Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment

Valerie Hegarty (American, born 1967), Fallen Bierstadt, 2007. Foamcore, paint, paper, glue, gel medium, canvas, wire, wood, 177.8 × 127 × 42.5 cm. Brooklyn Museum. Gift of Campari, USA. © Valerie Hegarty; photo: Brooklyn MuseumHow can paintings from the nineteenth century reflect views about westward expansion? What can a high chest of drawers from Philadelphia reveal about the trade of mahogany? How have works by contemporary artists contributed to modern ecological consciousness? These are a few of the many questions posed this semester by classes from Princeton and nearby universities visiting the exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment. Reimagining American art in environmental terms, the exhibition allows visitors to think about social and cultural issues, including mass consumerism, industrialization, and immigration.

From left, works by Thomas Cole, Alan Michelson (Mohawk), Fitz Henry Lane, and Albert Bierstadt“The Modern Museum: Between Preservation and Action,” taught by James Steward, the Museum’s Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director, examined Nature’s Nation as a case study of an interdisciplinary exhibition taking innovative approaches to museum display and interpretation. Similarly, Jane Sharp brought her Rutgers University museum studies class for a tour with Karl Kusserow, co-curator of Nature’s Nation and the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, in order to discuss questions of installation and didactics. Karl’s own class focused on the exhibition explored the interface of American art, ecology, and environmental history.

A section of the exhibition examines different artistic materials and their environmental implications. Bernadette Pérez, Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows, visited twice with her course “History of Commodities: From Sugar to Cocaine” to consider the transnational trade of silver and cotton and the legacy of slavery. Reena Goldthree, assistant professor in African American Studies, viewed some of the same works, as well as Allora and Calzadilla’s photographic series Landmark (Footprints) (2001–2) with her class “Afro-Diasporic Dialogues: Black Activism in Latin America and the United States.”

Classes have also used the exhibition to explore humans’ ever-evolving understanding of nature. Diana Fuss, Louis W. Fairchild Class of ’24 Professor of English, brought students from “Wilderness Tales” to reflect on the paradox of the sublime in front of Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Adams, Washington (1875). Geology students in “Climate: Past, Present, and Future,” taught by Daniel Sigman, Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, examined that same work as a record of the climate in the western United States in the nineteenth century. Several of the later works in the exhibition, such as Isamu Noguchi’s This Tortured Earth (1942–43), were discussed for their use of innovative techniques to reimagine ecology on a global scale in “New Directions in Environmental Humanities,” taught by Rachel Price, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures.

From left, works by Subhankar Banerjee, Randolph Rogers, and Morris Louis with an eighteenth-century mahogany high chestTwo anthropology classes also studied Nature’s Nation during the fall semester. “Ethnography of Law,” with Carol Greenhouse, Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Program in Ethnographic Studies, contrasted views held by Euro-American settlers and Indigenous peoples about land ownership and geographic borders. Students of Ryo Morimoto, assistant professor in Anthropology, reflected on environmental disasters such as oil spills and pollution in relation to questions of environmental justice in “Catastrophes across Cultures: The Anthropology of Disaster.”

On the occasion of a reunion of his current and former graduate students and postdocs, David Wilcove, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, came to the Museum to lead a “BioBlitz”—traditionally a search within a designated area for different living creatures, and in this case transformed into a search for representations of different species within the galleries. Among the lurking nonhuman beings his group discovered in Nature’s Nation are Carolina parrots in the hand-colored engravings of Mark Catesby (1731) and John James Audubon (1827–38), endangered buffalo in the section of the exhibition titled Icon of Extinction and Resilience, migrating caribou in Subhankar Banerjee’s photograph of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (2002), and an American bald eagle in Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum (1822) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Earth Day (1970).


Veronica White
Curator of Academic Programs