Review: “Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age” by Judith K. Major

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Discussed in this review: Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age by Judith K. Major; University of Virginia Press, 2013, 304 pages. Buy at Amazon or U of Virginia P.

Art forms and genres have to be invented by somebody. As a culture, we need a) artists who create new art forms and b) critics who develop new genres of criticism about these new art forms. And we need biographies of these pathbreakers. Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age by Judith K. Major is such a book.

Set aside any notion that you would have no interest in a wealthy, privileged woman of the Gilded Age who wrote about landscape architecture. This biography is an important contribution to the cultural history of the U.S.

Who Was Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer and Why Should We Care?

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
“Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer” by Judith K. Major

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851–1934): the name sounds like that of a character in an Edith Wharton novel. It exudes wealth and privilege. We learn from Major that Van Rensselaer is most noted for her art criticism and for her monograph (1888) on H.H. Richardson.

Interestingly, Van Rensselaer preferred the term “landscape gardening” over “landscape architecture.” That is somewhat ironic given that Major tells us, “This book seeks to establish Van Rensselaer as one of the most significant figures in late-nineteenth-century landscape architecture.”

Van Rensselaer lived much of her life in fashionable New York society, a grande dame comfortable among the cultural and artistic elite. She was also a productive, knowledgeable critic who took landscape gardening, aesthetics, and design seriously. Van Rensselaer wrote well and prolifically about these subjects and helped to establish them as subjects deserving of serious discussion and patronage. And she did all that in an era when women were not usually welcomed into the ranks of criticism in most disciplines.

Probably due to a dearth of personal papers belonging to Van Rensselaer related to her early life, by page 10 Major already has her fluent in French and German and married at 22 to a husband equal in rank and wealth. The situation is probably typical for women of that era, unless they were married to or related to prominent men. The quick jump to adulthood is, therefore, not really Major’s fault. Major does make clear that Van Rensselaer’s years abroad in Europe with her family were formative in her development as a critic and connoisseur of not only landscape architecture but opera, painting, sculpture, and so on. A very John Singer Sargent sort of world.

We learn from Major that Van Rensselaer’s professional writing career commenced in early 1876 and that it encompassed subjects such as art, architecture, and landscape gardening. She wrote for some of the most important publications of the period (e.g., Harper’s, Scribner’s, The Atlantic, and the North American Review). Major discusses Van Rensselaer’s contributions to the cultural discourse of her day and to the professionalization of art and architectural criticism. Van Rensselaer was no dilettante in the way she approached her subject matter and her career. She was one of the few women to write for architectural journals that at that time had a primarily male readership.

Major points out, however, that Van Rensselaer was securely ensconced in the upper crust and had a large domestic staff to look after her household. A nursemaid looked after her only child, a son, and a personal maid looked after her own needs. Not exactly starving in a garret.

Major has a keen eye for the day-to-day rituals of privileged women and notes that in 1880 Van Rensselaer published an article, “The Plague of Formal Calls” in which she lamented the time drain for women expected to engage in this senseless activity.

Van Rensselaer’s Views of Other Critics

Major outlines for us Van Rensselaer’s intellectual development. Of Van Rensselaer’s view of John Ruskin, for example, Major tells us that because Van Rensselaer was well read in botany, she scorned Ruskin’s lamentations over the reduction of wonders of nature to mere scientific phenomena and tells us that she could be “scathing when a painter did not demonstrate even a proficient level of knowledge about the natural world.”

Major points out that Van Rensselaer, as the wife of an engineer deeply entwined with the iron industry in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, had little time for Ruskin’s dim view of the Industrial Revolution and its effect on the landscape and on working people. Van Rensselaer saw a kind of poetry in brute strength of the ironworkers and in the noise and glare of the iron works themselves. (Her husband, Schuyler, died of coal dust-associated lung disease at the age of 38 in 1884—which made for 50 years of widowhood for his wife.)

By contrast, Van Rensselaer’s admired Matthew Arnold’s criticism (though taking issue with his dismissive view of American art.)

The Women of Van Rensselaer’s Circle

Those of us who know little about the role of women in American design and art can be grateful for Major’s book. I had never heard, for example, of the pioneering interior and textile designer Candace Wheeler or of her daughter, the artist Dora Wheeler–successful businesswomen both.

Men as Mentors and Colleagues in Van Rensselaer’s Professional Life

Major chronicles the role of influential editors, architects and designers in Van Rensselaer’s writing career. It was Frederick Law Olmsted, for example, who realized that Van Rensselaer’s talent for popularizing the subject of architecture made her just the person to memorialize his idol, H.H. Richardson, and to advocate in articles and in public and behind the scenes lobbying for many of Olmsted’s own projects and those of others. The relationship was reciprocal. Van Rensselaer portrayed Olmsted as the beau ideal of the landscape architect, tirelessly touting his brilliance in the pages of prestigious publications.

Getting Going on the Subject of Landscape Architecture

According to Major, it was not until 1887–88 and the founding of the journal Garden and Forest that Van Rensselaer came into her own as a landscape architecture critic. This was on top of her work on writings on art and architecture generally. Indeed, from this point until her death, she fought for the idea that the landscape gardener was an artist. But she also pointed out that he also should possess a solid grounding (no pun intended) in soils, drainage, and so on. In other words, a landscape architect should have a taste for the ethereal heights of creative expression and mud on his boots and dirt under his fingernails.

The chapter, “A New Field of Study,” summarizes an influential series of articles Van Rensselaer wrote for Garden and Forest in which she advocated for the development of landscape gardening (again her term, as opposed to “landscape architecture,” which was preferred by Olmsted) as a profession and as an art. Van Rensselaer inveighed against too garish a use of flowerbeds and color generally, which assaulted her sensibilities and flew in the face of her concept of “appropriateness,” which Major argues was an early use of the concept of sustainability. Taste was important to Van Rensselaer, and she could be patronizingly patrician in her attitudes towards what she considered the vulgarity of the philistine hordes.

Nevertheless, Major makes clear that although Van Rensselaer could be as snobbish as other women of her class, she was not averse to technologies that furthered her aims. She realized that photography could aid landscape gardeners in their work, and she advocated its use.

Van Rensselaer’s prose style has not worn well. It has a haughtiness that even in her own day lessened her influence. Major writes, “She addressed the multitudes in the same language she deemed appropriate for an elite.” One doesn’t want to talk down to the masses, but assuming a regal tone towards all audiences is not a great option, either. We can get a sense of Van Rensselaer’s milieu by noting that attending the opera and watching polo matches were among her favorite pastimes.

The snobbishness that lay at the core of Van Rensselaer’s life and writings is reflected in her view of Thomas Eakins, for example. Major writes, “In her eyes, he was not even of tolerably good breeding.” So much for a major American artist.

Major writes, “Although recognizing that women had begun to enter the profession of landscape architecture, Van Rensselaer typically used the masculine pronoun when writing about the arts.” That is not too surprising, given that most of her readers and editors were male.

Money Matters

One major weakness in this book is that it is not clear what Van Rensselaer’s financial situation was after the death of her husband. Major tells us that she was now a single mother with a young son and the sole breadwinner for the family. But Major does not make clear how well or poorly compensated Van Rensselaer was for her professional writing and how much of her income was derived from inherited wealth. She seems, given the account Major provides of Van Rensselaer’s extensive travels abroad and her many abodes in fashionable spots and stays in swanky venues (e.g., Newport, Rhode Island at the height of its splendor), to have been well enough off. It is a pity we are not given a better idea of how Van Rensselaer sustained herself.

It is all very well to be told repeatedly how influential Van Rensselaer was. But the nitty-gritty of income generation should have been addressed more forthrightly. We are told that she wrote not only for magazines but for leading newspapers of the day and produced books as well but are not told which type of writing was the most remunerative for her. Major’s treatment of money matters is perfunctory and mentions merely that Van Rensselaer wrote the noted editor, Richard Watson Gilder, in 1897 that she deserved the going rate for her writing. Major seems curiously incurious about such a basic issue in the life of a writer. She also mentions that Van Rensselaer wrote short stories, but does not discuss them.

Van Rensselaer’s Opposition to Women’s Suffrage

To be honest, had I known that Van Rensselaer was a foe of women’s suffrage (I was distressed to learn from this book that her friend and fellow writer, Ida Tarbell, was too) I doubt I would have chosen to review this book.

Major does her best to flesh out the arguments of the female anti-suffragists, but they look even more asinine now than they did when Van Rensselaer held them c.1895-1920. Here she was a woman of privilege denying working and poor women a means to improve their lot through the ballot box. Van Rensselaer herself was a career woman (though again, the question of her finances is murky) and yet clung to the reactionary “separate spheres” worldview. Ugh.

Major seems somewhat at a loss to explain why her heroine could have held such backward views and ends the discussion with a rather lame, “In the end, one might ask how Van Rensselaer’s writings would be different if she had supported woman suffrage. The question, however, cannot be answered. Her stance is an interesting biographical fact—that is all.”

Major has a point. The aim of her book is to argue for Van Rensselaer’s importance as a landscape architecture critic and not as an activist. But she was not merely privately against the suffrage movement. Major tells us that commencing in 1894, Van Rensselaer wrote a series of articles in The New York World attacking the idea of votes for women and published them as a pamphlet. Luckily for women today, she lost that battle. I emerged from this section of the book thoroughly disliking Van Rensselaer. But Major does us a service by profiling a woman whose views are so baffling and abhorrent, the better to make us grateful than we live in a more just world.

Should You Read This Book?

Read this book if you are interested in criticism, publishing, women’s history, and art history. It contributes to the history of the art of landscape gardening and Major’s book is a model of how to go about determining the true extent of a female author’s contributions to late 19th century periodical journalism by determining which of many unsigned pieces were almost certainly penned by Van Rensselaer.

At times, Major overdoes it in terms of pro-Van Rensselaer partisanship, and she states ad nauseam how influential she was and how better remembered she ought to be. Still, there is good material in the book for those interested in the history of Niagara Falls and its environs and in the reactions of the east coast elite to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The material on Olmsted is good. By the 1920s, Van Rensselaer began to accept the by-then-long-dead Olmsted’s preference for the nomenclature “landscape architecture” over “landscape gardening.”

An excellent biography of a hard-working, capable, not very likable woman who fostered an art, landscape architecture, that renders our world more pleasant.