- Historic Sites
He Paints With Lakes And Wooded Slopes…
Frederick Law Olmsted founded a new artistic profession in America. Today he is scarcely known by the millions who use and enjoy his works
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
When he was eighteen, however, his father placed him with a firm of French textile importers in New York City, to give him some business experience. The young man disliked the work and languished indoors. He stuck it out nearly two years, and then, his eyes having improved, went up to Yale for a year of lectures in science and engineering. In the spring of 1843, tired of this, he shipped before the mast 0:1 the Ronaldson , a barque in the China trade whose captain was a friend of his father’s. He sailed around Africa, through the East Indies, to Hong Kong and back; but he was astonished at the brutish conditions of shipboard life. Seamen, he observed afterward, “are more wretched, and are governed more by threats of force than any other civili/ed laborers of the world.” Yet he got from this rough experience some insight into what would, in the end, become his professional concern: the effect of a particular environment on human happiness. He also got a bad case of scurvy.
His younger brother, John, was now a student at Yale, and when his health was good enough Frederick joined him there, again as a “special” student—a kind of honorary member of the class of 1847, among whom he made many close friends. But the problem of an occupation was still unsolved. Considering all his varied interests, Olmsted decided that scientific fanning might be the answer.
He learned much about it under a man named George Geddes, about whose model farm at Owego, New York, he had read in a newspaper. Geddes not only farmed well but took a sharp interest in politics and social theory. He set his protégé to thinking long and deeply about slavery as well as husbandry—a turn of interest that in a few years would bring an end to his farming and start a new phase in his career. Meanwhile, on a small farm of his own near Guilford, Connecticut, and later on 130 acres of Staten Island purchased for him by his patient father, Olmsted farmed with scientific care and with good results. He raised some profitable crops of corn and cabbages, pri/e wheat, and line turnips. More significantly, he devoted much time to rearranging his landscape and to en joynig the superb seascapes visible from South Side, as he called his lärm. Hc moved his barn and other outbuildings behind a hill to hide their homeliness. Hc lawncd the banks of his horsepond and brightened up its margins with water plants. He turfed over an ugly entrance and brought a gravelled driveway around to his house in a graceful curve.
As for the views, his own descriptions were eloquent: southward, “the dark blue ocean, with forever distant sails coming tip or sinking as they bid good-bye to America”; westward, the distant hills of Xew Jersey that “sweep off gradually growing into something like mountains.… A long, yellowish white streak … is the sand and spray or foam of Sandy Hook and the three singularly distinct sails arc nothing but its three white light-houses.”
By 1850 the young farmer was getting restless again. A holiday in Europe with brother (ohn and Charles !trace, a good friend from Yale, was suggested, and Olmsted eagerly agreed. They made a walking trip through Germany, Belgium, France, and the British Isles, spending an average of only a dollar a day each. Everywhere they went, Frederick Olmsted applied his boundless curiosity and searching attention not only (o soils, drainage, manures, tools, crops, and livestock, but to the homes, grounds, social customs, and recreation of the people. There was much to impress him in the well-ordered hedgerows of rural England: “a great deal,” he wrote, “of quiet, peaceful, graceful beauty which the works of man have generally added to and which I remember but little like at home.” On the other hand, he was typically critical of the over-all working conditions of laborers both on farms and in cities; his acute sensitivity to man-made ugliness and misery was stirred.