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Reshaping the landscape

In NY show, Romanticism's effect on parks and gardens is in full bloom

By Carol Stocker
Globe Correspondent / August 8, 2010

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NEW YORK — The Romantic movement that came to full flower in the first half of the 19th century was nothing less than a transformation of consciousness, elevating emotion over rationality, inspiration over rules, and personal liberty over class structure. Radical changes swept through the world of landscape design, just as they did in the realms of literature and the arts.

The exhibit “Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design’’ at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York displays almost two centuries of important books, drawings, and manuscripts in this area. Gathered from several countries, the exhibit begins with the first etchings ever produced in China (circa 1713) depicting gardens of the emperor, which were a revelation to Europeans. The climax is Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s hand-drafted, wall-spanning “Entry No. 33’’ for the contest to design New York’s Central Park in 1858. (They won.)

Brahmin Boston was a leader in this international movement, with its parks by Olmsted (who lived in Brookline), writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists in Concord, and Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the country’s first garden cemetery and the first large-scale designed landscape of any kind open to the public. Looking at Boston’s great Victorian achievements in park building, it’s hard not to feel a little sad that today’s Boston can barely scrape together enough money to landscape the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway created by the Big Dig. Would Olmsted move his office from Brookline to Manhattan if he lived today?

After all, Manhattan seems to have solved such financing and maintenance problems. As founding president of the mighty Central Park Conservancy, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who co-curated this exhibit, helped raise $450 million in largely private money to restore and maintain Central Park. Also head of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, Rogers owns many of the objects in the exhibit and obtained the loan of others from abroad. Did she have a hand in prying the iconic “Entry No. 33’’ off its wall at the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and getting it hung at the Morgan?

The Romantic movement’s cross-pollination between the arts, politics, technology, and culture is a major theme of the exhibit, which includes Romantic landscape art by J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, and Frederic Church. Rogers defines the evolution of the Romantic movement in four countries in magisterial essays for the handsome catalog (David R. Godine, $50). In England, she writes, Romanticism is predominantly literary and artistic, in France it is philosophical and theatrical, for Germans it has a mystical attachment to “folk, fatherland, and forest,’’ while in the United States it is essentially spiritual, rooted in Transcendentalist beliefs.

Though gardens with winding paths may seem pleasantly harmless, the Romantic movement has a political subtext, as it grew in part out of the 18th-century revolutions in America and France, which were very threatening to Europe’s aristocracy. “You could tell someone’s political outlook by their garden’s design,’’ said exhibit co-curator John Bidwell in an interview at the Morgan. The old order clung to stiff classical gardens where the plants were lined in rows, while a more naturalistic landscape reflected sympathy with the new ideas of freedom and equality.

One iconic piece here is Alexander Pope’s hand-lettered 1731 draft of a poem featuring a line that became a Romantic landscape-design credo: “Consult the genius of the place’’ — meaning respect the inherent nature and terrain of the land.

The once-famous antiquarian book collection of the financially gutted Massachusetts Horticultural Society is represented by a single volume. It was bought by the Morgan at a heartbreaking and ill-timed Sotheby’s auction, soon after the stock market crash of 2008, which delivered rare books of horticultural illustrations owned by the society into the hands of interior decorators, presumably for cutting up and framing. The 1834 book that survived to star in the current show is “Hints on Landscape Gardening,’’ a German masterpiece by Prince Pückler-Muskau.

“You could say that a piece of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society survives at the Morgan Library,’’ said Bidwell, who is also the museum’s curator of printed books. “It cost very little — we were the only bidder — but it was terribly foxed, dirty and discolored from unhappy storage conditions. It took our own conservation department a month to restore it. They took the book apart, and every page spent days in a bath of distilled water in sunlight on the museum’s roof. I could have cheated and pulled apart one page and framed it on the wall, but I wanted to show we had saved the whole book.’’

The author, Prince Pückler, was himself an interesting character. He spent his fortune landscaping his 1,350-acre family seat, Muskau, which today straddles the border of Poland and Germany. In debt, he divorced his wife, Lucy, to go heiress hunting in England in 1826. His letters to Lucy describing early 19th-century English society, landscapes, and his own search for her replacement were later published anonymously as “Letters of a Dead Man.’’ Failing as a fortune hunter, the prince returned to his patient Lucy and was eventually forced to sell Muskau, which was happily restored in modern times.

Public parks had not yet been invented when Mount Auburn Cemetery opened in Cambridge in 1831. Romantic landscaping was supposed to be a selling point, but it proved almost too popular. It “inadvertently attracted overwhelming throngs of visitors,’’ writes co-curator Elizabeth S. Eustis in the catalog. “Desecration of garden cemeteries by ‘persons on pursuit of pleasure’ became a compelling argument for the creation of public parks.’’

Though the subject is Romantic design, this is largely a sepia-colored exhibit that visitors must enter through the intellect rather than the emotions. To add some bright shots of green, the Morgan has also hung contemporary color photos of the historic gardens. But the catalog is more visually satisfying, and Rogers’s essays make illuminating reading, as they deftly clarify a potentially complex subject. The exhibit’s “Red Books,’’ morocco leather-bound plans that 18th-century landscape designer Humphry Repton made for prospective clients, are visible in their entirety online at www.themorgan.org.

Carol Stocker can be reached at carolstocker@gmail.com.

ROMANTIC GARDENS: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design At: the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, through Aug. 29. 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.org