Romantic Gardens Nature, Art, and Landscape Design At: The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., NY, NY Through August 29
By Carol Stocker
Globe Garden Writer
The Romantic movement which came to full flower in the first half of the19th century was nothing less than a transformation of consciousness, elevating emotion over rationality, inspiration over rules, and personal liberty over class structure. The important "Romantic Gardens; Nature, Art, and Landscape Design" exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City displays almost two centuries of the movement's most important books, drawings and manuscripts. 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 of this international movement with its parks by Olmsted who lived in Brookline, the writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists in Concord, and the country's first garden cemetery and, amazingly, the first large scale designed landscape of any kind open to the public (in 1831) at Mount Auburn in Cambridge. 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 plant trees and grass on the new 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 funding and maintenance problems. As founding president of the mighty Central Park Conservancy, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who co-curated this exhibit, helped raised $450 million in largely private monies 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. She probably also had a hand in prying the iconic "Entry No. 33" for Central off its wall at the proprietary New York Parks & Recreations Department and getting it hung at the Morgan.
Landscape design was only one element of the Romantic movement, whose cross pollination between the arts, politics, technologies and cultures is a major theme of the exhibit, which includes Romantic landscape art by J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick Church. Rogers defines the evolution of the Romantic movement in four countries in her magisterial essays for the handsome catalogue (David R. Godine, $50). In England, she writes, Romanticism is predominantly literary and artistic, in France philosophical and theatrical, for Germans it has a mystical attachment to "folk, fatherland, and forest," while in the United States it is essentially religious, rooted in Transcendentalist beliefs.
Though gardens with winding paths may seem pleasantly harmless, the Romantic movement has a political subtext because it grew out of the 18th century revolutions in America and France, which were very threatening to Europe's aristocracy. "You could tell someones 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 were favored by the old order, while a more naturalistic landscape reflected sympathy with the new ideas of freedom and equality.
Another icon here is British satirist Alexander Pope hand lettered 1731 draft of his poem which produced the 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 financial gutted Massachusetts Horticultural Society is represented by a single volume. It was bought by the Morgan at a heart breaking and ill-timed Sotheby's auction soon after after the stock market crash of 2008 which delivered rare books of horticultural illustrations into the hands interior decorators for cutting up and framing. The 1834 book that survived to star in the current show is "Hints on Landscape," a German masterpiece by Prince Puckler von 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."
Prince Puckler 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 her 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 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 catalogue is more visually satisfying and Roger's essays make illuminating reading as they deftly clarify a potentially diffuse subject. The exhibit's "Red Books," Moroccan leather bound plans that 18th century landscape designer Humphry Repton made for prospective clients, are visible in their entirety on-line at themorgan.org.
Nature, Art, and Landscape Design
At: The Morgan Library & Museum,
225 Madison Ave., NY, NY
Through August 29