Science and Art in America
“The Great American Hall of Wonders” is the title of a recent show at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art. The show is thematic rather than devoted to great works or great artists or to a history of Nineteenth Century American art. What it does is to use artists, including some works by the very best of them, to illustrate images of nature and other events concerning the American landscape. The show highlights that American painting was concerned with rendering what things looked like so that viewers who had never seen these unusual things would know what they looked like. American painting in that period did not see as its purpose the finding of meaning or providing a visual reinterpretation of what was seen, which happens when painting turns, as it does with the Impressionists, into a metaphorical representation of what is. Impressionist painters present a purple sky as opposed to a sky which is mostly blue even if it does have some streaks of purple in it. The viewer knows that things are being exaggerated even if there is a bit of truth in the Impressionist representations. American painting, to the contrary, serves one of the main functions of photography before and even as photography is becoming available, which is to be a window into reality rather than a thing in itself.
The emblem painting of the exhibit is, fittingly enough, Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum, which serves as the cover for the exhibit’s catalogue and is the first painting encountered when entering the exhibit. Peale draws back a curtain to reveal the contents of his museum, which are stuffed birds of a variety of species as well as some old bones. Not much of a museum by modern standards, but a tribute to the varieties of nature in a Ripley Believe It or Not fashion. It may be inferred that one of the things wonderful about America is its spectacular natural world, as that once was and as that is in the Nineteenth Century. It was not just its Constitution or the diversity of its peoples that made America exceptional, extraordinary as those achievements were. Noting the gigantisms of the American environment was an insight befitting a time when the great lengths of time through which the Earth had existed was first being appreciated. England discovered its geological foundations and its fossils in the early Nineteenth Century; so did the United States, which was also a place to discover the past because America was as important, or was to be as important, as Europe. Joseph Smith realized with astonishing clarity the importance of there being a history in America parallel to that which had gone on in the rest of the world, but that was two generations after the Peale painting.
The second Peale painting, just around the corner from the first Peale, is a rendering of the excavation site for a mastodon. Exhumation of the Mastodon is an interesting way to deal with its subject. Peale gives you just a few mastodon bones held in a sheet at a corner of the painting. Most of the painting is concerned with the mechanisms whereby the bones are extricated from the water filled site. There is a conveyor belt of bags lifting the water out of the pit and numerous miners standing in the pit filling the bags with water. There are some tents on the side of the pit that provide some shelter for workers and for tourists who have come out to see the excavation in action. The picture is not very well composed. There is no artfulness in the arrangement of the tents or of the figures. What one is getting, instead, is the documentation of the mechanics needed to explore the past. There is ingenuity needed at getting at the spectacular ancient natural world. That is the second theme of the Smithsonian exhibit: to show realistically, and for informational rather than artistic purposes, how things happen. So it is the natural plus the ingenious that makes of America an exceptional place, at least according to the lights of this Smithsonian show.
The show devotes one room after another to some spectacular part of nature or human ingenuity that had been addressed by numerous artists and so one comes away with multiple takes on the same topic. There are a number of renditions of buffalo, including the one by the less than widely known Ernest Griset that is famous because it is always used as an illustration for high school textbooks of what happened in the West. The Far West.—Shooting Buffalo on the line of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad appeared in 1871 in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and so was a source of documentation when it first appeared. People on a train that is seen coming head on shoot buffalo surrounding the tracks, buffalo piling up in front of the train’s cow catcher. Even then, it was a picture of waste, as well as a perspective and content both primitive and legendary, though what was recorded had happened a month or so before. One suspects that saving the buffalo was a thought that occurred to people long before the beasts were mostly gone. Perhaps the most powerful painting in the group is John Mix Stanley’s Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies, from 1845, which is not good on perspective or composition but has a buffalo notable for its red eye and deep fur. Information is more important than composition. These were strange looking creatures. Another picture in that room, The Last of the Buffalo, from 1888, is by Alfred Bierstadt, who displays his usual mastery of perspective and composition, and so renders a painting with a number of interest points: dead buffalo, still live ones, skulls and bones, and a representative of a similarly endangered species, the Indian, riding a white horse while attacking a buffalo.
Another room in the show is devoted to Niagara Falls and, as might be expected, a number of major American artists are here. Niagara Falls was an especially suitable subject for the grand spectacle the leading artists were supposed to present to their admission paying audiences. The Frederic Church painting, Niagara, remains powerful because of the point of view from which the picture is unfolded rather than from its other painterly features, and so is in line with the idea of capturing what is seen rather than what is interpreted. Church shows the Falls with an eye level just above the water so that the viewer does not see the descent of the water. What the viewer sees is the turbulence of the water that is being churned by the rocks immediately below and then the water goes from a thick green to a white froth topping by the beginning of its descent and then into the white mist of its spectacular cascades. There is a lot of water and width to the falls, not just height. This is a striking image that remains fresh because it captures the textures of the water by showing the Falls in its various stages. The George Inness picture, also called Niagara, is quite late, painted in 1893. What he captures is the rainbow and the Falls seen through the midst created by the falling water as well as the little islands beneath the Falls. He also shows the factories and buildings behind the Falls, and so the picture is quite different from the ones done at the beginning of the century where the Falls were observed only by Indians. The Falls are not tamed, but they do take their place within a man made nature, which is also the conceit at work in Inness’s various portraits of the Lackawanna Railroad, the Lackawanna Valley now a setting for the trains that cross it rather than a harsh territory that has to be conquered.
The rooms do not reflect chronology. The views of Niagara, as the views of the buffalo, were done at various times over the century and so show not so much a variety of styles as a variety of takes. That is the import of looking at these paintings as representations rather than interpretations. The same is true of the room on the giant redwoods of California. The representations, for the most part, come from the later part of the century and make the move from painting to photography without missing a beat: both media use the same front on perspective and convey the largeness of scale: big trees and Lilliputian people.
There are two rooms that deal with man made spectacles. It is easy for us to see why the railroad makes for spectacle. It moves like a beast, huffing and puffing, starts and stops, and is both dangerous and wonderful. No wonder that filming a railroad train occurred at the very beginning of the movie industry, or that the setting of the Golden Spike in Utah that connected up the transcontinental railroad was an historic moment. Remember that what is now the administration building of the Smithsonian originally housed a set of locomotives as well as other examples of Nineteenth Century machinery. But it is the second room that introduces the visitor to something that may have been unknown to him, which is the factory that houses machinery, a place far more mysterious, filled as it is with lines and angles not found in nature, than can be found in Sidney Mount’s friendly smithy shop.
In the 1815 Bass Otis painting, Interior of a Smithy, there is no outdoors, only an interior largely dark, illuminated by the fire in the force. This is a time before giant windows are introduced to factories so as to make the work go easily, and the factory has not evolved yet into being the site of mass production, and so each object produced within it still has the aura of an experiment. Machines are Frankenstein monsters not because they become animated but because they do not: they are just tools to make things, ever guided by the human mind. Mary Shelley, who was writing about this time, was about the past, not the future; she wanted to create a new nature in that the mechanical would take as its purpose to emulate biology, when the point of technology was to attend to lines of force and passages of energy so that it would serve biological creatures without becoming in any way like them. The technological imagination did not have to make man the measure of all things; rather, it was only that human purpose was what designed these inanimate concatenations of forces who knew not what they did because they were without mind rather than because they were merely innocent. Accepting the technological point of view is not an easy thing to do because it is to accept objects that have no point of view, not even that of a buffalo.
In this room is also to be found an Eakins, this time the artist providing a sketch almost patent office like of an early sewing machine. This blends in with our understanding of Eakins as a portrait painter of professional men, who are the new American elite, and it also blends into our well established appreciation of Eakins as an enthusiast for technology, because the sewing machine rather than its inventor is the object of attention. Eakins himself dabbled with the technology of photography. Here, in the portrait of a sewing machine, painterly perspectives are off so as to enhance how the object operates as a machine, transferring kinetic energy first in one direction and then in another.
This era in American art is interested in showing what things look like. The objects portrayed are chosen because of their intrinsic interest as natural and human made objects. These are strange creatures and mammoth industrial concoctions. That is enough. That is why American art can be thought to be without ideas. There is no iconography; there is no alteration of natural perception. The ideas come in when the viewer knows some history and science about what is on display. Mastodons fill the imagination without being symbols of anything else, as do buffalo, because the first are lost and strange and because the second are still here even as they are strange and disappearing. The history of the West and of geological time supplies the ideas, not a code embedded in the picture. The soon to come Impressionist interest in purple skies and smeared landscapes has not yet replaced the urge of Mid-Nineteenth Century artists to get colors right and to have hard edges on their figures. That is the only way to get details right and so to treat nature as an objective reality which is to be seen for what it is.
Nineteenth Century American art therefore serves both to document the history of American science and to provide documents to be used by American science. That is perhaps the high point of the relatively happy relation of art and science that had prevailed since the Renaissance, a very different history than the warfare between science and literature that perhaps reached its high point in the self same Nineteenth Century when the novelists, such as Dickens, were on one side, and the scientists, like Huxley, were on the other. The American Nineteenth Century is a reminder of the Italian Renaissance, which was also devoted to the idea of getting anatomy and setting just right. Science and art are intertwined. The urge to do science and to do science justice is also there in Seventeenth Century paintings. Georges de La Tour’s Saint Joseph Carpenter has the young Jesus illuminated by a light he is holding for his craftsman father. There is no suggestion of any conflict between what the father does and what his son will be.
By the Nineteenth Century, there was a division of labor between art and science, but they had a shared respect for objectivity and art held the scientist and the technologist in great respect, as can be seen in some of the great Eakins paintings. But that mutuality did not last very much longer than that, perhaps to the end of a century that had begun with David’s portrait of Lavoisier and his wife, and even there science was balanced against emotion rather than a tribute to science sufficing as a subject. Freud and Picasso and the Surrealists may have shared a concern with what the heart rather than the eye sees, but in general art was taken to see what the mind alone could not. But Post-Modernism regards art as a guard that protects humanism from the attacks of science. Science is shown by one installation or another to be the instrument by which mankind is alienated and loses its soul. Or else, Post-Modernism draws on Hubble photographs only to show the prettiness of the universe rather than to appreciate the structures that underlie the prettiness.
The show at the Smithsonian, true to the idea of the Smithsonian as a museum of both art and science, shows the intellectual stream that was feeding into Pragmatism, which is the distinctive contribution of America to philosophy, and which focuses on how hard it is to measure what is right out there in front of you. Reality is intractable, but people are ingenious; the difficulties of understanding life and nature are not to be avoided, just overcome. C. S. Peirce, the best of that lot, published many of his philosophical essays in journals of popular mechanics. The tinkerer and the philosopher meet.