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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts looking at a large painting by Jasper Francis Cropsey. This is Mount Jefferson, and it was painted just a few years before the Civil War erupts. - [Tyler] Cropsey makes this painting as the Bleeding Kansas Crisis is receding. - [Steven] Bleeding Kansas was an eruption of violence that took place when the slave-holding South and abolitionists in the North both moved to Kansas to claim that territory as their own. - [Tyler] So, Cropsey is painting Mount Jefferson. Well, he believes he's painting Mount Jefferson. This is actually a representation of Mount Adams. But it's important to Cropsey that this is Mount Jefferson because Jefferson is the father of America's Agrarian Republican ideal. And that's what this painting is about. - [Steven] It's so interesting because generally you would assume you were simply looking at a beautiful autumnal landscape of the northeast of the United States. This is the white mountains in New Hampshire. It's autumn. The leaves are changing. You have this wonderful craggy set of ridges beyond and a lovely vignette of a man walking with his dog and axe over his shoulder having just passed between two large mounds of recently cut timber and a sawmill. It's a glorious vista to look out at. The hill to the right is bathed in sunlight. But the crags that lift up from what we now know is Mount Adams is in shadow emphasizing its drama. In fact, if you look closely you can just make out water pouring down that cliff side. - [Tyler] One of the things that gets me about this painting every time I'm in front of it is that Mount Jefferson is still green. It is still summer on Mount Jefferson, if you will. And it's the foreground where the dramatic autumn colors are happening. In the 19th century, Americans were deeply bothered that they didn't have mountains as high as Europe's. That so far as they knew in 1857 Eastern America that America lacked the topographical drama of the old country. So, what to do about that? One way is this embrace of autumnal America. Flowering of intense oranges and reds that will be a mainstay of American painting and a particular signature of Cropsey's. But the other way Americans engaged with how they lacked what Europe had was by building America's nature, America's land into a metaphorical celebration of America itself. This was an idea that was introduced to America by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1836 book, "Nature". We should think of nature as a kind of guidebook to how artists and poets, and clergymen and politicians, and novelists and others should use, Emerson argues, American nature as a way to make America's land as great as wonderful as Europe's because after all America has something Europe doesn't and that's Republicanism. - [Steven] And so, while it first glance this may look simply like a beautiful autumnal landscape, it is actually an opportunity for the artist to reference a series of metaphors that would've been familiar to many viewers in the 19th century. - [Tyler] This takes us back to the unusual autumn on the lower slopes even as summer is holding on on the higher slopes. The way I read that is that in painting Mount Jefferson as retaining its greenery, Cropsey is pointing to how Agrarian Republicanism is holding on. The lower slopes, autumn is happening, and indeed inevitably autumn will advance on Mount Jefferson's slopes and on Jefferson's ideal because after all this is late 1850s America. All America knows, a conflagration is coming. Here is a dead tree in the lower left as warning. But there are other ways in which Cropsey points to his faith in American Republicanism, and that it has a chance of holding on, that it will weather the storm to come. In the lower right hand corner, there is a mill. Mills cut timber into board. They ground grain into flower and made it possible for an agrarian economy to happen and extend across a region or down rivers to say New York City or Boston. Mills such as this are enormously common in American painting. So, let's think for a moment about how mills would've existed in the actual landscape. They were built and owned by a single individual but they operated for the benefit of an entire community. - [Steven] And that is the metaphor for the Republic, for the founding principles of the United States. But it's also a way of looking towards the future. This lumber that we see cut in the foreground will be used to build houses. Houses that will begin to occupy this virgin landscape that inspires awe as we look through it. But one that is also full of promise for the advance of civilization. - [Tyler] Cropsey with this mill, which is clearly battered but has recently been operative, we see stacks of timber here, is arguing that Republicanism is holding on. It's threatened. There are challenges. But Cropsey is expressing faith in the broader American Republican project. - [Steven] And that the landscape will feed that Republicanism, will nurture the nation and that's made explicit by a subtle art historical reference. The blasted tree that you mentioned that is the dead tree with the black bird surrounding it is almost a direct quote by an early 19th century artist who's painting of "Elijah in the Desert" is one where God tells Elijah that the birds will provide for him. Here, nature will provide for the New Republic. - [Tyler] We see a landscape full of natural resources that God has provided for man to take advantage of including through the mill in the foreground, through the river down which logs can be floated. At a time when America's primary natural resource was timber, this is one timber-filled landscape. (lively piano music)