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  • Jenna Burtch

Colonization, Coexistence, and Harmony: The Portrayal of Humanity’s Footprint on our Environment

Prior to the end of the nineteenth century, the “wilderness” was dangerous, it was a place one only came to without choice and in fear for their life; Henry David Thoreau changed this all when publishing his book, Walking. This literary piece, published in 1851 exercised the ability to change the perspective of nature on a scale never seen before. His simple sentence, “Wilderness is the preservation of the World.” (Thoreau H.D.), took humanity by storm. Overnight “wilderness” was no longer a death sentence reserved for those forced into a dangerous encounter of the unknown. It became mystifying, beautiful, heavenly, and sublime. This sublimity left a now curious humanity with the motivation to explore, combined with the means of travel and technology, society now made the first brave steps into an environment so beautiful it was indescribable to the tongue.

And yet, this untouched wilderness had been lived on for millenia, the ancestors of the modern day found harmony between themselves and the Earth, creating a home for their lives but never divulging more than needed from the natural land. Grand Canyon of Yellowstone created by Thomas Moran in 1872 provided an early view into this shifting mindset of wilderness. His piece, ironically enough, was intended to act as an inspiration to appreciate the midwest to the general public and it did just that. Moran’s piece acted as a physical portrait of ‘American splendor’ and had a hand in passing the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act in 1872.


In actuality, Moran unintentionally sets a scene of colonization of the sublime view of the Grand Canyon. To understand the feeling of seeing this heavily detailed piece, one must understand the size of the canvas; currently hung in the Smithsonian Museum of Art, this oil on canvas painting is 7-by-12 feet. This enormous piece provided endless room for detail and is a physical way to present the grandeur of such a magnificent landscape. Framed by a V-shaped mountain, two figures are present in the foreground. One dressed in a traditional western-American ensemble, the other representative of an Indigenous American likely more familiar to the area. The newcomer points to the west, forward, a metaphorical representation of the future and progression of ideas and plans. The other, looks away, at a distance in the scene as if prepared to exit the frame after the encounter. While Moran may have seen no fault in this presentation of the figures framed by such sublime scapes, it leaves much to be pondered by a viewer in a future lens. In the modern day we can understand what was to come of this landscape and those involved, as Indigenous Americans were and are still continued to be pushed out of their spaces as colonization of the west moves forward. It leaves a much more sour taste in one's mouth at the sight of such a beautiful scene.

The humans that have come into this setting, act as a separate force outside of the environment, an ”other.” Yet, in their eyes, “The Sublime as an intellectual challenge incorporates this sense of the unattainable ‘other’ out there, imaged as the natural world with its own ‘immutable laws’” (M. Andrew). Moran’s piece subconsciously lends to the condition of humans and the environment being separate, not equals, and the environment and those interconnected with it as something to be used and moved into, rather than moved with.


Vincent Van Gogh paints a different narrative in his piece The Road Menders. This piece created in 1889, shows a much simpler scene. Demonstrated with Van Gogh’s characteristic techniques, paint values carved into canvas with asymmetrical lines bring together the scene of a simple village. A road being placed into the Earth by workers as residents pass by, an unassuming presentation of a mundane village. While Van Gogh likely didn't have it in mind, this oil-on-canvas piece provides an interesting connection between humanity and the natural world. The trees that line the street construction are outlined in heavy, dark blues and blacks, which become the subject of the image.


The juxtaposition between the actual subject of the piece, the trees, and the supposed subject of the piece, the street mender, opens a door to view this image in an eco-critical lens. Eco-criticism refers to studying objects for their ecological meaning, the subject being Van Gogh’s painting. We can see a relationship between humans and the natural world that, compared to Moran’s piece, is quite different. Van Gogh presents a connection, a shaping of human environments that moves with and around the natural world. The road menders could have just as easily removed the trees in their way, and yet they left them. A decision seemingly unintentional changes the whole view of the painting. Humans are a part of their natural world, we cultivate our place within it, however while there is not always harmony, there is but coexistence. Van Gogh’s The Road Menders illustrates this concept, accepting our places in and as a part of the world just as much as we are able to make room and grow with the earth.

The Andes of Ecuador by Frederic Edwin Church is one of the most breathtaking pieces to come out of the 1850s. This oil painting was created after Church’s trip to Ecuador in 1853, later completing this piece in 1855. The endless detail found in the lush vegetation of the valley, the traces of human activity, and sprawling mountains backdropped by a melting sun all emphasize a feeling of the sublime.


Church’s piece reflects a harmonious world, one where people are connected to the Earth. He reflects ideologies such as those of Alexander Von Humboldt’s belief in the harmony of nature in which biology, botany, and geology coalesce to determine vegetation. His theories were popular with artists of the nineteenth century, who saw in them a way to reconcile God’s divinity with scientific advancements. Within this piece a viewer is able to see the small but prevalent footprints of humans. A small settlement can be seen within the folds of the valley as well as humans praying to a stone cross in the left foreground of the image. These humans follow a color pallet synonymous with the rest of the scene, acting as Church's way to visually portray harmony. The sienna browns, forest greens, and cerulean blues all flow together within the piece to display the connection of all elements within the painting. Humans and the environment act as one being, interconnected in all aspects, giving, taking, and caring for one another.


All of these works provide a view of humanity and its role in our natural environment, while some may lend to a colonial view, others portray the connectedness of our world to our lives. Whether intentional or not, many pieces can be interpreted and viewed in an eco-critical lens. These interpretations leave us with a better understanding of our role in the Earth, and how we can better care for it.


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