Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age

cover_-_a_landscape_critic_in_the_gilded_age.jpgMariana Griswold van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age

Judith K. Major (University of Virginia Press, 2013)

Reviewed by Pamela Hartford

Mark Twain coined the term ‘Gilded Age’ as a satiric metaphor for the 30 year period following the Civil War, when rapid economic growth through industrialism created myriad opportunities for business ventures as well as increased material comfort. The glitter of these advantages were, to Twain, a thin layer masking the ugly consequences: enormous poverty and suffering.

As a member of the historically entitled 1% class by both birth and marriage, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer sought to raise the standards of legions of bourgeois newcomers, instructing them toward becoming discerning clients and patrons. Writing in the most important journals of the day – Century, North American Review, Harper’s, Scribner’s and the Atlantic, as well as professional publications, such as The American Architect and Building News -  Van Rensselaer infused her critiques of architecture and art with values of education and beauty.

Judith Major’s biography establishes Van Rensselaer as an insightful critic with extremely high standards for scholarship, which she brings to bear in an outpouring of writing about landscape gardening (as it was then called), a professional discipline then in the throes of justifying and defining itself. The centerpiece of Major’s examination of Van Rensselaer’s career shows not only how her writing declared the relevance of the profession, but also established the landscape gardener as an artist rather than a gardener, and therefore on a par with architecture. Major’s biography brings recognition to this influential woman who charted a path for the likes of Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable.

We learn how the teenage Mariana responded to the wealth of art she was exposed to when her family moved to Paris and then Dresden. As she began visiting museums, she discovered that she had very little basis for understanding not only what she saw, but also, what liked. She embarked on a rigorous self education for purposes of better appreciating the art she was seeing.  This instinct to be an informed consumer of art influenced deeply her writing as a critic – her critiques and comments were always couched in context and history.

Through friendship with Frederick Law Olmsted, Van Rensselaer became very interested in the then growing field of landscape gardening.  “I am getting so interested in this new field of study that I am most impatient     to begin writing about it, especially as I feel that the only way to learn     anything one’s self is to try and teach it to others.” (MSVR to Olmsted, May 1887).

Evaluating the process and results of Olmsted’s ‘naturalistic’ designs, she perceived the results as an art form on a par with architecture, painting and sculpture.
    
In 1888, Charles Sargent, Director of the Arnold Arboretum and a close associate of Olmsted’s, began to publish a weekly magazine, Garden & Forest, A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art, and Forestry. Its scope was broad – from farming to forestry practices, botany to road building – but with a decided interest in the role of landscape design not only in garden layouts, but in planning and preservation. Van Rensselaer was a regular contributor during the ten years of its publication, beginning with her article “Landscape Gardening – A Definition” in the inaugural issue. She contributed a seven article series on the art of landscape design, a twenty-one article series on landscape, and myriad other pieces on subjects from fall colors to foundation planting.

Because of her deep familiarity with Van Rensselaer’s writing style, Major was able to identify 330 unsigned articles and editorials written by Van Renssalaer in Garden & Forest, a number which overwhelms the fifty signed articles (the list is included in an appendix).  This effort alone contributes significantly to scholarship on both Van Rensselaer and on the profession. Her depiction of Van Rensselaer’s life places the development of her career within a narrative of the social life of a gilded age doyenne.

Van Renssalaer’s publishing accomplishments included an important biography of architect H. H. Richardson, a book on English cathedrals, and a two-volume history of the seventeenth century in New York. In 1893 she published Art Out of Doors, which was based on many of her articles.  This book expanded her readership, influenced the curriculum for the first professional school of landscape architecture, established at Harvard. It remains on the reading lists for American landscape history, as Major concludes, for good reason.

Readers who would like to explore the writings of Van Rensselaer have several options:

Art Out of Doors is available at The Massachusetts Horticulture Society in both the 1893 and 1959 editions.

The entire run of Garden & Forest has now been carefully digitized through a collaboration between the Arnold Arboretum and the Smithsonian. Each volume can be viewed by year on an easily navigated platform, allowing for page magnification, page scrolling, and indexing of plants names on every page.

In celebration of Garden & Forest’s electronic publication, the Arnold Arboretum published two special editions of ARNOLDIA  (2000 60:2 & 60:3) which featured a carefully edited selection of writings – a sampler of the range of topics addressed -  as well as five commissioned articles by experts talking about the importance of Garden & Forest from the lens of different disciplines.

Pamela Hartford is an independent landscape historian, designer and writer living in Salem, MA.