Editor's note: The following article was written in conjunction with the exhibition Wonder and Enlightenment: Artist-Naturalists in the Early American South, on view August 13, 2011 through February 20, 2012, at Reynolda House Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Reynolda House Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Wonder and Enlightenment: Artist-Naturalists in the Early American South
by Philip R. Archer and Martha R. Severens
Both before and after Independence, a spirit of exploration fueled the political and intellectual growth of America. The physical and commercial expansion from East to West had a corollary in the artists and naturalists who attempted to document, in words and images, the astonishing variety of flora, fauna, and scenery found in their new country. The roles of artist and natural scientist were not as distinct then as they are today; many naturalists saw their work as art and also as a response to their "obligation to explore and comprehend the grand effect of creation."[i] They were children of the Enlightenment, believing that knowledge should be tested by observation, and that science was served by the application of an artist's sensibilities and faculties for analysis and description.
These themes are illuminated in the exhibition Wonder and Enlightenment: Artist-Naturalists in the Early American South, an outstanding example of collaboration between Reynolda House Museum of American Art and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, both located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The exhibition is installed in an intimate upstairs gallery at Reynolda House, not far from well-known masterpieces by Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt -- artists who also discovered grandeur in American scenery.
Three artist-naturalists are represented by works featuring ornithological specimens. The least familiar and earliest is the English naturalist George Edwards who was known as the "father of British ornithology." He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, the preeminent scientific fraternity during the Age of Enlightenment and, in 1733, he was appointed librarian to the Royal College of Physicians in London. The two watercolors in the exhibition date to the 1730s and were initially owned by John Drayton, who was responsible for the magnificent Palladio-inspired plantation home, Drayton Hall, near Charleston, South Carolina. They watercolors are the oldest of their kind to survive in North America and demonstrate colonial interest in ornithology.
Edwards's Starling was long thought to represent a North American grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) because of its deep ebony coloring; however, its dark brown legs and the small flecks of white in its feathers identify it as a female English starling. Its long black bill should actually be yellow. Color inaccuracies abounded in the work of eighteenth-century ornithologists, who typically worked with bird carcasses whose colors were altered by drying or preserving in alcohol.
Edwards's contemporary, Mark Catesby, is represented in the exhibition by a leather-bound volume of engravings, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, 1771, and the map of the area from the third edition. Primarily a self-taught artist, Catesby created images that are remarkable for their detail and freshness. At times his arrangements verge on the naïve, but his purpose was not aesthetic but illustrative. Recognizing his artistic shortcomings, he apologized in his text: "As I was not bred a Painter I hope some faults in perspective, and other niceties, may be more readily excused: for I humbly conceive that Plants and other Things done in a Flat, tho' exact manner, may serve the Purpose of Natural History, better in some Measure, than in a more bold and Painter-like Way."[ii] In the exhibition, the volume is open to the plate showing a cypress bough supporting a Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), the only parrot species native to the eastern United States. It was made extinct early in the twentieth century by several human threats, including the trade in feathers for ladies' hats.
The third naturalist in Wonder and Enlightenment, John James Audubon, dominates one wall of the gallery with three examples from his magnus opus, The Birds of America. Audubon was famous for his colorful lifestyle and his dedication to bringing his projects to fruition despite financial and physical hardships. His magisterial effort on American ornithology, published between 1827 and 1838, consisted of 435 life-sized prints of birds represented in their natural habitats. His images combined stunning vivacity and occasional flashes of whimsy, as illustrated in Blue Jay, where an over-eager jay's beak appears caught in the partridge egg it has pilfered. Audubon's text asks playfully, "Who could imagine that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a garb so resplendent, should harbour so much mischief?"
While Audubon's preferred methodology was to work with specimens he had seen and captured, this was not always possible, as exemplified by Columbia Jay. The bird is indigenous to the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America but was named by Audubon in error for the Columbia River, in the Pacific Northwest, where a taxidermy specimen was received by a friend and later given to the painter. Working from a specimen, Audubon evidently did not realize it was not native to North America, although he did admit that the Columbia jay "is the only individual...which I did not receive on the spot."[iii]
Bachman's Warbler is a testament of Audubon's friendship with John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and influential naturalist in Charleston. Bachman defended the artist against attacks from other naturalists, proving, for example, that the black vulture detected its food by sight, as Audubon claimed, and confirming that some rattlesnakes can climb trees. They collaborated on a natural history of mammals in North America, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, with texts by Bachman and drawings by Audubon, along with contributions from his sons Victor and John, (who married two of Bachman's daughters -- what better form of collaboration!). Unusual even in Audubon's time, the delicate warbler, native to the southeastern United States, is now believed to be extinct. Through various artistic tropes, the artist emphasizes the elusive quality of the species, which he never observed in its natural habitat. The full foliage and large blooms of the plant dwarf both male and female birds and their vivid yellow plumage is camouflaged by the centers of the flowers and the decaying leaves of the Gordona Pubescens, a type of tea plant.
In addition to the birds and vegetation depicted so authentically by Catesby and Audubon, American scenery fired the imagination of many artists. Foremost among these was Joshua Shaw, represented in the exhibition with five works. Shaw was already an accomplished painter when he arrived from England in 1817. Quickly he recognized that little was being done to celebrate the landscape of the New World, stating, "In no quarter of the globe are the majesty and loveliness of nature more strikingly conspicuous than in America. ... Our lofty mountains and almost boundless prairies, our broad and magnificent rivers, the unexampled magnitude of our cataracts, the wild grandeur of our western forests, and the rich and variegated tints of our autumnal landscapes, are unsurpassed by any of the boasted scenery of other countries."[iv] Shaw determined to remedy the situation by undertaking Picturesque Views of American Scenery, a portfolio of engravings after his paintings. His goal was threefold: to engender appreciation of nature both at home and abroad, to inspire other artists to paint landscapes, and to encourage patronage for his paintings.
Based in Philadelphia, Shaw naturally chose first to compose scenes on the nearby Schuylkill and Passaic rivers. He painted in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and he completed two New York scenes, including one of the Hudson River, predating noted landscapist Thomas Cole by several years. His intention was to publish thirty-six views in six folios of six prints each, but ultimately only three sets of six were issued. In late 1817, he ventured south in pursuit of picturesque scenery, and upon his arrival four months later in Norfolk, William Dunlap recorded that "Shaw came in, just returned from Savannah, Augusta, etc. and represents the South as a paradise of riches."[v]
Reynolda House's Witch Duck Creek was acquired in the belief that it was a scene in North Carolina. However, it is now thought to depict Witchduck Point near Virginia Beach, Virginia, site of "the most notable witchcraft trial in Virginia."[vi] In 1705-1706, Grace Sherwood was accused of witchcraft and subjected to an ordeal by water, or "ducking" in the Lynnhaven River. She swam, legally confirming her guilt. (Drowning would ironically have proven her innocence.) She was held in prison for a second trial, for which no records exist. Many fanciful legends of the "Virginia Witch" persisted and her posthumous pardon did not occur until 2006, issued by Governor Timothy Kaine on the 300th anniversary of her conviction.
The meticulously painted small canvas has a painted beige mat surrounding the image, an indication that Shaw planned to have it engraved. It closely resembles one of the plates in Picturesque Views of American Scenery, which bears the title Oyster Cove. Shaw describes the cove as being abundant with game and fish -- an obvious appeal to sportsmen. The exhibition includes four engravings from his southern sojourn. Three are largely scenic views, while Burning of Savannah is more historical. In his accompanying text, Shaw calls the event of January 11, 1820, "calamitous," and relates how "the devouring element flew from house to house with an eagerness and rapidity that seemed to mock at human opposition." Later that year, ten percent of the population was lost to yellow fever. Despite these dual tragedies, Savannah provided the highest number of subscriptions to Shaw's Picturesque Views.
In the 1820s, Shaw contributed to an appreciation of the American landscape that would bear fruit with the evolution of the Hudson River School. These painters often rendered the sublime aspects of divine creation: magnificent sunsets, impressive waterfalls, and stormy skies. One artist who celebrated the totality of nature -- scenery, animals, and humankind -- was Edward Hicks, a naïve painter who was also a Quaker preacher. Starting out as a sign painter, Hicks emerged as a successful self-taught artist.
When a separatist movement led by his cousin Elias Hicks shook the Quaker community in the 1820s, Edward Hicks began creating his Peaceable Kingdoms, based on the prophet Isaiah's vision of the hereafter. Hicks's reconciliation fantasy took form in more than sixty versions showing lion, lamb, and other naturally hostile creatures peacefully coexisting, led by a child holding a sprig of grapes, a symbol of the promise of redemption through the blood of Christ. Typically, Hicks's beasts of prey do not recline complacently; as the Quaker split widened, the lions and leopards emerge as alert, potent, and coiled with paranoia, with what Hicks called the lion's "malignant, persecuting spirit A spirit that I have detected in my own breast, that would lead me, through jealousy and envy, to hate a Christian brother or sister, for differing with me in a mere matter of opinion, and which I am ashamed almost to think of."[vii]
Reynolda House's version, The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch, is one of four that includes a view of the Natural Bridge, an important Virginia landmark. Hicks never visited the site, but borrowed the image from an 1822 travel map.[viii] In a tiny scene below the bridge, Hicks depicted the famous Quaker, William Penn, offering his treaty of peace to a group of Native Americans, relating an act of human reconciliation to a natural marvel that connects two sides of a river gorge.
While Hicks's painting is filled with overt allusions and symbols, and is contained within a frame bearing a pertinent verse from the book of Isaiah, David Johnson's portrayal of Natural Bridge appears more straightforward. A panoramic view, Johnson's rendition downplays the landmark by nestling it among lush and rolling hillsides dotted with farmsteads and livestock. The enormity of the bridge when seen from below is disregarded in favor of a more harmonious view. Painting on the eve of the Civil War, Johnson may have been advocating for the resolution of sectional differences.
Represented under a beautiful blue sky, Natural Bridge is highlighted by a glowing light at the center of the painting, as if the place is blessed. Thomas Jefferson, who at one time owned Natural Bridge, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, expressed a sentiment that parallels Johnson's depiction: "It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven! The rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!"[ix]
Wonder and Enlightenment brings together examples by artists attempting to celebrate what America meant to them. Their paintings and engravings shed light on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attitudes toward nature -- appreciative, awestruck, and concerned for its preservation. Catesby, Audubon, Shaw, and Johnson were primarily motivated by a desire to document, as well as share and promote this country's special attributes.
i John P. Barratt, "An Address, Delivered before the Erskine Lyceum of Erskine College, Abbeville District, S.C. on the Evening of September 16th, 1846," South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
ii Mark Catesby, Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands . . . by the late Mark Catesby, F.R.S., with an introduction by George Frick and note by Joseph Ewan (1771; reprint, Savannah, GA: Beehive Press, 1974), vi.
iii Alexander Wilson, Charles Lucian Bonaparte, and William Jardine, American Ornithology, Or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States (London: Cassell Petter & Galpin, 1832), 289.
iv Joshua Shaw, Picturesque Views of American Scenery (Philadelphia: Matthew Carey and Son, 1820), prospectus.
v William Dunlap, Diary of William Dunlap (1766-1839): The Memoirs of a Dramatist, Theatrical Manager, Painter, Critic, Novelist and Historian (New York: New York Historical Society, 1931), 501 and 527.
vi A.E. Dick Howard, Commentaries on the Constitution of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1974), 68788.
vii Memoirs, p. 322.
viii Carolyn J. Weekly and Laura Pass Barry, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999), 94.
ix Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 148.
Captions to images in American Art Review article
About the authors
Philip R. Archer is Director of Public Programs at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
Martha R. Severens retired from the staff of the Greenville County Museum of Art in the spring of 2011, having served as that museum's curator since 1992. Before coming to Greenville, she was the curator at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art and before that was the curator at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina.
About the exhibition Wonder and Enlightenment: Artist-Naturalists in the Early American South
Wonder and Enlightenment: Artist-Naturalists in the Early American South was an exhibition of 18th and 19th-century works from the collections of Reynolda House and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), on view in the Northeast Bedroom Gallery of the museum from August 13, 2011 through February 20, 2012.
The exhibition included three plates from John James Audubon's "Birds of America," a painting and four prints by Joshua Shaw, paintings by Edward Hicks and David Johnson, and an early edition of Mark Catesby's ornithological treatise.
Both before and after the struggle for independence in America, there was an intense spirit of expansion and exploration in the new continent. Artists and naturalists attempted to map their physical world and document in text and image the astonishing variety of flora and fauna native to their new country. As children of the Enlightenment, they observed nature from a scientific perspective but also saw that the artist's sensibilities and artistic expression served as a basis for analysis and description.
Later in the 19th century, as the era of Enlightenment gave way to more Romantic interpretations of the natural world, American artists began to paint images of awe-inspiring wonders such as the Natural Bridge in Virginia or to render scenes in ways that added to a sense of mystery or fascination about their subjects. In this exhibition, as the viewer moved from the images created by John James Audubon as he documented birds in their habitat to the eerie moonlit landscape of Joshua Shaw's "Witch Duck Creek," that transition was readily apparent.
(above: R. Havell after John James Audubon, Bachman's Warbler, 1833, hand-colored aquatint engraving, plate CLXXV, image size: 22 1/2 x 18 inches. gift of Betsy Main Babcock, 2002.3.2. Reynolda House Museum of American Art)
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 25, 2012 with permission of the authors, which was granted to TFAO on February 24, 2012.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Sarah Smith and Sharyn Turner of Reynolda House Museum of American Art for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
A similar article appeared in the January - February 2012 issue of American Art Review.
To read other essays by Ms. Severens published in Resource Library please click here.
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For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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