Narrating the Landscape: Print Culture and American Expansion in the Nineteenth Century

Narrating the Landscape: Print Culture and American Expansion in the Nineteenth Century

by Matthew N. Johnston

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806154954
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/14/2016
Series: Charles M. Russell Center Series on Art and Photography of the American West , #24
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 77 MB
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About the Author

Matthew N. Johnston is Associate Professor of Art History at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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Narrating the Landscape

Print Culture and American Expansion in the Nineteenth Century

By Matthew N. Johnston


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5495-4


Reading the Past outside the Window

Competing Visions of History in Paintings and Railroad Guidebooks

ALAN WALLACH explains in "Thomas Cole's River in the Catskills as Anti-Pastoral" how this 1843 painting (plate 3) registers the artist's anxiety about the destructive potential of modern improvements represented by the railroad, arguably the most potent symbol and agent of change in the nineteenth century. As Wallach observes, this work of Cole has been recognized as an important milestone by generations of scholars who have charted the evolution of American landscape painting. Most of these scholars have focused on how the genre represented concerns about the nation's future development at the outset of the most intense period of American territorial expansion and settlement. Their dominant interpretation sees Cole as normalizing the appearance of the train by concealing it within a traditional picturesque view of natural scenery. Such picturesque elements include the gazing foreground figure who encourages protracted contemplation across an expanse of natural and manmade elements, as well as a viewing path that proceeds slowly along a pristine watercourse to the rail crossing, and thence to the farming community and other clearings beyond. What is suggested is an easy transition to a pastoral idyll that industry does not disturb, an unproblematic narrative of historical progress. Such an alignment of the viewer's pathway into space with a sunny allegorical narrative mirrors, although less explicitly, the organization of Durand's nearly contemporary Progress (plate 2) as well as numerous later works of the Hudson River school. But as Wallach argues, "What would a landscape painting look like if it embodied a critical or negative representation of the railroad? ... Given the artistic means at Cole's disposal ... it is difficult to believe that he would have painted a close-up view of a fire-breathing, mechanical behemoth." Instead, according to Wallach, Cole manifests his displeasure subtly, evoking a specialized and mostly pleasurable genre known as the pastoral landscape and then eliminating certain of its constitutive details, thereby suggesting a darker vision (for example, in the foreground, where we would expect to find sheltering trees for the red-jacketed onlooker, we instead find blasted tree stumps).

Wallach's argument hinges on an inertia of aesthetic conventions, the incapability of paintings to represent critical views of historical progress that involved radical changes to existing pictorial norms and habits. Although more visceral "close-up view[s] of ... fire-breathing, mechanical behemoth[s]" did occasionally appear, as in Andrew Melrose's Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way (1865; figure 1), American landscape painting typically avoided getting too close to the train. Unlike paintings, however, railroad publications from the same period frequently highlighted the unusual sights available to riders. In an image from Henry T. Williams's Pacific Tourist, a guidebook produced shortly after the opening of the transcontinental railroad, in 1869, the endangered deer of Melrose's painting are shown grazing happily, undisturbed by the passing train (figure 2). This almost bucolic scene has the effect of minimizing an even more basic difference between the print and Melrose's work (and landscape painting in general) — namely, the way the illustration replicates the tangential, shearing perspective of a seated passenger in a moving train. The advances in print technology of the first half of the century — notably wood engraving and electrotyping — as well as the appeal of new sights for a growing and largely expansionist reading public, encouraged an inventiveness in print illustrations generally. Most visibly, the new illustrated journals that came on the market in the 1840s and 1850s, such as Harper's Weekly, aimed to distinguish themselves from their competitors through the frequent and clever use of pictures. In terms of landscape imagery, paintings did provide familiar compositional models, but just as often views of landscape in print illustrations could evoke other imaging technologies, such as the Claude glass or some other viewing device, and present sequential aspects of spectatorship or other visual phenomena that were not easily captured in painting (figures 3 and 4).

If Cole's critique of the nation's development hinged on a careful manipulation of picturesque conventions, what views of progress were offered in print images that deviated more dramatically from the constraints of landscape painting, and how did this deviation impinge on a viewer's apprehension of time? This chapter explores this question by examining illustration schemes in transportation guidebooks in the years 1825–1875, a period spanning the introduction and integration of the steamboat and the train as prevalent means of travel that dramatically increased the ability of Americans to move around their country. The function of such guides was primarily practical, but what interests me is their insistent experimentation with representing progress or history as a key component of the sites they described, as well as the notion that such an abstract or intangible notion as "history" could be experienced phenomenally in different ways, in the here and now, via the guidebooks' mediation of travelers' exposure to the landscape. If painting represents history or an idealized projection of future development through a correlation of real/visual and imagined/physical movement (as in Cole's and Durand's works), transportation guidebooks rework this equation, drawing its terms together more closely, by mediating the experience of actual travel. Instead of an imagined traversal of pictured space vested in the eye's movement, the real progress of the viewer's body itself is charged with larger historical significance. My basic contention in this chapter is that while landscape painting generally retains the same basic viewing patterns and corresponding constructions of historical meaning found in the works of Cole and Durand from the period 1825–1875, the evolution of illustration schemes in transportation guidebooks moves away from this ensemble of spectatorship and historical significance in the direction of something else. Specifically, I show how railroad guidebooks develop an altogether different form of narrative viewing — a "railroad narrative" — to evoke an altogether different notion of the nation's historical progress, largely because this new narrative order has a closer kinship with a new world of commercial goods — as opposed to a world, a nation, shaped by history — than the picturesque viewing models from which it emerged.

The railroad is a major protagonist in the myth of Manifest Destiny and a powerful symbol of a new era in the United States, entailing expansion, industrialization, and commercial culture — if not modernity by many definitions, then its immediate prehistory. To explore the possibilities and issues of representing history through the sights associated with train travel, and how contemporary scenic guides either obscure or promote that perspective, it is helpful to review the different ways in which the railroad has been understood to represent progress in painting. Particularly striking is how landscape painting avoids or suppresses the novel visual possibilities of railroad travel, or at least contains them within the conventions of the European picturesque tradition. The railroad is primarily conceived iconographically, as an allegorical symbol of progress, or used as a compositional device within established picturesque conventions, even though it could serve as a technology of representation in its own right, not just alluding to progress indirectly or abstractly, but impressing on the rider an emphatically vivid experience of it. The machines themselves were formidable examples of modern technology and engineering, and riders were taken up and swept along by them, literally and dramatically "progressing," with sensations altogether distinct from previous experience: passengers visually (and acoustically) isolated from the landscape outside and traveling along a geometrically precise path that did not conform to the prevailing topography. From the window of a moving train, the outside terrain dramatically separates into three distinct mobile planes: foreground imagery flits by, objects in the middle ground seem to curve or peel away, and background landscape features seem to move imperceptibly, so that one can look away for a time and still see them when one looks back. It is this visceral dimension that painting avoided and that railroad guidebooks would eventually draw on to shape a new perspective toward the landscape.

Beginning with Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, art historical scholarship has long remarked on the ambivalence with which writers and artists of the period greeted the possibilities for material and social change enabled by a connecting network of rail lines across the country. Many such writers and artists describe the immediate experience of train travel as a removal of possibilities, a kind of imprisonment within or subordination to the order of the machine. Cole describes how "the body is made to be merely a sort of Tender to a Locomotive Car; its appetites & functions wait on a Machine which is merciless & tyrannical," while according to the English critic John Ruskin, the train "transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel." Henry David Thoreau alludes to a similar objectification in his famous meditation on train travel at the end of the chapter on "Sounds" in Walden (1854), comparing trains to "invisible bolts" that are "shot," squeezing the body even further into a bullet-like compartment. Thoreau also speculates on what this revolution in transport bodes for the nation's future. He both acknowledges the promise of a new era figured by the train and questions whether that promise can be made good: "When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils ... it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!" In seeking a vantage point from which to gauge this harbinger of a new history, however, Thoreau tends to situate himself outside the train. He vividly describes how the train condenses distance and enforces its own time schedule like a discharged bullet — instantaneous, linear, undeviating — reconfiguring the relationship between national space and its accessibility over time. But he advocates a perspective removed from such effects, a view not from the train but of the train: "Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts will be shot toward particular points of the compass. ... Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then. ... Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever." It seems possible to explain Thoreau's sense of loneliness in terms of a perspective that is increasingly not shared; if Americans are organizing their lives according to the routes and schedules of the train, then Thoreau's point of view is even more his own.

Such an outside viewpoint, which could be identified with an unshared sightline (one's "own track"), connoting a resistance toward being captured by the "fate" of a new "restless world," is replicated time and again by painters who incorporated the train into their compositions. Whether the train is represented positively (as in Durand's Progress) or more ambivalently (as in Cole's River in the Catskills or George Inness's The Lackawanna Valley, 1856; figure 5), these paintings follow the picturesque convention of depicting a substitute spectator for the viewer in the foreground, who gazes across an expanse of pastoral scenery along an unhurried viewing path defined by winding watercourses and gradually diminishing natural features. Also typical is the generalized historical narrative organized by the movement of the viewer's eye into depth, usually moving from earlier to later stages of civilization. The consistent positioning of the train toward the back of depicted space (well removed from the vantage point of the viewer) is partly necessitated by the fact that it signifies progress or an advanced stage in this narrative. Moreover, in these paintings the train almost always crosses the viewer's line of sight; rarely is the viewer offered a sightline aligned with the trajectory of the train. Compositionally, the sightline indicated by the railroad (obliquely crossing the gaze of the viewer) is a kind of coulisse, channeling the viewer's eye along a characteristically serpentine path into depth. The railroad's association with rapid movement, the sharp pull of its tracks' more geometrically precise lines, and its effectiveness as a sign or symbol of the future (confirming the pull of the implied historical narrative) all function as compelling stage directions for the viewer's optical perusal of the painting.

Given these conventions that distance and dissociate the viewer from the train, American art historical scholarship, following the work of Marx, has often occupied itself with parsing the subtle visual cues that tell us just where a particular painter could be positioned on the spectrum of approval or disapproval of the train and its attendant associations. Although the consensus has been that most painters reduced the size of the train and obscured its presence to accommodate it within traditional picturesque views, producing a "landscape of reconciliation," other scholars, in addition to Wallach, have teased out more impassioned responses in slight departures from those conventions. Even though artists received commissions from patrons connected with the railroad and were even invited to take tours on specific rail lines for the purpose of promoting them, what seems most striking about their work, again, is that the view from the train remains largely absent. Signs of an apparently compulsive suppression have spurred an abundance of art historical interpretations that gesture toward larger social and cultural concerns. Yet the varying attitudes of painters toward the process of industrialization that the train epitomized only partly explain its capacity to figure a new phase in national history through its iconographical significance and compositional properties alone, but never through any new perspectives on landscape that it offered.

Following Wallach's lead (and underscoring what is radically different in print views from the train, such as in Williams's guidebook), I suggest that what is also involved here is a basic incompatibility between the sights of train travel and the customary means by which painting guided the viewer's eye through depictions of landscape. Scholars have noted how Melrose's anomalous painting, Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way (figure 1), depicts a dramatic and violent intrusion of industrial mechanization into the natural environment (the graveyard of stumps on the left, the fleeing deer threatened by the onrushing train), but it is also possible to read the painting as dramatizing this incompatibility, portraying a "landscape of irreconciliation." The negative effect of the picture derives significantly from the threatening manner by which it stages stark deviations from the pictorial norms of the picturesque tradition. Gone is the gently curving serpentine path into depth, which nudged the viewer's eye from point to point but still fostered an impression of freedom of movement. Replacing it are the rigid, locked-in tracks of the railroad, framed by a constraining avenue of trees, forcing the viewer's eye into a head-on collision with the approaching locomotive. The emphasis on distance and the prolonged temporality of painting are also absent, with a view into the background cut off by the train, and a sense of urgency called forth by the fleeing deer and imminent disaster. Finally, in brutally bald terms, Melrose portrays the merging of the vantage points of painting and train as unavoidably lethal, perhaps even suggesting that the train, in its capacity to mediate views of landscape, will soon overpower and destroy painting — or at least the imagined painter, standing before the easel with his eyes locked in the headlights.


Excerpted from Narrating the Landscape by Matthew N. Johnston. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Landscape and Narrative in Nineteenth-Century American Visual Culture,
1. Reading the Past outside the Window Competing Visions of History in Paintings and Railroad Guidebooks,
2. The Anatomy of Greed Newport Tourist Literature and the Luminist Works of William Trost Richards and John Frederick Kensett,
3. "Walking Statues" Narrative and Landscape in Early American Ethnology,
4. The Figuration of Time in the Geological Surveys of the West,
List of Illustrations,

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