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Colloquium: Shifts in the 19th-Century American Cultural Landscape

Image of an American Impressionist painting

The Humanities Institute hosted a Colloquium on Friday, September 9, 2016, entitled Shifts in the 19th-century American Cultural Landscape. Organized in conjunction with the exhibition Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, this round-table looked at the various cultural-philosophic and economic forces that led to rapidly changing landscapes in America. Participants discussed how these developments impacted the 19th-century vision of nature, the art of landscape painting, and the design of gardens and choice of plants.

Alan Wallach, Vanessa Sellers, and Denice Wiles Adams

Alan Wallach, Vanessa Sellers, and Denice Wiles Adams

Held in the Humanities Institute—LuEsther T. Mertz Library Reading Room, more than 60 students and visitors attended the colloquium and enjoyed presentations by two outstanding speakers: Alan Wallach, Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at the College of William and Mary; and Denise Wiles Adams, historian of American garden design, period homes, and ornamental plants. David Schuyler, Professor of Humanities and American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, was also scheduled to speak, but unfortunately was unable to attend due to illness.

Alan Wallach discussing the transitions in American landscape painting.

Alan Wallach discussing the transitions in American landscape painting

After a welcome and introduction by Vanessa Sellers, Research Coordinator of the Humanities Institute, and Joanna Groarke, Director of Public Engagement & Library Exhibitions Curator, Alan Wallach took the podium and outlined the impact of cultural shifts on American artists and their works during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Professor of Art History and American Studies, Wallach is an expert on the changing vision of nature and its aesthetic enjoyment through time in art. In an age of rapid industrialization, Wallach argued, American artists were challenged to rediscover and recapture the beauty of nature in its pure and wild form. In spite of the increasing encroachment of the modern world, the Hudson River School continued to flourish and develop the romanticized landscape paintings they are known for today. Analyzing the American Impressionists’ response to this modernization both differentiates and links these works of art to their European counterparts, Wallach explained. While European Impressionism began to embrace urban scenes as well as themes showing emerging technology, American artists continued to focus on traditional relationships between people and their natural surroundings.

Linda Ferber (left), curator of the exhibit “Impressionism,” in conversation with visiting scholar

Linda Ferber (left), curator of the exhibit Impressionism, in conversation with visiting scholar

Denise Wiles Adams, a well-known author of several important books on American estates during the 19th century, provided a different outlook on these changing times in American landscape by focusing on practical aspects of garden design, layout, and planting. As urban lifestyles became increasingly common, many began to restore period gardens with heirloom ornamental plants. Adams discussed the individual plants associated with and sold as essential components to the domestic gardens of this time, interestingly, echoing the romanticized theme discussed in Wallach’s presentation. As these gardens gained popularity, the term “Grandmother Garden” was coined, emphasizing a societal nostalgia for a time before urban growth and industrialization consumed the nation.

The presentations were followed by a lively round table discussion associating nature with the tastes and values of this time, and a book-viewing of original 19th-century garden treatises and plant catalogs in the Mertz Library Rare Book Room. The event concluded with a self-guided tour of the exhibit in the Art Gallery. Participants were thrilled at the opportunity to view some American Impressionist works up close and now, through a new lens, understanding what the landscapes and gardens really represented during this period. One attendee commented, “I found the papers presented at the colloquium to be a profoundly illuminating accompaniment to the exhibition in the Rotunda and a useful expansion on the concept of ‘American Impressionism’ in general. One participant summarized the colloquium nicely, stating, “Both Wallach and Adams illuminated how turn-of-the-century Americans valued and moralized the natural world through preserving a sense of peaceful antiquity in both artwork and the gardens that inspired them.”

  1. Caroline Birenbaum says:

    typo–symposium date should be 2016

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