One of the provocative displays in “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” the elaborately polemical exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, places Albert Bierstadt’s luminous “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite” (c. 1871-73) alongside its evisceration. In Bierstadt’s painting, the cataract’s mist disperses spectral light as towering cliffs nestle Edenic wildlife. To the right is a swollen replica of the painting in a similarly gilded frame. It hangs askew, bent, its bottom melted and charred, its images gouged by fire or sabotage. This is Valerie Hegarty’s “Fallen Bierstadt” (2007).
It isn’t a deconstruction; it’s a demolition. And we are meant to cheer the effort, for it is close to the exhibition’s own.
Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment
Peabody Essex Museum
Through May 5
In over 100 objects—ranging from a mahogany chest to a Georgia O’Keeffe oil, from a 19th-century Tlingit robe to Linnaeus’s 18th-century lists of species—we are swept along in a narrative that invokes Native American history, American history, natural philosophy, environmental science, and progressive politics, in service to what the catalog calls “ecocritical art history.”
The show originated at the Princeton University Art Museum, where its curators—Karl Kusserow, at the Princeton museum, and Alan C. Braddock, who teaches art history and American studies at the College of William & Mary—also edited the ambitious catalog. At the Peabody Essex, the curators—Austen Barron Bailly and Karen Kramer—substituted some works and shortened exhibition text. (The show next travels to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., May 25-Sept. 9.)
And what is its argument?
Take Bierstadt: These landscapes, we are told, were meant to show the West free of human presence, even though Indian tribes had been there for millennia. “Paintings like this one,” we read, “legitimized U.S. land theft and violence against Indigenous people.” “Fallen Bierstadt” is an attack on that idea; it “questions the way such traditional landscape painting idealizes nature.”
The erasure of history in Western landscapes, it is suggested, is also true of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s 1858 plan for Central Park, also on display, along with a period photograph of its barren earth. The exhibition correctly points out that both omit the fact that some 1,600 residents—including a majority African-American community—were moved to make way for an idealized Nature.
Thus, what we don’t see becomes the main point—at least until the exhibition reaches contemporary times, when so much of what we see are explicit images of environmental depredation and what is called “environmental racism.” “Browning of America” (2000) by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith shows a map of the U.S. stained with brown streaks, which are meant to be “reasserting Indigenous presence.”
The source of the violence against indigenous peoples and the environment, we are informed, is an ancient Western conception of Nature: “The Great Chain of Being”—a hierarchical ordering of the natural world. It is reflected in Linnaeus’s lists of species, or in a 1579 engraving by Diego de Valadés that “positioned God in Heaven atop a descending scale” of life.
This Chain, it is suggested, justified mistreatment of non-European humans and nonhuman life forms. In contrast, tribute here is paid to the ecological understanding of indigenous peoples. The robe woven by a Tlingit artist reflects “deeply held beliefs about the interrelationships between humans and other beings” and affirms values “encompassing the natural world and the wider universe.”
Actually, the exhibition affirms an even steeper hierarchy than the one it attacks. The indigenous good guys are “interconnected,” “inclusive,” “organic”; the nonindigenous are expansionist, hierarchical, rigid. Race also becomes a marker. Grafton Tyler Brown’s “View of the Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1890) is here partly because the painter was African-American. His “unusual” perspective, we are told, is “more intimate” than that of his white predecessors. It is also far less accomplished—though this is not suggested. But the catalog affirms Brown’s “early assertion of environmental justice.”
Meanwhile, the mahogany chest (1755-74) recalls that “enslaved Africans and Indigenous people located, cut down, and moved mahogany logs,” depleting old-growth forests. A silver urn (c. 1800) recalls the “poisoning, maiming, and death of millions” in South American silver mines. This approach sweeps all before it; every museum—like all of history—is a charnel house.
If this perspective seems familiar, it is because it is now at the heart of American education. But almost everything about it is also open to question. Ever hike in Yosemite? In the 19th century it was not a delusion to be amazed at its vastness, nor was it a distortion to see few humans; the Western regions were immense, and Native populations were mostly nomadic hunters and gatherers.
As for the Great Chain, it is one of many Western attempts to comprehend the world’s variety; in many respects—as with Linnaeus’s classifications—it allowed for increased understanding. Moreover, the main period here, the 19th century, was precisely when hierarchy was being questioned in physics, biology and politics. In fact, the most important aspect of the U.S., as European observers recognized, was that it dissolved many social boundaries. As for slavery, ultimately the contradiction between slavery and these ideals made it untenable.
Were there depredations? Moral stains? Surely. But seeing American art and history through this exhibition’s monochromatic, ideological filters turns history into a morality play, its lessons as leaden and obvious as the comments posted at the exhibition’s end, when visitors are asked for environmental recommendations: plant a garden, eat less meat, impeach Trump, don’t use straws.
—Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large.