The American Land As It Was

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Once upon a time, over a century ago, there was a very different America from that which this issue portrays on pages 4–11, and whose problems Wallace Stegner so poignantly describes in the article just preceding this one. That America was just being opened up. That America did not mind the sound of the axe and the harrow; the stumps of trees did not offend its eye; its westering pioneers rejoiced all hearts. That America did not foresee an age when the frontier, the wild land, would ever run out.

It is perhaps instructive to revisit this era, and we can do it very well by recalling a talented yet simple-hearted English-born artist named George Harvey. In 1841 he published a slender book that he had annotated and illustrated himself, Harvey’s Scenes of the Primitive Forest of America, at the Four Seasons of the Year, Spring, Summer, Autumn & Winter . The volume was intended merely as Part I of a de luxe eight-part series, which Harvey grandly called a Superb Royal Folio Work of American Scenery. This he hoped would bring him fame.

Harvey’s hopes rested on a special feature of his landscapes. In each work he had tried to render—and he succeeded admirably—the quality of the light peculiar to different seasons of the year and times of the day. For this reason he called them “Atmospherical Landscapes.” The painter had come to America in 1820 and wandered through frontier woodlands from Ohio to northern Canada. For nine years he toiled in Boston as a portrait painter “with an assiduity that impaired my health.” To recuperate, he retired to the wilds of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and began painting a number of his atmospherical landscapes. Encouragement came one day during a business trip to London, where, at a gathering of artists, “I accidentally heard a gentleman, on leaving a little knot of connoisseurs assembled round my portfolio, pass a most flattering eulogium on the contents.” The gentleman was none other than the physicist Michael Faraday. Presently the American minister to France, Lewis Cass, advised Harvey to have his pictures engraved.

Part I— Harvey’s Scenes —duly appeared, published at Harvey’s own expense and dedicated to Queen Victoria. As a publisher, he seems to have placed great faith in the lure of famous names. He printed in Part I what he termed “voluntary testimonials of approbation” from distinguished American artists—Washington Allston, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Thomas Sully. Also, Harvey added, “I have obtained the promise of my friend WASHINGTON IRVING , Esq., to revise my manuscript”—there is something touchingly naïve about Harvey’s style as a promoter. Despite the artists’ endorsements and the glitter of Irving’s name, all his efforts failed: subscription orders for future volumes of the series failed to arrive at Harvey’s office on Fulton Street, New York, and the first part of the Superb Royal Folio Work proved to be the last. Thereafter Harvey drifted into an obscurity so deep that, beyond the fact of his death in 1878, little is known of his later life. All that the general public ever saw of his beloved atmospherical landscapes is shown on these pages. They recall a land we shall never see again.