East Coast Shoot, Day 12: Olmsted, the accidental artist

July 8, 2009

Morrison Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleishman chariman of The American Wing at the Metropolitain Museum of Art, can recognize American art when he sees it.  Central Park, the subject of his 2008 book, and also the verdant backyard of his museum, is not just a place for New Yorkers to seek shade, he holds, but one of this country’s great works of art.

As creators of Central Park, Heckscher called Olmsted and Vaux “towering figures in the history of American cities, of American landscape.”  Olmsted, he said, was “the father, the dean of American landscape, particularly as it has to do with city parks.”

But it was William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing, he insists, who were really responsible for sparking the original initiative to create a major park in New York City.  Downing, one of the great dictators of public taste in the early 19th century (Sara Cedar Miller calls him the Martha Stewart of the time period), was founder and editor of the magazine The Horticulturist, and also a popular landscape architect with his partner, Calvert Vaux.  Downing acted as a kind of mentor to Olmsted, publishing some of Olmsted’s first writing, and inspiring his interest in the young profession of landscape architecture.  Bryant, poet and longtime editor of the New York Post, helped give Downing’s plea for Central Park in 1851 a voice that would be heard by the public.

Title page of an edition of The Horitculturist

Title page of an edition of The Horitculturist

In fact, it is generally assumed that had Downing not died in 1852 in a tragic steamboat accident at the age of 36, he would have been the logical choice to be designer of the park.  After his death, Olmsted was approached by the newly partnerless Vaux to enter the design competition, which they of course won in 1858.

Though the circumstances of the launch of his career arguably depended on the doomed fate of another man, Olmsted, Heckscher holds, is an artist, and Central Park, “literally, a series of works of art.”  In particular, Heckscher cited the views that Olmsted and Vaux carefully planned within the park, which tend to appear suddenly, framed by elements of the landscape and “set low within the landscape–one comes upon them walking through the park.”  Heckscher calls this “an extroadinary but very subtle architectural satement.”

interviewing Morrison Heckscher, with a view of Bethesda Terrace

interviewing Morrison Heckscher, with a view of Bethesda Terrace

What is the difference, we asked, between the park and the great works that hang in frames from the walls of the Met?  “The extensive difference is its dynamism, the fact that it’s alive,” he said.  “There’s no way that one can freeze a park within a certain moment.  Olmsted and Vaux envisioned mature plants and trees, but eventually that moment passes, and the trees go.  The challenge, in moving ahead,” he says of the future of the park, “is recognizing that [the plants and trees of the park] are not static.”


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