In the Classroom: Picturing Ecology

What can an eighteenth-century Chippendale chest, a pre-Civil War genre painting, a Gilded Age group portrait, and a twentieth-century photograph of lichen-covered rock tell us about our evolving modes of environmental perception and ecological thought? During the fall of 2014, Princeton students considered such works and questions in an interdisciplinary humanities course called “Nature’s Nation Revisited: An Ecocritical History of American Art,” taught by Alan C. Braddock, Belknap Visiting Faculty Fellow from the College of William and Mary, and Karl Kusserow, the Museum’s John Wilmerding Curator of American Art.

The course combined classroom learning with regular conversations directly engaging American works of art. In addition to considering major images like Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Adams, Washington, the class took excursions to Firestone Library to view Princeton’s original edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and, back at the Museum, compared photographs of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins with later, more intimate compositions by Eliot Porter to explore what they imply about changing attitudes toward the natural world. Such firsthand encounters greatly enriched students’ understanding of the important historical relationship between art and environmental perception, both before and after scientists devised the term “ecology” in the late nineteenth century to describe complex relationships in nature. Students also took an active part in “ecocritical” interpretation by writing hypothetical object labels for selected works of art in the Museum and by giving short presentations in the galleries.

Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830–1902), Mount Adams, Washington, 1875. Oil on canvas, 138 x 213 cm. Gift of Mrs. Jacob Beam. Photo: Bruce M. WhiteThe course helped to lay the foundation for a major traveling exhibition that Kusserow and Braddock are organizing at the Princeton University Art Museum for 2018. Titled Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, the exhibition will examine, for the first time, how American artists since the colonial era have reflected and shaped environmental perception, eventually contributing to the emergence of modern ecological consciousness. The exhibition, which is expected to travel to other museums, will assemble approximately one hundred works of art spanning four centuries, including rare and seldom exhibited works and iconic masterpieces by diverse artists in a wide range of media, genres, and materials. In keeping with the ecological theme, Nature’s Nation will also be the first major museum exhibition to measure and creatively display its own environmental impact.