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For tourists driving to Acadia National Park on Maine’s coastal Route 1, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland has become an increasingly popular and rewarding stop. Having long enjoyed a regional reputation for its noteworthy collection of American art, the institution (which includes the adjacent Farnsworth Homestead and the Olson House in nearby Cushing) recently attracted national attention with the opening of the Wyeth Center in 1998. Maine artists and subjects figure prominently at the Farnsworth, but this emphasis by no means constitutes provincialism. Quite the contrary, enriched by the late philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce’s bequest of seventy Maine paintings by major American artists, the collection exemplifies the state’s enduring power to nurture the creative imagination.
Artists have in turn constructed an image of Maine in the popular mind as a state that continues to lure visitors with its rugged and austere beauty. In Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert, Farnsworth curator Pamela J. Belanger examines the relationship between American landscape painting and a burgeoning tourist industry, which, she argues, culminated in Acadia National Park. Produced in conjunction with an attractive and informative exhibition on view from June to October 1999, Belanger’s catalogue charts the history and representation of Mount Desert from the seventeenth century to the present day. Its rich array of illustrations, including maps, drawings, prints, photographs, and postcards as well as paintings (most of them reproduced in color), makes the material easily accessible to readers who did not see the show. This publication is well researched and eminently useful to scholars interested in the history of American art and tourism. As an explication of the connection between the two, it is less systematic and successful.
Belanger focuses on “artist-explorers” of the antebellum period, whose paintings of Mount Desert transformed a geographical wilderness into a distinctive American place. Individual chapters discuss the discovery of the island, early depictions of the landscape, construction of a scenic identity, appropriation as a national symbol, and interpretation by artists who worked outside the mainstream of the Hudson River School. Belanger concludes by chronicling the history of tourism on Mount Desert after the Civil War and the process by which it became designated as Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi. The book opens with a brief foreward by John Wilmerding (whose work provided the springboard for this project) describing the island’s geography and geology. It closes with a longer essay by J. Gray Sweeney on the intersection of art, capitalism, and scenic preservation in the mid-nineteenth century. An extensive bibliography and a useful appendix of paintings of Mount Desert exhibited from 1836 to 1894 complete this thoughtfully conceived and beautifully executed project.
Inventing Acadia effectively sets the artistic discovery of Mount Desert into context. Using primary sources, which she has studied exhaustively, Belanger vividly re-creates the spirit of adventure, camaraderie, and competition that drew painters to the coast of Maine. Travel was slow and arduous in the years preceding the steamship and the railroad, and visitor amenities were limited at best (most artists stayed at the Lynam Homestead). Regardless, artist-explorers enthusiastically pursued the pleasures of hiking trips, picnics, and cruises, and the promise of finding new subjects for their work.
Close analysis of the images of Mount Desert that these artists produced complements Belanger’s contextual overview. The central figures in her narrative are the stars of early American landscape art; Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Sanford Robinson Gifford play the leads, while Thomas Doughty, William Stanley Haseltine, and Jervis McEntee appear in supporting roles. Belanger deftly characterizes the different points of view from which these painters interpreted the Downeast landscape. Comparing drawings, studies, and finished works, she traces the evolution of their individual visions and, equally important, their influence on one another. The latter resulted from both teacher-pupil relationships (Cole and Church; Church and McEntee) and competition for the landscape market (Doughty and Cole; Lane and Church).
With regard to historical origins and meanings of works of art, Belanger presents the full range of possible interpretations. She ascribes distinctive aspects of artistic style, in part, to the influence of biographical circumstances: Lane’s detailed rendering of ships stems from his mariner family and a physical disability that made it easier for him to see the world from boats; Haseltine’s descriptive geology reflects the early influence of Louis Agassiz and his training at the Dusseldorf Academy; Gifford’s atmospheric poetry bespeaks a longing to escape from the Civil War which had claimed the lives of his two brothers. While stressing the economic motives underlying art production, Belanger also explores in detail the religious view of nature in the antebellum period. Although she carries the search for faces and crosses in Church’s paintings to extremes, her readings of Beacon, off Mount Desert Island and The Wreck as allegories of salvation and redemption are iconographically well grounded.
Belanger contends that the artist-explorers’ interest in Mount Desert was intimately linked to the commodification of American art and scenery. She states in her introduction, “The discovery and transformation of Mount Desert by landscape painters into a tourist destination and a national symbol of New England wilderness is a prime example of the invention of culture and place” (7). Beyond such generalizations, however, Belanger’s analysis of the historical relationship between art and tourism is incomplete and sometimes inconsistent. On page 47 she claims, “Commercial development was precisely what Church and other promoters of American scenery sought to stimulate.” On page 48 she backtracks from this position saying, “To be sure, Church was primarily interested in developing a market for his landscape paintings, but he understood that in doing this his art could also stimulate tourism.” Belanger provides ample evidence that landscapes painted for the New York market attracted visitors to Mount Desert in the postbellum decades of leisured travel. Her unsubstantiated suggestions that artists were complicit with the tourist industry detract from the quality of her scholarship.
Belanger’s discussion of the role prints played in commodifying American scenery provides an important link between antebellum landscape painting and the rise of tourism on Mount Desert. Based directly or indirectly on oil paintings, illustrated publications such as Picturesque America (1872) were explicitly intended to kindle nationalism, promote tourism, and refine the public taste. The original artist-explorers could not have anticipated the course that development, settlement, and ultimately preservation of Mount Desert would follow, but their visual discovery of the place gave it identity and definition. The skepticism Belanger expresses about tourism as a cultural practice does not undermine her appreciation of their artistic achievement.
Inventing Acadia tells a story of American nature whose basic paradigm is familiar. The movement from wilderness to scenery to national park has occurred repeatedly in our history, aided by the painter’s brush. Belanger adds significantly to the existing literature by tracing the unfolding of this process on the coast of Maine and the contributions individual artist-explorers, particularly Cole and Church, made at the initial stages. Her detailed account of how they constructed Mount Desert leaves the reader to ask how (or whether) the place informed their art.
The question that arises is a perennial one: Does nature impress itself upon the landscape painter or does he/she shape it to suit a creative vision? Mount Desert derives its distinction from the junction of sea and mountains, the dynamic meeting point of elemental forces. Artist explorers of the antebellum period focused collectively on this aspect of the island but responded to it in remarkably varied ways. While Church turned toward the ocean and the infinite, Lane viewed the land as a backdrop for a manmade order. By bringing together such diverse interpretations of a single (and singular) place, Pamela Belanger opens avenues for exploring the interplay between nature and the artistic imagination. Her thought-provoking work should lure scholars to Acadia both physically and intellectually for many years to come.
Linda J. Docherty