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Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer

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

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
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    Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
    Book Description:

    Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934) was one of the premier figures in landscape writing and design at the turn of the twentieth century, a moment when the amateur pursuit of gardening and the increasingly professionalized landscape design field were beginning to diverge. This intellectual biography-the first in-depth study of the versatile critic and author-reveals Van Rensselaer's vital role in this moment in the history of landscape architecture.

    Van Rensselaer was one of the new breed of American art and architecture critics, closely examining the nature of her profession and bringing a disciplined scholarship to the craft. She considered herself a professional, leading the effort among women in the Gilded Age to claim the titles of artist, architect, critic, historian, and journalist. Thanks to the resources of her wealthy mercantile family, she had been given a sophisticated European education almost unheard of for a woman of her time. Her close relationship with Frederick Law Olmsted influenced her ideas on landscape gardening, and her interest in botany and geology shaped the ideas upon which her philosophy and art criticism were based. She also studied the works of Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, Henry David Thoreau, and many other nineteenth-century scientists and nature writers, which influenced her general belief in the relationship between science and the imagination.

    Her cosmopolitan education and elevated social status gave her, much like her contemporary Edith Wharton, access to the homes and gardens of the upper classes. This allowed her to mingle with authors, artists, and affluent patrons of the arts and enabled her to write with familiarity about architecture and landscape design. Identifying over 330 previously unattributed editorials and unsigned articles authored by Van Rensselaer in the influential journalGarden and Forest-for which she was the sole female editorial voice-Judith Major offers insight into her ideas about the importance of botanical nomenclature, the similarities between landscape gardening and idealist painting, design in nature, and many other significant topics. Major's critical examination of Van Rensselaer's life and writings-which also includes selections from her correspondence-details not only her influential role in the creation of landscape architecture as a discipline but also her contribution to a broader public understanding of the arts in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3455-6
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiii)
  4. [Illustration]
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION Portraits of a Lady
    (pp. 1-4)

    Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer sits in her study before a cluttered table and gazes directly at the camera. Stacks of paper and a thick reference book lie in front of a typewriter in which a half-finished page is visible. The 1887 photograph, the frontispiece of this volume, was taken in Marion, Massachusetts, then a remote village on Buzzard’s Bay, where Van Rensselaer returned summer after summer to write and to be a part of the congenial and “Bohemian” company that gathered aroundCenturyeditor Richard Watson Gilder and his artist wife, Helena de Kay.¹

    The photograph is a softer version...

  6. ONE The Education of Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
    (pp. 5-23)

    The first seventeen years of Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer’s life took place in a city being remade and refined by the great fortunes of the Industrial Revolution. She was born into a family of wealthy New York City merchants on 23 February 1851. Her parents, Lydia Alley and George Griswold Jr., were proud descendents of seventeenth-century New England settlers.

    The family wealth was generated from the China trade; her grandfather and father sent clipper ships around the world and imported tea, silks, and other items from East Asia. At the age of three, Van Rensselaer moved to a splendid residence...

  7. TWO A Career Begins
    (pp. 24-50)

    TheAmerican Art Reviewwas sumptuous in relation to the standard late-nineteenth-century magazine, with original etchings and wood-engraved reproductions of drawings created especially for the magazine. During its brief two-year run (1879 to 1881), it was the most important art publication of its day in the United States, and its editor, Sylvester Rosa Koehler, an internationally known scholar of the graphic arts, commissioned reviews and articles from the best available critics. Among his contributors was Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, who was then, according to one art historian, “perhaps the most perceptive and articulate writer on art in America.” When she...

    (pp. 51-84)

    Anticipating the opportunity to explore a fresh topic, Van Rensselaer wrote to Olmsted in May 1887: “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 others!” She began her role as a landscape critic while carrying on a prodigious output as the art critic for theIndependent:articles ranging from Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Lincoln Monument to the painters of the Society of American Artists were published that spring and summer. Her...

  9. FOUR Historical Sketches on the Art of Gardening
    (pp. 85-99)

    In the late 1880s, Van Rensselaer focused her energy on a series of “historical sketches” on “the art of gardening” forGarden and Forest. Her art and architecture criticism was always remarkable for the scholarly and historical perspective that was part of her treatment of even the most contemporary subjects. TheCenturyarticle “American Etchers” started with a thorough examination of the termetching, beginning with its etymological root in the Greek “to eat.” Emphasizing that “etching” denotes not an effect but a process, Van Rensselaer outlined the various methods of production that she described step by step. In another...

  10. FIVE Traces in Garden and Forest
    (pp. 100-120)

    Summers in Marion and Southampton, a trip to see the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, and a cruise down the Rhone River—over a five-year span ofGarden and Forest, from 1888 through 1892, Van Rensselaer contributed essays about these and more experiences and her impressions of a wide diversity of landscapes. Shifting easily from a broad overview of regional setting to details such as the color of a wildflower, she remained a tirelessly curious observer of natural and urban settings. Her editorials, articles, and letters to the editor reveal her knowledge of botany and geology, the manner in which she...

  11. SIX A Turning Point: 1893
    (pp. 121-158)

    Like Trachtenberg, Lewis Mumford looked to the World’s Columbian Exposition as a turning point for America: “The Brown Decades mark a period…. If it began with the mourning note of Lincoln’s funeral, it ended, like a sun thrusting through the clouds, in the golden portal of Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.”¹

    The year 1893 was also an important milestone in Van Rensselaer’s career and a turning point in her life. The World’s Columbian Exposition opened on 1 May, and every periodical in the country covered the fair.Centurychose Van Rensselaer to write “At the...

  12. SEVEN While Garden and Forest Lived
    (pp. 159-179)

    In 1894, buoyed up by a doctor’s report that Gris would be able to return to New York with her in May, Van Rensselaer began writing again forGarden and Forestand completed “People in New York” forCentury. In a letter of transmittal to Gilder on 15 January, she was relaxed after a long afternoon drive up into “the red and purple mountains, with the thermometer at 60, the sun like May and the breeze a delicious zephyr.” The description was the most appreciative yet of the Colorado landscape, but the next line revealed her true feelings: “I would...

  13. EIGHT Changes
    (pp. 180-200)

    Van Rensselaer devoted the remainder of her life to public service and to writing poetry, short stories, and a history of New York. But sporadically, she returned to topics that picked up earlier refrains from herGarden and Foresteditorials.

    In 1901 she rented a house in Buffalo, New York, during the Pan-American Exposition and visited Niagara Falls. Fourteen years after herCenturyarticle on the reservation plan by Olmsted and Vaux, she publishedNiagara: A Description. Familiar themes reemerged as she wrote that Niagara “must be studied in detail—in minutest detail—as well as in broad pictures.” She...

  14. NINE The Aesthetics of Life
    (pp. 201-206)

    Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer was alone in combining an expertise in American and European art and architecture with the ability to use the language of science to enhance late-nineteenth-century public awareness and appreciation of the emerging profession of landscape architecture.

    The more than 330 editorials and unsigned articles inGarden and Forestadded to Van Rensselaer’s known body of work reinforce the contention that the natural sciences figured prominently in her thinking. In particular, Humboldt and Darwin furnished compelling analogies and a new vocabulary for her studies of landscape architecture. Her writings demonstrate an easy familiarity with and love for...

  15. APPENDIX A Garden and Forest Editorials and Unsigned Articles Written by M. G. Van Rensselaer
    (pp. 207-218)
  16. APPENDIX B Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer Chronology
    (pp. 219-224)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 225-258)
    (pp. 259-274)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 275-285)