In Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, historic and contemporary artworks are often paired to reflect varying viewpoints on nature and humankind’s effects on it, then and now. Here are three examples of these pairings:
Albert Bierstadt was known for his landscape paintings capturing pristine vistas of the American West and became closely associated with images of Yosemite National Park—here he emphasized the grandeur of Bridal Veil Falls. In Valerie Hegarty’s version, Bierstadt’s picture seems to be melting and degrading as it literally falls off the wall. Fallen Bierstadt questions the way traditional landscape painting idealizes nature as an untouched wilderness retreat that ignores the complexity and history of a place. Hegarty urges us to imagine nature differently—not as a romantic escape from the world, but as something real, fragile, and subject to interpretation.
Walton Ford’s depiction of Carolina parrots recalls John James Audubon’s treatment of the same species. Audubon attempted to capture bird behavior in nature, dynamically congregating among the cocklebur bushes. In Ford’s version, the parrots gather around one bird who is mortally wounded and conveying his dying words. Ford’s depiction is humorous, but also poignant in its evocation of death. The Carolina parrots were the only native parrot species in the US, but by the early 1900s, the vibrant birds were extinct.
Although these two artworks were created closer together in time, they represent different interpretations of a changing urban landscape. In the early twentieth century, there was growing concern about urban environmental reform, especially in the poor areas of New York City. Despite obvious overcrowding in his painting of a lower Manhattan immigrant neighborhood, George Bellows celebrated the vitality of the working class in Cliff Dwellers. The circles of light radiating from the saxophone player in Aaron Douglas’s Song of the Towers connotes artistic power and freedom, yet troubling signs appear at the bottom of the painting. Pollution pours from the smokestacks and green fumes waft throughout the picture, while a menacing hand clutches at the figure at right. Douglas tells us that although the migration north allowed some African Americans to advance, many injustices remained, including racial discrimination and high levels of pollution in minority neighborhoods.
This post was written by Mindy Besaw, curator of American art at Crystal Bridges.