by Karl Kusserow and Alan C. Braddock. Yale University Press, October 2018. 448 p. ill. ISBN 9780300237009 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed May 2019
Virginia Roberts, Director, Rhinelander District Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment is a bold undertaking documenting how nature is reflected in art of the United States and how that art affects our impressions of nature. This book is a companion to the exhibit of the same name--but is a well-defined work in and of itself--shown at Princeton University Art Museum, Peabody Essex Museum, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, through September 9, 2019.
In the preface, Kusserow and Braddock explain the need for a multi-disciplinary approach including historical, environmental, scientific, and art historical perspectives. They contextualize their discussion within complex narratives of American history, including Native, European, slave, and settler points of view, in addition to the contributions of naturalists. The title itself is taken from an essay by American Studies scholar, Perry Miller, challenging modern American cultural exceptionalism.
With its expansive perspective, the book allows a new discussion where terms such as "ecocriticism" exist alongside more traditional terms of evaluation and definition. This broad definition allows for not only the expected discussions regarding manifest destiny and the nineteenth century landscapes of the Hudson River School, or installations of the late twentieth century reflecting environmental awareness, but also unexpected works, including cartography, illustration, photography, Native, and outside art, as well as economic impact, ecological understanding, cultural appropriation and repatriation, making this a true history of art in America.
The essays are divided into three broad survey categories: “Colonialization and Empire," “Industrialization and Conservation,” and “Ecology and Environmentalism.” One or two short descriptive essays by the book’s editors are followed by more expansive essays by a variety of expert contributors. A wealth of beautiful, sometimes unexpected illustrations, across all mediums and over three centuries, is provided for greater understanding of what otherwise might be problematic for today’s audience. The endnotes for each essay provide an exhaustive list of sources.
Kusserow and Braddock's over-sized hardcover is masterfully, beautifully built. It features sewn signatures and opens flat. Brief biographies of each contributor, a selective bibliography, and a comprehensive index are included.
Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment is highly recommended for all libraries. This book is especially appropriate for collections which focus on both the history of American art, Native arts, and/or ecology and the environment.