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Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer

A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age

Judith K. Major

Publication Year: 2013

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851–1934) was one of the premier figures in landscape writing and design at the turn of the twentieth century, a moment when the amateur pursuit of gardening and the increasingly professionalized landscape design field were beginning to diverge. This intellectual biography—the first in-depth study of the versatile critic and author—reveals Van Rensselaer’s vital role in this moment in the history of landscape architecture.

Van Rensselaer was one of the new breed of American art and architecture critics, closely examining the nature of her profession and bringing a disciplined scholarship to the craft. She considered herself a professional, leading the effort among women in the Gilded Age to claim the titles of artist, architect, critic, historian, and journalist. Thanks to the resources of her wealthy mercantile family, she had been given a sophisticated European education almost unheard of for a woman of her time. Her close relationship with Frederick Law Olmsted influenced her ideas on landscape gardening, and her interest in botany and geology shaped the ideas upon which her philosophy and art criticism were based. She also studied the works of Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, Henry David Thoreau, and many other nineteenth-century scientists and nature writers, which influenced her general belief in the relationship between science and the imagination.

Her cosmopolitan education and elevated social status gave her, much like her contemporary Edith Wharton, access to the homes and gardens of the upper classes. This allowed her to mingle with authors, artists, and affluent patrons of the arts and enabled her to write with familiarity about architecture and landscape design. Identifying over 330 previously unattributed editorials and unsigned articles authored by Van Rensselaer in the influential journal Garden and Forest—for which she was the sole female editorial voice—Judith Major offers insight into her ideas about the importance of botanical nomenclature, the similarities between landscape gardening and idealist painting, design in nature, and many other significant topics. Major’s critical examination of Van Rensselaer’s life and writings—which also includes selections from her correspondence—details not only her influential role in the creation of landscape architecture as a discipline but also her contribution to a broader public understanding of the arts in America.

Published by: University of Virginia Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-4

Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xiv

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Introduction: Portraits of a Lady

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pp. 1-4

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer sits in her study before a cluttered table and gazes directly at the camera. Stacks of paper and a thick reference book lie in front of a typewriter in which a half-finished page is visible. The 1887 photograph, the frontispiece of this volume, was taken in Marion, Massachusetts, then...

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One: The Education of Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer

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pp. 5-23

The first seventeen years of Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer’s life took place in a city being remade and refined by the great fortunes of the Industrial Revolution. She was born into a family of wealthy New York City merchants on 23 February 1851. Her parents, Lydia Alley and George Griswold Jr., were proud descendents...

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Two: A Career Begins

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pp. 24-50

The American Art Review was sumptuous in relation to the standard late-nineteenth-century magazine, with original etchings and wood-engraved reproductions of drawings created especially for the magazine. During its brief two-year run (1879 to 1881), it was the most important art publication of its day in...

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Three: A New Field of Study: Landscape Gardening

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pp. 51-84

Anticipating the opportunity to explore a fresh topic, Van Rensselaer wrote to Olmsted in May 1887: “I am getting so interested in this new field of study that I am most impatient to begin writing about it, especially as I feel that the only way to learn anything one’s self is to try and teach others!” She began her...

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Four: Historical Sketches on the Art of Gardening

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pp. 85-99

In the late 1880s, Van Rensselaer focused her energy on a series of “historical sketches” on “the art of gardening” for Garden and Forest. Her art and architecture criticism was always remarkable for the scholarly and historical perspective that was part of her treatment of even the most contemporary subjects...

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Five: Traces in Garden and Forest

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pp. 100-120

Summers in Marion and Southampton, a trip to see the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, and a cruise down the Rhone River — over a five-year span of Garden and Forest, from 1888 through 1892, Van Rensselaer contributed essays about these and more experiences and her impressions of a wide diversity of landscapes...

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Six: A Turning Point: 1893

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pp. 121-158

Like Trachtenberg, Lewis Mumford looked to the World’s Columbian Exposition as a turning point for America: “The Brown Decades mark a period. . . . If it began with the mourning note of Lincoln’s funeral, it ended, like a sun thrusting through the clouds, in the golden portal of Sullivan’s Transportation Building...

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Seven: While Garden and Forest Lived

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pp. 159-179

In 1894, buoyed up by a doctor’s report that Gris would be able to return to New York with her in May, Van Rensselaer began writing again for Garden and Forest and completed “People in New York” for Century. In a letter of transmittal to Gilder on 15 January, she was relaxed after a long afternoon drive up into “the red and...

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Eight: Changes

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pp. 180-200

Van Rensselaer devoted the remainder of her life to public service and to writing poetry, short stories, and a history of New York. But sporadically, she returned to topics that picked up earlier refrains from her Garden and Forest editorials...

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Nine: The Aesthetics of Life

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pp. 201-206

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer was alone in combining an expertise in American and European art and architecture with the ability to use the language of science to enhance late-nineteenth-century public awareness and appreciation of the emerging profession of landscape architecture...

Appendix A: Garden and Forest Editorials and Unsigned Articles

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pp. 207-218

Appendix B: Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer Chronology

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pp. 219-224


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pp. 225-258


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pp. 259-274


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pp. 275-285

E-ISBN-13: 9780813934556
E-ISBN-10: 0813934559
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813933924
Print-ISBN-10: 0813933927

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: (1 redacted)
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 834136831
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer

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Subject Headings

  • Van Rensselaer, Schuyler, Mrs., 1851-1934.
  • Landscape architecture -- United States -- Philosophy -- History.
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