis and Clark expedition in the Jeffersonian era, the primary goal of wilderness investigation was to take inventory of the garden and complete a taxonomy of the American continent. Jefferson's interest in taxonomy was supported in Pennsylvania by the Philosophical Society of Benjamin Franklin, a group of scientists that included anthropologist Charles Wilson Peale, botanist Benjamin Rush, and chemist/physicist Joseph Priestley. Jefferson and the men of this society often compared notes and shared the results of individual experiments to assess and quantify the land and its contents. Although these men displayed a genuine curiosity about their environment, they were eager to discover what resources of economic value lay in the land for their use in building a civilized society. Northern strides toward industry and technology led by Franklin, and Southern emphasis on the idealized agrarian society of gentlemen's farms espoused by Jefferson shared a desire to tame and contain the wilderness by imposing upon it a constructed landscape of human civility and divine order. The wilderness exploration of Jefferson's time suggested that America's success as a nation was tied to the cultivation of the wilderness. America could have a rural character, but not a wild one. To achieve our "manifest destiny," Americans had to create a pastoral middle landscape of rolling hills and prosperous farms, much like the terrain of Cole's painting.

Changing Perceptions of Nature and the Rise of the Sublime

By the middle of the Nineteenth century, cities and towns were blooming across the east and the midwest, and people were looking for ways to ease the toil of cultivating and harvesting the American garden. Robert Fulton's steamboat, first launched in 1807, and the development of Eastern railways represented the first intrusions of what Leo Marx would call "the machine in the garden." With these early stirrings of the industrial age to come, Americans began to examine their relationship to the land around them. The birth of the Hudson River school of American painting, signalled by George Innes's The Lackawanna Valley, married wilderness with civilization in harmonious depictions of pastoral rural towns gleaming with the prosperity brought to them by the broad-based economy of both agriculture and technology. Authors such as Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper turned to the still-wild woods of upstate New York as settings for their stories and inspiration for their frontier-minded characters. Neither group was particularly critical of their changing relationship to nature, but the advent of technology now meant that civilization had gained considerable advantage in the continuing struggle between the garden and the wilderness.

The more penetrating of these examinations into the changing landscape emerged during the 1850's and 1860's in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau during the early era of the American Renaissance, which was influenced in part by British Romanticism. Nature was once again a subject for American art and letters, but the perceptions of it had shifted to reflect the new American concern with the changes in the landscape. Rather than presenting nature as an obstacle to the establishment of a civilization, American authors and painters alike upheld nature as the source of the animating spirit behind the American character.

Although America did not have the ruins of a classical civilization or an intellectual heritage comparable to Europe's, it did have a wilderness more primeval than anywhere in Europe, or at least it did for a while. A few voices of dissent expressed concern over the ways growth and progress ravaged the landscape, and many were disturbed by the imposition of the smoke and noise from the railroad. As the trains and factories of technology spread and the attitudes toward nature shifted to consider the Romanticist viewpoints, the once pastoral promises of the Hudson River paintings were invoked with wry irony. Andrew Melrose expressed the disadvantages of technology in his painting Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way--near Council Bluffs, Iowa. Although the painting was commissioned to commemorate the arrival of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad at the Missouri River, this painting shows that the price of progress is paid by the environment. The desire to impose order on the land in order to build a nation was leading to the destruction of our national wilderness.

The Romantics approached the subject from a different perspective. Romanticism set up opposition to the Neoclassic insistence on order and hierarchy by championing individual freedom through man's relationship to nature. The Romantics believed that nature was the inherent possessor of abstract qualities such as truth, beauty, indepence and democracy. In the natural world, people could reclaim or at least approximate the lost innocence of their origins--both individual and national. The image of America as a garden could apply to the Romantic perspective of nature, but the gridwork of civilization had to be stripped from the landscape. The original state of American wilderness--as well as areas of the country yet undeveloped gave America a valid claim to a possession now desirable in European thought. Wild nature thus became a source of national pride as the root of character traits for a unique national identity. This embrace of wilderness released at last a true native creativity in the American mind. No longer bound by classical notions of art and literature in Europe, many American artists and authors disregarded European traditions and began to explore the natural world of America for its possibilities of new subject matter.

Romanticism in painting drew its inspiration in part from American neoclassicism, a genre which relied on European landscape iconography to paint the American continent as a mythological land. Through landscape painting, artists wrote a creation myth for America that focused on the primacy of the white settlers. These paintings feature European explorers on horseback, arriving in their promised land to find noble savages and unspoiled wilderness. Artists of this genre granted a privileged role for an American elite and enobled the white discovery and settlement of the wilderness by evoking images of classical painting. These two images by Albert Bierstadt which hang in the Capitol exemplify this style of painting through their representations of the white explorers and the native tribes. Although both paintings borrow heavily from the grandiose iconography of European istoria painting, the background of wilderness is purely American. Bierstadt departs from traditions by placing a mythological tale of civilization in the context of the American wilderness--a transition which would inspire later Romantic painting.


American Romantics also drew their inspiration from painter John Turner and authors such as William Wordsworth, each of whom involved the spectator or reader as a participant in the dynamic experience of nature instead of maintaining an objective distance to the natural world in their portrayals. Nature was perceived as divine and sublime in literature, art, and nature writing. Cliffs were described as castles, trees and mountain peaks evoked the structure of spires, and the rolling plains metamorphosed into mythic oceans of grass. Europe was littered with the wrecks of man, but America was blessed with the undiminished majesties of God. This emphasis on the sublimity of nature by itself encouraged dramatic innovations in American landscape painting, when artists would travel across the Mississippi to paint the landscapes that impressed them in the West. Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and Thomas Moran jointly founded a school of American art which freed itself of European conventions by painting the rough beauty and uniqueness of wilderness for its own sake. These landscapes experiment with new subject matter and brush techniques, but the focus of the scene still speaks to the white heritage. These scenes illustrate the notion of uninhabited, virgin wilderness, seen for the first time by European explorers and American pioneers alike. The emphasis is on the experience of wilderness, and these painters show that this experience is one in which anyone--specifically any white man--can participate. This painting of Niagara Falls by Regis Gignoux hangs in the U.S. Capitol and illustrates the experience of the common man in a sublime natural setting, a change in subject matter which marks a critical point in the changing perceptions of the American wilderness.

Representations of sublime nature expressed for Americans the roots of their national character. Not only did the Edenic portrayal of America give it the status of a promised land, but also turned into a country where true equality--among the European setters at least--could prevail, and freedom could exist in as pure a form as ever existed in Europe. Peggy Wayburn of the University of California states that "the wilderness of the continent made obsolete and alien the old ideas of rank, caste, and inherited aristocracy...common man could become uncommon man."3 The explorers in paintings such as Regis Gignoux's or Thomas Moran's were common men, not aristocrats or European dignitaries; they had embarked on journeys westward and were driven by a taste for adventure and a curiosity about the land, but also by the need to survive alone in the wilderness. As Turner would argue in his thesis, the obstacles presented by the wilderness fostered the beloved American traits of independence, ingenuity, pragmatism, and resourcefulness, and the existence of a rolling frontier line which was constantly redrawn and redefined both geographically and politically at each stage of western expansion continually reaffirmed national faith in democracy and equality.

Nature's Bounty and American Economic Prosperity

The wilderness gave birth to the American identity and reinforced its validity throughout the Nineteenth century, but its cache of natural resources also made the country rich. By the time Turner delivered his speech that romanticized the frontier in the American consciousness, the country had already moved into the Industrial era. Powerful businessmen throughout the country amassed overwhelming fortunes by exploiting the resources of the land. Eastern cities sprawled in every direction as the boom of industry attracted rural citizens and immigrants alike with the promise of employment and prosperity. New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago were on a collision course with the Twentieth century as crime, poverty, disease, and pollution plagued their streets. The vast lands of the west shimmered with that old Edenic promise of pre-industrial days, and the west itself became an industry.

Dime novels, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and the newly established National Park System capitalized on the urban fatigue and discretionary income of wealthy easterners. In advertisements, artists' sketches, and photographs from the west, sublime portrayals of nature solicited the money of people in the east. The west reaffirmed the existence of the American identity and promised that it was still as robust as ever.

In painting, Romantic art returned to the idealized landscape, but not the landscapes of classical civilizations. Instead, painters like Bierstadt, Church, and Moran used their keen observations of the West to transform it into the promised land of America. Bierstadt's paintings of the Rockies or Moran's portrayals of the geological wonders of the west depict the American landscape in primeval majesty which transports the spectator to a virgin land of nearly prehistoric character. Almost every landscape painting done by these artists is devoid of any sign of human civilization, European or other, and instead focuses exclusively on the supremacy of the landscape. To the artists, the idealization of nature was merely technique; they wished to convey the impressions of the wilderness they saw. But for eastern audiences which had never seen such places, these paintings were supposed to be documentaries which accurately reflected the land as it appeared before the human eye. The disjunction between the two perceptions of nature in art created confusion which turned the mythology of the American wilderness into the mythology of the West. Since wilderness had earned its place in American consciousness as both the source of our national identity and the guarantor of American prosperity, the impressive scenes of Bierstadt and Moran illustrated that the West was America. As long as we had the wild land of the West, America was assured of continued success and a secure national identity.

Nature in the Capitol

Between the prosperity of the east and the wilderness of the west, Americans felt that they had at last combined within their culture the very best of nature and civilization. Nonetheless, the contrasting views of nature are troubling. On one hand, the wilderness is the font of national traits and the foundation of a national identity; on the other, the exploitation and depletion of the wilderness helped build cities and make millionaires. America maintained this complex relationship with nature well into the Twentieth century. The art in the United States Capitol tells this same story about nature's importance in our nation. The Capitol contains both the idealized landscapes of early American painting as well as the Romantic images of late-Nineteenth century painting.

The first congressional acquisitions of landscape painting for the Capitol were the powerful images of the American west done by painter Thomas Moran. Moran had accompanied two geological surveys to the West and provided visual images of the unbelievable descriptions that surveyors and travellers alike were reporting in letters to the east. The allocation of $10,000 for Moran's first painting, "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone," suggested the importance of both the idea and the land of the west and also served as a federal endorsement of wilderness as the wellspring of American nationalism. Other paintings would follow Moran's, but the pioneering work of this artist carries with it the complex history of America's relationship to its environment during the late Nineteenth century--suggesting that more than sublime Nature alone is enshrined in the Capitol building.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Thomas Moran, 7' X 12'(detail)
Purchased 1872; moved to the Department of the Interior 1950.

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Joshua Johns
April 5, 1996