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Landscape architect viewed gardening as an art form

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

Which is it? Landscape gardening or landscape architecture? And, what is its nature? During the Gilded Age (1870-1898), critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934) and others debated these and related questions.

Judith K. Major’s biography of Van Rensselaer tells her life’s story, discusses her intellectual development and achievement, and considers how she and her contemporaries viewed the field.

The term “Gilded Age,” was coined by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to describe a period when the newly rich, industrialists and others, had more dollars than sense, and created impressively large, complicated esthetic monstrosities in architecture, landscaping, and other fields.

Mariana was born to the wealthy family of George and Lydia Griswold, Jr., who lived on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, and vacationed in places where the rich lived and hung out. In 1868, when she was 17, her father retired from the shipping business, and the family moved to Dresden, Germany, where she lived until she was 22.

During this period, she traveled and studied art, architecture, and botany extensively, and also engaged in the upper-class intellectual controversies of the day, particularly Darwinism. She married Schuyler Van Rensselaer in 1873 and the couple moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, shortly thereafter. She bore George (nicknamed “Gris”), her only child, in 1875. She continued to travel extensively the rest of her life.

She began her writing career in 1876 when she was 25. Because of her upper class background in the fine arts and architecture, her emphasis was always on the aesthetics of landscaping—a person should not plug just any plant in somewhere because he thought it was a nice thing to do.

The purpose of a critic, she felt, was to teach people how to really look at a thing. Formal considerations of line, space, texture, color, plant form, simplicity, and breadth of design—all were of greatest importance. For this reason, a person who had a knack for making things grow was no more qualified to be a landscape designer than a carpenter who could do fine woodworking, or a mason who could lay brick or stone well, was qualified to be an architect. She also felt that a landscaper could benefit from looking at good landscaping, landscape painting, and fine architecture.

Although she spoke several languages and had a solid background in European and British art, architecture, and botany, she preferred to use native species as much as possible—exotic for exotic’s sake was to be avoided. For the same reason, she preferred that Americans developed their own aesthetic and an appreciation for it.

She used her writings to make her case for aesthetics, and to debate with and to promote those whom she thought especially good at it. Chief among them was Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., who is best known for his designs of New York City’s Central Park and the Chicago Exposition of 1893.

To answer the opening question, while Van Rensselaer hung on to the term “landscape gardener” for several years, in the end, she went with the profession’s preferred term of “landscape architect.” Her writings helped to establish landscaping as a respectable, separate discipline.

Major includes photos of various persons and places mentioned in the text. Of particular interest to local readers is the Wamego City Park, which was cited in a 1930 USDA Bulletin as a good example of rural planning. At the time, Wamego’s population may have been 1,714, but it cannot be confirmed because the Census Bureau, along with the rest of the Federal government, is shut down at the time of this writing.

Judith Major works from Van Rensselaer’s signed and unsigned publications and her correspondence with various friends and people in the field. It is a good piece of research.

Major includes two useful appendices. The first is a list of Van Rensselaer’s 221 unsigned editorials and articles over the period 1888-1897 in the journal “Garden and Forest: A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art, and Forestry,” which were not formerly attributed to her. The second is a six-page chronology of her life.

A biography is a telling of the time, life, and work of an individual. A major part of the art of writing one is to find the right balance among these elements. Because Major’s purpose is to discover Van Rensselaer’s thoughts, writings, and influence in the landscaping field, and how they changed over time, she quite properly looks there first, but she also looks at the other considerations.

She spends a significant part of Chapter 6 on a chapter by chapter analysis of Van Rensselaer’s book, “Art Out-of-Doors,” which gets a bit tedious for the ordinary reader. Otherwise, the general reader will find this an interesting book.

Judith K. Major is a professor in the KSU Department of Landscape Architecture.

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