He Paints With Lakes And Wooded Slopes…

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Even so, his imagination and enterprise did not outrun the mind of Frederick Law Olmsted, aged sixty-eight. This perfectionist now saw his chance to create, in a spot uniquely favored by elevation, temperature, and rainfall, a superarboretum containing specimens of every known tree and woody plant that would grow there. It would be a tree collection containing two or more specimens of some 4,200 species from all over the globe. Even while he sweated out the myriad details of Vanderbilt’s roads and culverts, walls and bridges, lawns and hedges and lakes and vistas, Olmsted covertly contrived his dendrological masterpiece. It had to be done covertly because he suspected that even George Vanderbilt had extended himself to his limit for the time being, and would not stand still for a high-salaried scientific arboretum staff.

Before laying his final plans in front of George Vanderbilt, or any other client, it was Olmsted’s custom to keep them long in his mind “as a sculptor keeps his work under damp cloths, in a plastic form.” In May of 1895, with the great arboretum still in a preliminary stage and Mr. Vanderbilt not yet told of its dazzling destiny, Olmsted made a grave discovery. His mind was slipping. He wrote to his son John: My memory as to recent occurrences is not to be trusted. If Rick had not been with me and had not privately set me right, I should have shown the fact in a flagrant way to Mr. Vanderbilt. I think it is my duty to tell you this at once in order that you may take measures to guard the business from possible consequences … I have no reason to think that I have lost capacity in respect to invention, design or reasoning powers.… [But] I should not be permitted to deal with clients alone.… [It is] precisely that condition, I suppose, which leads to the rule that military and naval officers shall be retired at “seventy.”

Olmsted, now seventy-three, had eight years to live.

So, what with Gifford Pinchot’s scorn for its horticulturally “freakish” aspects, Olmsted’s prudence about trying George Vanderbilt prematurely, and the new mental difficulty, the Biltmore arboretum, greatest of the Olmsted dreams, never fully materialized.

But George Vanderbilt fully appreciated all that Olmsted had done at Biltmore and elsewhere. In the same week that the brave letter quoted above was written, he fitted up a studio in the château and had John Singer Sargent down from Boston to paint the grand old man’s portrait (see page 14) along with architect Hunt’s. It hangs at Biltmore, which is open to the public, to this day.

After 1895 Olmsted had to cut down on his travel, and by 1898 he was confined to his home at Brookline; by 1899 he was beyond recall. Until then, while his mind lasted, he kept his fingers on the business and still corresponded vigorously if not always lucidly.

Frederick Law Olmsted died in the summer of 1903. Before the curtains of his mind closed, he became well aware how vain had been his thought that all his works, let alone his name, would live forever; that later men would not change the one or forget the other. Upstarts altered many of his favorite conceptions within his lifetime, and as for his repute, he could but agree with old H. W. S. Cleveland, one of the few landscape designers of his time whom he respected. In 1894, at eighty, Cleveland had penned an epilogue for them both.

He was telling Olmsted about how an admirer had said of Olmsted’s work on the campus of Williams College, in Massachusetts: “Long after Emerson and Longfellow are forgotten, [Olmsted] will live in enduring monuments.”

Wrote Cleveland: “You will appreciate the quiet laugh I had in my sleeve over that last sentence, if your experience corresponds with mine,—that hardly one man in a hundred knows who designed such work ten years after it is done.”