A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age:
Judith Major and Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer brought a distinct sensibility to American landscape criticism that evolved from her knowledge of art and architecture and from her belief in the value of science. Because of the anonymity typical of editorials in nineteenth century magazines and scant attention paid to her writings on landscape architecture, scholars have failed to celebrate her as one of the major figures in American landscape history.
Judith K. Major
Have you ever wondered who creates and preserves the green spaces we treasure when our brains become filled with too much technology and we long to grab our dog or friend or lover and don walking/running/hiking shoes or mount our bikes and head out to our local parks to clear our heads? Do we stop to think that someone––or a team of someones––has designed the space we are now enjoying, and has manipulated the land to create pathways, ponds, hills, meadows, and woods specifically for our pleasure?
The concept of designing public parks and spaces is a relatively new phenomenon and concept that took hold with the growth of the American Middle Class in the 19th and early 20th centuries; one that author and scholar Judith Major knows intimately. Professor Emerita of Landscape Architecture at Kansas State University, and author of two seminal books on the subject: To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening, MIT Press, 1997; and Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age, University of Virginia Press, 2013, Major, like the late 19th, early 20th century landscape critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, has been at the forefront of women scholars contributing to what has traditionally been a male-dominated field.
In the 1980s, while Major was writing her book on Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Downing, considered by many to be the father of Landscape Architecture, she came across the critic and prolific author, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. In the first major work on Van Rensselaer, Major explores a world in which a young woman emerges as a critic and writer, and becomes a respected scholar and mentor.
Van Rensselaer was born into a wealthy New York family in 1851 and had a privileged childhood and young adulthood, part of which was spent in Paris and Dresden where she reveled in art and architecture, embarking on a self-education program.
She became friends with the eminent landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, nearly thirty years her senior, who among many accomplishments designed New York’s Central Park with his partner, Calvert Vaux. Her friendship with Olmsted sparked her interest in writing about design and ultimately led her to contribute to a weekly magazine called Garden & Forest, A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art and Forestry where she covered subjects ranging from the art of landscape design to landscaping in general.
Major makes clear that with all her accomplishments, Van Rensselaer was a woman of her time. Van Rensselaer was a prolific, respected writer, but many of her pieces were unsigned. Her own views reflected the time as well. She didn’t believe women should have the right to vote, yet mentored other women.
Through superb scholarship and storytelling Major has placed Van Rensselaer alongside Downing and Olmsted as a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture who deserves to be part of the canon.
WRR: What exactly is landscape architecture and how did it evolve from what initially was the realm of wealthy landowners who could afford to turn their estates into parks?
Judith Major: I love the explanation of landscape architecture offered recently by the landscape historian Ethan Carr: “No other design discipline is so rooted in responses to the essential qualities of a place…Seeing, feeling, and representing a place as a landscape…has been the primal and initiating act of landscape design since the eighteenth century, when the practice was first understood as an independent fine art possessing its own theory and techniques.”
The official definition is more prosaic: landscape architecture encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environments. Like architecture, it’s an accredited profession. In 1899 landscape architects founded a professional organization called the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). To be considered a professional, it is necessary to attend an accredited university program and to pass a licensing exam.
That doesn’t really explain what landscape architects do. As I tell my students, the profession allows you a vast range of opportunities. Parks and recreation facilities (you mention Central Park) are just a small part of what we design. The various scales range from residential projects to transportation corridors to urban design.The streetscapes (there is such a word) and public spaces you experience are often designed by landscape architects–think of Rio’s Copacabana promenade and Paley Park in New York City. Most people don’t realize that landscape architects also address water resources and reclamation projects. Kansas State’s department offers courses ranging from plant materials, planting design, natural systems, site analysis, graphics, environmental issues and ethics, history and theory of landscape architecture (my course). At the heart of the curriculum are the design studios where projects range from golf courses to campus master plans. The profession has truly moved beyond designing the grand estates of the Gilded Age.
WRR: How did you get interested in landscape architecture?
Major: There is a strange and rather embarrassing story about how I discovered landscape architecture. I had graduated from Georgetown University with a BS in Languages and Linguistics and was working at a job that was essentially a bi-lingual secretary. I was living with four roommates in a townhouse in Georgetown and after dinner one night I announced that I was going to the library to “find a profession.” I searched through graduate catalogs and came across programs in a field called “landscape architecture.” Several of them allowed a student to get a Master of Landscape Architecture without an undergraduate degree in design. There was no Google back then so I started to read books on the subject–my first was Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature, which had been published six years earlier. I applied to the University of Virginia’s MLA program and was accepted. Trite but nonetheless true: landscape architecture opened a whole new world to me. Among many other things, I learned to differentiate trees––unlike Frederick Law Olmsted my father did not take me for horseback rides through the countryside. After graduation, I had a series of unsatisfying jobs in the profession––and that brings me to your next question.
WRR: Why did you want to teach?
Major: I have always been an avid reader and am happiest when I’m in a library doing research––I figured that a university teaching position would allow me those luxuries.
I was writing environmental impact statements––an important but boring task––for a large engineering and planning firm in Washington, DC, and on the side doing a few small projects for a man at the National Park Service. He invited me to lunch to meet a landscape architecture professor who was on a university sabbatical at the NPS. “We need people to teach in Kansas,” R. M. commented during our conversation.
KANSAS? I held the typical easterner’s prejudice against this Midwestern state. Despite my doubts, I took the job––and assumed I was headed for a nine-month adventure. For the next three years (at low pay) I taught two design studios every semester. Four days a week, from early morning to late afternoon with a break for lunch, I taught drawing and basic design to large numbers of first-year students. Not much chance for reading and research.
I wanted to teach history but realized no one would hire me for such a position without an advanced degree. At the end of three exhausting years at Kansas State University, I applied for the Ph.D. program in the history and theory of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania–at the time, there was no similar program for landscape architecture. The first sentence of my application read: “I want to be an outstanding teacher.” I was later allowed to declare a field of specialization in nineteenth-century American history and theory of landscape architecture.
WRR: How did you discover the American landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), the subject of your dissertation and first book?
Major: The summer before I started the Ph.D. program I read The American Renaissance, in which F. O. Matthiessen writes about the determination of mid-nineteenth-century American authors to develop a national literature distinct from old-world precedents. I was sure this must have been the case for the then emerging profession of landscape gardening (later changed to “landscape architecture”). When I read A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening: Adapted to North America (1841) by Andrew Jackson Downing, I discovered that my assumption was correct.
In the 1980s, there was surprisingly little published on Downing, and when I discovered in a footnote (I’m an inveterate reader of footnotes), that there was a collection of Downing letters at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I decided to write my dissertation on him. The academic old-boy network was powerful and I had a tough time getting the “Downing experts” to talk to me, especially as I was challenging one of their main premises. At the closing reception of a Downing symposium, I was standing behind the recognized Downing scholar, and I overheard him say: “Who is this GIRL working on Downing?” From that moment, I no longer attempted to consult with the “Downing experts.” Don’t get me wrong––there are women scholars who are just as protective of their territory. I try not to be one of them.
WRR: How did you discover the art critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934), the subject of your latest book?
Major: Through Downing, actually. Although forty years apart, they both wrote about the German natural historian Alexander von Humboldt. I don’t remember how I discovered the connection between their two editorials––probably in a footnote. I started a file on Mariana Griswold Van Rennselaer (MGVR) fifteen years before I began the book––gathering her articles on landscape gardening for Garden and Forest (1888-1897). This weekly journal figures large in landscape history and in the start of the American environmental movement. It was not until later––when I was almost finished with the book––that I figured out that more than 330 of the unsigned editorials in G&F had been written by Van Rensselaer––all of which have previously been credited to the two male editors.
After the Downing book, I started to research the impact of nineteenth-century science on ideas in landscape architecture concentrating on the key natural historians Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. I spent a particularly steamy summer in Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society reading from their collection of the works of Humboldt and Darwin, and it struck me that, one: Van Rensselaer wrote about both of these men; two: she was the next generation after Downing and I could draw on my knowledge about what came before her; and three: she was a woman. I liked the idea of writing about a woman, given that women in the field have been pretty much ignored until recently. Although Van Rensselaer was not a designer, she wrote insightfully about the history and theory of landscape gardening (she preferred this term to landscape architecture). She was also knowledgeable in botany and the language of art and architecture criticism. I had found my perfect subject.
WRR: How many books have been written about Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer?
Major: Only two dissertations from the 1970s (both had biographical information and dealt mainly with her art criticism) and a collection of her editorials which was published in 1996. Van Rensselaer has typically been regarded as an art and architecture critic and was merely a footnote in the history of landscape architecture. When I mentioned to colleagues at conferences that I was writing a book on her, all expressed delight that this important woman was finally going to get her due––but none knew about her work on landscape architecture. My book seeks to establish her as one of the most significant figures in late-nineteenth-century landscape architecture.
WRR: Did Van Rensselaer have trouble gaining respect as a professional in fields that were dominated by males?
Major: Like her contemporary Edith Wharton, Van Rensselaer came from a wealthy New York family and held a position in New York’s top social and cultural echelons. She was privately tutored and spent her early years in Europe becoming fluent in French and German, visiting museums, opera houses, cathedrals, and gardens.
Van Rensselaer considered herself a professional author and critic, and during her lifetime was recognized as one of the most perceptive and articulate writers on art in America. She wrote extensively for the most prestigious periodicals of the day, including the American Art Review, Harper’s, Scribner’s, Century, the Atlantic, and the North American Review. She was a regular correspondent for the American Architect and Building News, when women writers on architecture did not generally publish in professional journals–and with only a few female architects, the journal had an almost exclusively male readership.
In letters to her editors (especially the editor of Century, Richard Watson Gilder), Van Rensselaer often reminded them that they owed her money.
I have been asked: “Did she really need the money? She was so wealthy.”
Did she really need the money is beside the point. I am reminded of a conversation that I had with my dean when I asked for a raise just after I married. I told him I still had student loans to repay, and he replied: “Now you have a husband, he can pay them off.” Van Rensselaer simply wanted to be treated as a professional and to be paid the same as male critics, especially after her husband died in 1884 and she considered herself the breadwinner of her family (she had a son and lived with her mother). In 1886 she asked Gilder to raise her wages. Eleven years later when she was an established and well-known critic, she wrote to Gilder and asked for the going rate of $30 per thousand words ($760 today). In 1909 Century paid her $150 for a short story (today $3800). There are many more instances in her letters that make reference to payments.
WRR: What subjects did Van Rensselaer write about?
Major: She was incredibly prolific and my book couldn’t adequately cover her range of interests––especially her writing in history, fiction, and poetry. In her opinion, the art of landscape gardening couldn’t be separated from painting and architecture because all of these arts were intimately connected. I necessarily had to address her ideas on painting and architecture because they paralleled her view of landscape gardening.
As a landscape historian, I concentrated on her work in that field, but even then the subjects covered included (I’m looking at my appendix of her Garden and Forest editorials): history and theory of landscape gardening, garden design, flowers, cemeteries, school grounds, courtyards, trees, florists, piazzas, railroad stations, roads, drives and walks, shrubs, fountains, public monuments, botany, nature, the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Frederick Law Olmsted, horticulture, fences, city parks, Andrew Jackson Downing, military parks, engineering, playgrounds, sculpture, school gardens, and park maintenance.
WRR: What surprised you most about Van Rensselaer?
Major: The few scholars who have written about her assumed that she was a staid Victorian lady. Her correspondence belies this assumption––especially the cache of letters to her good friend Helena de Kay Gilder that I discovered after the book was published. I knew that she considered her lawful name––Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer––a “ponderous cognomen,” but I was thrilled to discover that she signed most of these letters “Rensie.” She was witty, self-deprecating, and playful. She loved dogs (that won me over) and fashionable clothes. I had read that after her husband’s death, she mourned him forever after by wearing black. Not true! I discovered a 1917 photograph in one of Cecilia Beaux’s albums that shows Van Rensselaer wearing a white dress and white boots and a gorgeous sheer wrap with a bamboo print.
I was surprised (as most people are) that she didn’t support woman suffrage, and wrote a pamphlet Should We Ask for the Suffrage? with the answer a resounding NO!
She had professional women friends both ‘for’ and ‘anti’ suffrage. The architect Theodate Pope Riddle was for, the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell and the artist Helena de Kay Gilder were anti. As a historian, I do my best in the book to explain MGVR’s position amid the cultural circumstances of the time, and not to be judgmental. One woman commented in her review that she never would have read my book if she had known MGVR was against woman suffrage. I find this bizarre–MGVR provided an outstanding example for professional women at a time of immense social challenges.
A teenage Mariana Griswold, undated
Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
To learn more about Mariana Griswold Van Rensselear, click here.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul