12 July 2011

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer

“The eye which can appreciate accents as well as broad effects, which loves details as well as masses, and which can be delighted by a little colored leaf as well as by a huge colored tree, finds infinite satisfaction in our country in these early autumn days.  And what a sky covers this diversified panorama of simple beauties!  People who live among hills must do without real horizons.  They never know what it is to see the edge of their world in every direction, and to know about the sun’s rays above in all quarters of the sky. They never see a sunset as we see it here all around the margin of the heavens.” - excerpted from Early Autumn Near Cape Cod (1892)

“The pale grey stone almost universally employed in Paris is admirably suited to local atmospheric conditions.  Every painter knows that the atmosphere of northern France contains moisture enough to  make a soft grayish envelope for all terrestrial objects, and to give the sky a soft and rather pale tone; and the so-called Caen stone of Paris is neither too white or too dark to fit into the scheme which the great colorist, Nature, has laid out.” 

“Our summers in the latitude of New York are as warm as those of southern France, and, indeed, New York actually lies in the latitude of Madrid and Rome.  Our winters, of course, are very much colder; but atmospheric conditions do not change to correspond with isothermic lines; and all the year round, even in northern New England, we have vivid skies, a pellucid thin atmosphere and a clear bright scheme of natural color.  Therefore, as our architects now know, the teaching of the south, not of the north, of Europe should be followed in the external coloring of our buildings." - excerpts from Color In Rural Buildings (1892)


“Whether we try, in our garden arrangements, to be formal and architectural, or natural and free, we demand that the desired effect shall be actually, practically, materially obtained, that the things we see shall be literally themselves, and depend not at all for their significance upon the imaginative faculties of the observer.   The Japanese, on the other hand, never desires anything but a strictly natural effect; but he is content that it shall be suggested rather than displayed.” - excerpt from Japanese Gardening (1889)

 “Two of our three self-imposed dogmas have now been noticed – the dogma that preaches a so-called “sincerity” in form, and the that preaches the reticence of a low key in color.  There still remains for consideration the third dogma.   Which demands that a line be drawn between decorative and representative art, and that the former be restricted to “conventional” design.    All these three dogmas are, of course, more or less connected with each other, but this last is held with the greatest tenacity and viewed as the most important.  So it threatens to outlive the others, and have a more deadening effect upon our artistic future.”  - excerpt from Decorative Art And Its Dogmas (1880)

As the author of two standard works, Henry Hobson Richardson: His Life and Works (1888) and History of the City of New York in the Seventeenth Century (1909),  Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer's name is known to historians and architects, but her ideas have been filtered through the work of subsequent writers who have found it convenient to erase her influence.     

Contrary to the romanticizing of nature common among  contemporaries,  she favored restraint and objectivity, qualities also evident in her writing style.  Prizing fitness and appropriateness in architecture and landscaping, her aesthetic judgments have endured.  Simplicity and informality and a sympathetic relationship between buildings and their environments were her guiding principles.  She found the widespread influence John Ruskin's aesthetic baneful, praising instead  the ideas of Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted.  Prescient in her recognition of the importance of landscape architecture, chose an epigraph from Francis Bacon's essay Of Gardens for her own Art Out-of-Doors, Van Rensselaer 


“A Man shall ever see, that, when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection.”

Griswold Van Rensselaer could be pointed in criticism, as   in this comparison of the merits of two works by her friend Saint-Gaudens:  (I like to think that Saint-Gaudens's Diana, goddess of the woods and wild nature, was one of her favorites.)
 “Boston has gained Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw monument, and example not only of fine sculpture but also of a fine union of sculptural and architectural factors.   On the other hand, in Newark, New Jersey, one may see the utmost limit of bad taste in the placing of a commemorative figure which in itself has merit.  Here a bronze Lincoln sits, just as might a living man, on an actual park bench with his feet on the actual ground, with no sculptural or architectural accompaniments whatever, unless one may so call the bronze hat resting on the bench beside him.  Living children, I am told, sit in his lap and enjoy themselves, but even Mme. Tussaud knew that this is not what statues are for.”  - excerpt from  Art Out-of-Doors, 1893, revised 1925.
To anyone familiar with the biography of Edith Wharton, certain parallels are obvious in the life of Mariana Griswold Van Rennselaer.  The Griswolds also belonged to the class that ruled 19th century New York society by virtue of their inherited wealth.   The family  lived on Fifth Avenue where Mariana was born in 1851.  She received her early education at home from private tutors.   The Griswolds moved to Dresden in 1868 where Mariana continued her studies in art and architecture, perfecting her German and French.  It was her first visit to the summer home of her uncle John at Newport, designed by Richard Morris Hunt,  that kindled an interest in architecture.    As an adult, Mariana Griswold met most of the major figures in the arts from Augustus Saint-Gaudens to Frederick Law Olmsted.  Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine was close friend.  

Mariana may have met her future husband Schuyler Van Rensselaer in either New York or Newport, as the Schuyler family had homes in both places.  Schuyler studied mining engineering at Columbia and in Dresden.  They were married in Dresden in 1873 and had one child, a son, born in 1875.    Fragile in health, Schuyler died from lung disease in 1884. 


Although admired as writer and critic from her first publications, Griswold van Rennselaer was equivocal about her position.  She published against the wishes of her husband.   Although she voted in Colorado, her essay Should We Ask For Suffrage? (1894) was often reprinted by suffrage opponents.  She had moved west with her son, who suffered from tuberculosis, for his medical treatment.  After moving back to New York in 1894, her son died.   She had thirty-seven more years that she filled with writing

1. B.J.O. Nordfeldt - The Wave - Moonrise, 1906, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
2. Edwin Scott - Place de la Concorde - Paris, 1919, Senat, Paris.
3. John Singer Sargent - Terrace At Villa Vizcaya, 1919, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
4. Charles Zoller - St. Joseph's Garden, c. 1932, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.
5. Augustus Saint-Gaudens - Diana of the Tower,  c. 1892, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
6. Miss Kneeland - Fairlawn - Lenox Massachusetts, Porject Gutenberg. 
7. Charles Zoller - View of a House and Garden, 1930, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.
8. unidentified photographer - Old Colony railroad station, North Easton Massachusetts, Henry Hobson Richardson - architect, c.1884-1895, A.D. White Architectural Photography Collection, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
9. Portrait of Mariana Grsiwold Van Rensselaer, University of Virginia, Richmond. 
10. Charles Zoller - Corner of East Avenue & Culver Street - Rochester, c.1925, Geogre Sastman House, Rochester, NY. 
11. Charles Zoller - Wisteria - Eastman House Garden, 1924, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.
For further reading: ACCENTS AS WELL AS BROAD EFFECTS by Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer, selected & edited by David Gebhard, Berkeley, University of California: 1996

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