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From Framed Landscapes to Landscapes as Frames: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Discourse on Painting and Landscape Architecture in 19th-Century America

Des paysages encadrés aux paysages comme cadres : le discours de Frederick Law Olmsted sur la peinture et le paysage dans l’Amérique du XIXe siècle
Nicolás Mariné


Cet article porte sur les critiques formulées par Frederick Law Olmsted à l’égard de la représentation du paysage en général et, en particulier, à l’égard de la peinture comme modèle de paysage. Il est avancé qu’Olmsted a été influencé par un courant de pensée de son époque qui considérait la peinture et la photographie comme des représentations superficielles, voire fausses, de la nature. Cette idée était récurrente dans les œuvres d’intellectuels comme R.W. Emerson, de naturalistes comme H.D. Thoreau, ou d’écrivains comme N. Hawthorne ou H. Melville. Olmsted parlait des paysages comme d’entités qui devaient être vécues plutôt que représentées. Par conséquent, les matériaux de l’architecture paysagère étaient pour lui des objets vivants et en constante évolution, impossibles à fixer dans une seule vue ou une série de vues. Cette évolution a entraîné une modification de la notion même de cadre. Au lieu d’être modelées sur des paysages encadrés, ses conceptions devenaient elles-mêmes des cadres. Olmsted a remplacé la notion de scène dans ses œuvres par celle de support. Ses parcs et ses banlieues étaient conçus non pas tant pour être regardés que pour présenter des relations sociales : pour voir d’autres personnes interagir de manière civilisée. Il allait donc dépasser les catégories esthétiques traditionnelles associées aux peintures, telles que la pastorale ou le pittoresque. Ainsi, ses créations sont devenues des cadres qui ont élevé la vie sociale moderne au rang de catégorie esthétique.

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1The famed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for being the author of the original design of New York’s Central Park, was also a fervent advocate of the democratic ideas that were to prevail in the United States, a young nation that, by the time he was born, was less than forty years old (See Roulier). Interestingly, he was able to embody his democratic ideals in his projects by questioning two of the most important fundamentals of English landscape architecture: the modeling of space from paintings and the requirement that the landscape could be seen as a painting. In essence, several of Olmsted’s writings clearly show his denial of the very notion of representation, that is, the substitution of an image for reality. This article does not attempt to establish unambiguously what his discourse was in this regard. Rather, it tries to establish parallels between some of his ideas and his immediate cultural context and show how he brought them to his landscape architecture.

2Olmsted, who was born in 1822 and died in the early twentieth century, lived practically all his life during the nineteenth century, a century immersed in a profound crisis of the visual. Jonathan Crary, who has perhaps most famously explained the obsession that Western civilization has with vision and representation, speaks on several occasions of an authentic cultural persecution since the Renaissance to obtain the equivalent of a natural or real representation of the object seen (1992 and 1999). This model, according to him, collapsed in the early nineteenth century, when it was displaced by radically different notions of what an observer was and of what constituted vision, an idea that had its particular impact on American culture in the first half of that century.

3In that country, various intellectuals theorized about a pure vision: one that was not culturally mediated. Among these intellectuals, literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville stood out. Their ideas can be explained as the basis of some of Olmsted’s thoughts. The present research thus takes the baton from Megan Williams’s dissertation, Through the Negative, which studies the crisis of the visual in the United States in connection with photography. Williams proposes the interesting idea that Olmsted’s work is the spatialization of the perceptual concerns of his time.

4The present article articulates a similar discourse. First, it sets out Olmsted’s context and its cultural concerns, oriented above all towards the visual. Secondly, it explains how he transferred this cultural influence to his designs. Finally, it reflects on the aesthetic change this entailed and its relationship to the emerging American democracy.

Olmsted in the Literary Republic

5Olmsted’s first forty years were spent in Antebellum America, as the period before the Civil War is commonly called. For him, that time was divided between his youth, spent mostly in his native Hartford, capital of Connecticut, one of the New England states, and the various travels and jobs he undertook. At this vital period, several authors emphasize the influence on his career as a landscape designer of the decade he worked as a farmer-scientist and the authorship of several books (See Roper). His relationship with the American publishing world (which he himself baptized “Literary Republic”) was of great importance and granted him a certain social status.

6During the 1850s, Olmsted published several travel books. The first, Walks and Talks, came out in 1852 and received good reviews. It was followed later by three separate works on the southern states and their slave economy. The first two, dealing with the coastal states and Texas, were the result of a series of articles commissioned by the then young New York Times. Eventually, the three books, somewhat edited, were published together as The Cotton Kingdom. A Traveller‘s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States. All of them were very well received by the intellectual elite. The reviews he received in both American and English newspapers and magazines were very positive. It was praised by writers such as James Russell Lowell and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote a glowing review. But it was also praised by scientists such as the famous botanist Asa Gray and, most notably, Charles Darwin. In fact, the latter recommended it as a fundamental reference to learn about the slave economy. When the Civil War had already begun, he commented to Gray himself on his interest in the subject: “I read every word of news, and formerly well studied Olmsted” (377).

  • 1 See Beveridge 1981, Olmsted 1855, and Roper.
  • 2 Olmsted himself wrote that the balance would have tipped in favor of another, “had it not been for (...)

7His publications, together with a publishing venture that he eventually abandoned, Putnam’s Magazine, brought him into contact with the literary world. Not only did he know Lowell and Stowe, but also Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Gray. He also met Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson, whom he tried to convince to write for the magazine. In addition, under his direction, Putnam’s magazine published works of great importance such as Benito Cereno, by Melville, or Cape Cod, by Thoreau.1 He also met Washington Irving, who would play an important role in his career. When he presented his candidacy for the superintendency of Central Park, several figures from the publishing world signed his letter of recommendation. It was precisely that of Irving, the most famous author in New York and of great international renown at the time, which, according to Olmsted himself, ended up tipping the scales in his favor.2

  • 3 See Beveridge 1995.
  • 4 See Mumford.

8As Charles Beveridge states, Olmsted was greatly influenced by English thinkers and landscape theorists,3 but it is true that his immediate contact with the intellectual elites of Boston and New York entrenched in him a transitional republicanism between transcendentalism and pragmatism, very much akin to Melville’s work (though advanced by Emerson). It is not surprising that famous urban historian Lewis Mumford, who also wrote a biography of Melville, compares him to Olmsted as a man who belonged to the same intellectual movement.4 Finally, Olmsted’s approach to other thinkers, such as Horace Bushnell, brought a certain philosophical background to his aesthetic preferences, but also a very powerful social discourse extolling civilization and the civilizing. All things considered, this generated strong resonances between his way of thinking and his socio-cultural circle during his first years as a landscape professional.

The Literary Republic on representation

  • 5 See Urbas.

9These writers with whom Olmsted was associated showed great concern for the significance of sight and how their new country was to be viewed. As Williams comments, the advent of the photographic record had a strong impact on writers such as Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, confronted with “this new tyranny of the visible” (1) that produced a “sickness of the eye” (49). Thus, the eye acquired a fundamental narrative role at the time: it was the symbol of a perceptual problem and the physical organ whose functional adaptation was to solve it.5 Literary characters submitted geography for “its adaptation to the eyes which were to behold it on earth” (Poe 1845, 265). There were, also, eyes that subjected people, such as Uncle Tom, who lived “under the eye of his master” (Beecher Stowe 289) or Hester Prynne, “under the heavyweight of a thousand unrelenting eyes” (Hawthorne 1850, 72). To exist under a foreign gaze was, quite simply, terrifying. Hepzibah, in The House of the Seven Gables, in the presence of her ancestor’s painting, “trembled under his eye” (Hawthorne 1851, 3). And, in another instance, one of Poe’s characters murdered his elderly landlord only to state, “for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye” (Poe 1864, 56).

  • 6 Let us not forget that Hepzibah was also almost blind.
  • 7 John Bryant and Haskell Springer explain that Moby Dick can be seen as a plea for the impossibility (...)

10Usually, the subdued protagonists did not have a gaze of their own, but a “failing eye” (Beecher Stowe 552).6 What then was the solution? Maybe the one given by Ishmael in Moby Dick when talking about the whale’s eyes: “If his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope […] would that make him any longer of sight? Not at all”; the reflection leads him to a piece of advice, addressed directly to the reader: “Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind? Subtilize it” (369). One’s gaze was something that did not have to be “enlarged” with mediated elements, it could be improved by freeing it from interference (“polishing it”).7 Hence the philosophical and religious attempts in 19th century America “to see the creation with a new eye” (Emerson cited in Buell 105). Whether through God’s “single eye” (Bushnell 13), the “earth’s eye” (Thoreau 291) or a “supernatural eye” (Emerson 1841, 21), the new country had to free itself from that tyranny of the visible thanks to a pure, culturally unmediated eye.

11That explains why painting appeared as the enemy of such an enterprise. A mediating object by nature, it stood between the observer and the world, conditioning his interpretation. We find that the confusing picture was also a common literary motif. Ishmael was fascinated by “a very large oilpainting” in the place where he stayed before embarking. A painting “so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced” that “it was only by diligent study [...] that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose” (11). It also happened with the painting that terrified Hepzibah, which “had almost faded into the canvas”. In this case, moreover, “while the physical outline and substance were darkening away from the beholder’s eye”, the true nature of the character portrayed “seemed to be brought out in a kind of spiritual relief” (Hawthorne 1851, 72).

12The true nature of things was impossible to pin down in a fixed, framed image. Consequently, Hawthorne’s painting became more realistic only in its deterioration. That is, when it moved away from representation. In fact, another recurrent trope was that of perfect representation, which expressed the same thing through paradox. For example, in The Artist of the Beautiful (Hawthorne 1844), the ideal representation was the one that was absolutely equal to what was represented and, therefore, unrecognizable as such and useless. In The Oval Portrait (Poe 1842), the ideal representation was that which simply extinguished the life of the thing represented.

13Beyond fictional literature, Emerson frequently resorted to the image of the picture in his essays to express, literally and figuratively, the superficiality of the society of his time. “A collector peeps into all the picture shops of Europe, for a landscape of Poussin, a crayon-sketch of Salvator” while he enjoyed “nature’s pictures in every street, of sunsets and sunrises every day” (Emerson 1844, 48). In his mind, “the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze” (26) and painting achieved the opposite effect: “that immobility and absence of elasticity that we find in the arts” (43). Painting was charged with negative connotations. To express the transience of certain moods he wrote that “it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit” (37). And later he added, “like all the rest, [it] plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality.” And not only did it acquire a condition of superficiality, but it was also outdated: “so with pictures; each will hear an emphasis of attention once, which it cannot retain” (43).

Landscape architecture and painting before Olmsted

14These ideas were already present in landscape gardening theory before Olmsted. English landscape artists had already begun to break away from the fixed view of the picture. Humphrey Repton devoted many pages to establishing the differences between “a scene in nature and a picture on canvas” (Repton 1806, 122). Most of his reasons concerned physical issues, such as the fact that the “field of vision in nature is much greater than any picture will admit” (123), and also the fact that in painting movement could not be taken into account, since “the spot from whence the view is taken is in a fixed state to the painter” (122). Repton argued that the landscape should be experienced and not only observed. He understood that the sensory (in this case, visual) experience was much richer in the garden. The painting was an imperfect model for the landscape.

15But this did not preclude the reverse condition. Even if the landscape was not born of a painting, it had to return a paintable quality. One of Repton’s best-known quotations expresses this: “by Landscape I mean a view capable of being represented in painting” (1794, 57). Hence, for Uvedale Price, famous for his essays on the picturesque, Repton’s relationship with painting led to continual contradictions: “It is singular, that the person who has most strongly written against the use of applying painting to landscape gardening, should have furnished the most flagrant instance of its abuse” (Price 1810, 332). This unclear link between the pictorial model and the physical space is seen in his famous pictorial montages, by which he explained his work. His well-known procedure of presenting his projects with composite images of the before and after states (Fig. 1) was still the initial framework of his work. It was perhaps experienced differently from a painting, but it clearly emerged from it.

Fig. 1. Humphry Repton, View from the north of the house at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire (1801), Watercolor with flap (before and after), National Trust (UK).

16In the United States, Andrew Jackson Downing adapted the principles of English landscape design to the less elitist American society. He did not explain landscaping as a direct translation of a painting, but he maintained the idea of pictures as models. The pictorial technique, both in compositional terms and in the handling of depth or of light and shadow, had to be, in his opinion, basic knowledge of any landscape gardener. Thus, in terms of landscape theory, Olmsted comes at a time when landscape architecture was moving away from the fixed view of the painting. But parks, cemeteries and gardens in general, either in Europe or America, were still modeled after framed landscapes and, in turn, maintained a paintable quality: they had to return a frameable view.

17To bring the questioning of vision and painting into a direct relationship with landscape architecture in a purely American context, we have to turn to another author: Wilson Flagg. Flagg, a transcendentalist less famous today than Emerson or Thoreau, proposed a renewal of the principles that dictated the practice of landscape architecture for adaptation to the United States. He did so, most notably, in the short essay “Landscape and its treatment”, published in 1857 in The North American Review. Flagg here called for the development of a purely American form of landscaping a year before Olmsted and Calvert Vaux wrote their famous “Greensward”, the brief for the Central Park competition. Flagg’s writing is probably the first in which an American author mentions the term “landscape architecture” as the most appropriate term for the nascent profession.

18He himself, however, recognized the debt that this profession owed to the English professions of landscape gardening and landscape improvement. Although he considered it to be the logical evolution of both, he also believed it to be endowed with a moral superiority that made it practicable only in the New World. In his eyes, European landscaping imposed an ornamentation that “destroys our physical capacity to enjoy the gifts of nature for our refreshment” (161). In his view, the British were misrepresenting the landscape to normalize a certain social order: “removing the huts and cottages of their dependents outside of the aristocratic belt, and afterwards introducing certain counterfeit objects in their place, to constitute an ‘Arcadian scene’” (158). English landscape gardening created places “stamped with the evidence of cost” (149). Consequently, it represented and rooted inadmissible social differences for a democratic country like the United States. Here, landscape activity had to be directed “to the poorest and most humble citizens” to “awaken in their hearts certain dormant sensibilities, and to strengthen their minds with a new intelligence” (155).

19For Flagg, landscape architecture had to become a distinctly American profession, and to do so, it had to shed the elitism of its English predecessor. It was, above all, about showing the citizenry “simple beauty” (161) marked by “evidences of freedom” (156). Therefore, one of the fundamental requirements was to get rid of his relationship with painting. He felt that the landscape work had to be neither the copy of a painting, nor a paintable landscape. In fact, Flagg was attacking the painting activity itself. The painting was a cultural product that mediated between the observer and the observed, conditioning their reactions: “In the case of pictures the spectator’s vision is assisted by the genius of the artist, who not only circumscribes the view, but selects such objects, and places them in such harmonious relations to one another, that one whose imagination is too dull to feel the influence of the same scene in nature, is with these aids enabled both to feel and to admire” (146).

20The painting was, therefore, a fiction that, created by the painter, acted upon the mind of the observer. That is, the painting magnified certain attributes to such an extent that “it is difficult to find such scenes in real landscape” (168). The viewer, deceived by the pomp, then disliked the simplicity of the pastoral. Flagg, moreover, believed that “paintings have in all ages been fashionable, because they are costly”. In other words, it was an elitist product intended to mark a class difference. American landscape architecture had to work, without this mediation, with a democratic raw material to which everyone had access: “Nature has always been unfashionable, because she is cheap” (146).

21This sets an immediate American context to Olmsted, in which the painting was the representation of certain aspects that were considered very harmful to American society. There were certain cultural legacies that had to be got rid of, such as class differences and the glorification of luxury. But there were also certain existential doubts, such as the impression that genuine experiences no longer existed and the evidence that the world was increasingly guided by superficiality. If the eye was the organ in which confidence had been placed to recover genuine contact with reality, painting represented falsity, superficiality, limitation, elitism and, above all, a culturally mediated contact with the landscape.

Olmsted and the unmediated vision

22In this context, Olmsted was faced with a simple question: could spaces be designed from painting, something that encouraged the fictitious? And it is in this context that one must understand, for example, some of his comments about Yosemite Valley:

This union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in one part or one scene or another, not any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the greatest glory of nature.

No photograph or series of photographs, no paintings ever prepare a visitor so that he is not taken by surprise, for could the scenes be faithfully represented the visitor is affected not only by that upon which his eye is at any moment fixed, but by all that with which on every side it is associated, and of which it is seen only as an inherent part. (Olmsted 1865, 500)

23According to him, it would not be possible to extract a single view to explain that place and any attempt would remain a mere copy. The fixed, the representation, the photograph, the picture, the measurement, even the description or the comparison were opposed to the depth and the truth of the landscape, an idea that he had already expressed before dedicating himself professionally to landscaping:

The deep sentiments of Nature that we sometimes seem to have been made confident of […] are beyond words; they never could be transcribed into note-books and diaries, and so descriptions of them become caricatures, and when we see them, we at first say we are disappointed that we find not the monsters we were told of. (1852, 327)

24Thus, Olmsted elevated the classic term scenery, so often used by Uvedale Price, to an absolute visual entity: “scenery is more than an object or a series of objects; more than a spectacle, more than a scene or a series of scenes, more than a landscape, and other than a series of landscapes” (1886, 43).

25The fact that Olmsted criticized representation does not mean that the visual had lost importance. Quite the contrary: with this way of seeing Yosemite, he was advocating the immersion of the visitor. His or her gaze had to be unmediated by artistic or technical imagery, which also explains his criticism of certain French parks: “Where anything like landscape effects have been attempted to be added to these it has generally been [...] simply as a picture usually of a romantic, and often of a distinctly theatrical character” (1873, 428). This was for him a widespread practice: “the liking for detached scenic effects which might be suitable for framing, or for the background of a ballet, still influences most French landscape work” (429). Again a critique of the fictitious when the landscape was placed at the mercy of painting.

26Throughout his career, Olmsted defined his profession as a practice that eschewed the pictorial. He did so, for example, in the entry on “Landscape Gardening” for Johnsons New Universal Cyclopedia: “The common comparison of the work of a landscape gardener with that of a landscape painter [...] easily becomes a very unjust one” (1877, 159). The work of the landscape gardener was strongly linked to the place: the context had to be combined in the best possible way with the design. In short, “the artist in landscape gardening can never have [...] a clean canvas to work upon” (159). The painter’s tabula rasa, which allowed for almost unlimited creativity, was not the conditions of use or the local topographical conditions, soil and climate that the landscape architect had. Landscape architecture, if we return to Emersonian terms, had to set aside falsification and be an art of elasticity: of contingent appropriateness.

27But, although it was not frequent, painting sometimes appeared in his discourse in relation to planning. It did so, however, in a very revealing way: for him, the landscape architect painted with the environment. He did not represent it, but his raw material for painting was the landscape itself:

What artist so noble as he, who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing-power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows, of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions! (1882, 42)

28The famous architect, Daniel Burnham, in fact, referred to Olmsted in very similar terms: “he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views” (Burnham cited in Martin). Olmsted did not use a painting as a mediator, his paintings were the landscapes he created. For him, the landscape architect drew, wrote and orchestrated the landscape. And although these kinds of expressions were already known, Olmsted brought them to a practical sense that reinterpreted the frame:

It is a common error to regard a park as something to be produced complete in itself, as a picture to be painted on canvas. It should rather be planned as one to be done in fresco, with constant consideration of exterior objects, some of them quite at a distance and even existing as yet only in the imagination of the painter. (Olmsted 1871, 29)

29Fresco could refer here to painting on a conditioned surface, as opposed to the canvas of the painting. The landscape architect would be someone who paints on top of something pre-existing and lacking a clear boundary: something embedded in a larger reality. The landscape architect was bound to have a different gaze than the painter, a difference Olmsted insisted on: « For what we call a landscape painting is necessarily but a representation of a fragment of Landscape […] as a man with his head in a fixed position may see straight before him. This is what is called a landscape. The landscape is something different » (1886, 13).

30The landscape architect’s view, on the other hand, was fundamentally different:

The artist in Landscape gardening cannot determine precisely the form and color of the detail of his work, because each species of plant will grow up with features which cannot be exactly foreknown […] Thus, he can see his designed and imaginary landscape only as one may see an existing and tangible landscape with half-closed eyes, its finer details not being wholly lost, yet nowhere perfectly definable. (1877, 160)

31Thus, to the contingent nature of his work, Olmsted added an arbitrariness beyond his control. If we return to past criticisms of the pictorial model (Repton’s spatial and temporal variation, Emerson’s superficiality or Flagg’s cultural mediation), Olmsted posed its simple impossibility: a landscape could not be a replica of a painting. Not even the painting could be an instrument to orient, or to open a virtual space in which to rehearse possibilities. Nature, understood as a process, had its own means of development, sufficiently unpredictable for a detailed definition to be an enterprise doomed to failure or one that would condemn the landscape to constant submission. The landscape architect’s gaze had to be, for all this, with eyes half closed. A blurred look.

  • 8 This could serve as an expansion of ideas posed by Kosnoski.

32It was the same look that certain American landscape painters such as Albert Pinkham Ryder or Robert Loftin Newman were capturing in their paintings at the time (Fig. 2 and 3). In fact, the blurred look was the American look par excellence: the “truly” democratic look. The look that equalized because it eliminated the indispensable, the luxury and the ornament, that did not distinguish attributes of class or ethnicity; in conclusion, the look that fused people with each other and with their environment. But also, the common look, that which reduces what is looked at to the essence seen by all.8

Fig. 2. Albert Pinkham Ryder, The River (c.1884-1894), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Paul Rodman Mabury Collection (nº invent.: 39.12.21)

Fig. 3. Robert Loftin Newman, The Skylark (Undated), The Phillips Collection (nº invent.: 1424).

33This way of understanding the visual explains, for example, the characteristic simplicity of his designs: free of exaltations or discordances. It also explains the emphasis on large features such as the green expanse (Greensward), the distinction based on strong contrasts of light and shadow or the demarcation of boundaries with tree-lined and homogeneous horizons. In his own words: “practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade”. The squinting gaze that sought simplicity because it recognized the inability to see nature in all its complexity. The function of the park was now to constitute itself in another kind of frame “to completely shut out the city from our landscapes” (22).

Olmsted and landscape as a frame

34This allows for a final consideration of the ultimate significance of this shift: from the painting frame to the park as frame. In one of Olmsted’s most daring biographies, Melvin Kalfus hypothesizes about the psychological roots of this notion. For Kalfus, it is striking how Olmsted remembered his childhood framed by landscapes that are practically descriptions of those he himself later constructed. When he described the aesthetic potential of his parks, they did not reflect only pastoral nature, but framed the unfolding of life:

There is no more beautiful picture, and none can be more pleasing incidentally to the gregarious purpose, than that of beautiful meadows, over which clusters of level-armed sheltering trees cast broad shadows, and upon which are scattered dainty cows and flocks of black-faced sheep, while men, women, and children are seen sitting here and there, forming groups in the shade, or moving in and out among the woody points and bays. (23)

35The task of his parks was to organize or envelop these views: seeing others became a primary function of his designs. And in this sense of seeing others, Olmsted came closest to New York poets and writers. Such as Walt Whitman, who, in his famous Democratic Vistas, described the same effect and the affections that Central Park and Prospect Park, Brooklyn, gave him:

the great Central Park, and the Brooklyn Park of hills; [t]he assemblages of the citizens in their groups, conversations, trades, evening amusements […] these, I say, and the like of these, completely satisfy my senses of power, fulness, motion, &c., and give me, through such senses and appetites, and through my esthetic conscience, a continued exaltation and absolute fulfilment. (1871, 13)

  • 9 See Paul and see Bredahl.

36Again, this idea of a democratic picture, which is very appropriate for the nascent country, has also been detected by critics in Hawthorne, Emerson and Melville.9 Olmsted’s profound ideas about democracy and civilization are well known. As Scott Roulier explains, his designs were intended to celebrate coexistence, living together with others, no matter how different they were. In that way, they would represent the democratic ideal that was so important to America. Thus, Olmsted created parks that blurred and equalized qualities: they were democratic because they put (visually) everything on the same level.

37This type of view is well represented in some photos of his works. For example, in one taken by the studio itself in the late 19th or early 20th century in Franklin Park (Fig. 4), a wide meadow, with a dark wooded horizon, appears crowded with people. The crowd, which does not seem to be engaged in any particular activity, is shown here as a single common body. Neither the features of the individuals, nor those of the surroundings, are clearly discernible. Somewhat closer to the photographer, a woman (and some children a little further away) observe the scene. As in the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, a character is presented in the foreground and a supervening spectacle opens up before him. If for Friedrich’s travelers, this was that of sublime nature, for the woman in the photograph the spectacle is that of civilized interaction.

Fig. 4. View of Franklin Park (c.1890-1915), Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted NHS, NPS (nº art.: 00918-05-[ph00a]).

38Olmsted, by abandoning the frame of painting, was able to move towards a landscape frame, a sort of unified background, unmediated by other representations, without superfluous details, on which the interaction of people could unfold. The crisis of the visual and the questioning of painting as a model could have led to this idea of a space that would convey what the French Impressionists were trying to bring to the canvas. In fact, Olmsted’s ideas seem to anticipate the views that Maurice Prendergast would paint years later in Central Park (Fig. 5). So that if Olmsted’s landscape was ever paintable, it was in these blurred, profusely inhabited versions, in which people merge with each other and with their surroundings. A democratic view: the life of modern states elevated to an aesthetic condition.

Fig. 5. Maurice Prendergast, Central Park (c.1908-1910), Metropolitan Museum of Art (nº invent.: 50.25).

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1 See Beveridge 1981, Olmsted 1855, and Roper.

2 Olmsted himself wrote that the balance would have tipped in favor of another, “had it not been for the autograph of Washington Irving on my papers.” See Olmsted c.1877, 59.

3 See Beveridge 1995.

4 See Mumford.

5 See Urbas.

6 Let us not forget that Hepzibah was also almost blind.

7 John Bryant and Haskell Springer explain that Moby Dick can be seen as a plea for the impossibility of such an endeavor.

8 This could serve as an expansion of ideas posed by Kosnoski.

9 See Paul and see Bredahl.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Humphry Repton, View from the north of the house at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire (1801), Watercolor with flap (before and after), National Trust (UK).
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,0M
Légende Fig. 2. Albert Pinkham Ryder, The River (c.1884-1894), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Paul Rodman Mabury Collection (nº invent.: 39.12.21)
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,7M
Légende Fig. 3. Robert Loftin Newman, The Skylark (Undated), The Phillips Collection (nº invent.: 1424).
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,6M
Légende Fig. 4. View of Franklin Park (c.1890-1915), Olmsted Archives, Frederick Law Olmsted NHS, NPS (nº art.: 00918-05-[ph00a]).
Fichier image/jpeg, 5,9M
Légende Fig. 5. Maurice Prendergast, Central Park (c.1908-1910), Metropolitan Museum of Art (nº invent.: 50.25).
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,3M
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Référence électronique

Nicolás Mariné, « From Framed Landscapes to Landscapes as Frames: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Discourse on Painting and Landscape Architecture in 19th-Century America »Polysèmes [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicolás Mariné

Nicolás Mariné is an Adjunct Professor in the chair of Landscape Architecture and Garden Design in the Department of Architectural Composition of the Technical University of Madrid. His work focuses on American landscape architecture at the turn of the 20th century, mainly in its relationship with sociology, literature, and cartography. He has been part of several research projects, financed by government grants and private institutions, mostly centered on the cultural landscape and landscape architecture. As a PhD candidate, he developed his doctoral research under a pre-doctoral contract granted by the Madrid Government and a Research Fellowship in the New York Institute of Technology. He has also published several articles and congress papers.

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