Friday, June 11, 2010

The Two FLOs

"I have all my life been considering distant effects and sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future."
-Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903)

"The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system."
-- Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted, painted by John Singer Sargent, 1895.

In response to a post from this week, All Souls, a fellow Uwharrian spoke well of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1895, Sargent was painting the Biltmore visionaries: Olmsted, Hunt and Vanderbilt.

Looking back, I can’t believe I’ve only posted one other story on Frederick Law Olmsted, his account of a genteel scene near Asheville in the summer of 1854:

Olmsted is especially interesting for his two bookended stints in WNC. In the 1850s, FLO was a young journalist trying to understand what slavery really meant.

A younger Olmsted

Forty years later, he returned as a venerated landscape architect, with the Biltmore Estate his canvas.

I borrow liberally from the website where I found Singer’s portrait of Olmsted , the JSS Virtual Gallery -

Nice work, (and I really don’t care if it exceeds the 144 character limit that’s been set for contemporary attention spans):

Frederick Law Olmsted is widely recognized as the founder of American landscape architecture and the nation's foremost parkmaker. His first, his most loved, and in many ways he's best known work was his design of Central Park in New York city (1858-1876) with his partner Calvert Vaux (1824-1895). But he would go on to have a significant influence in the way cities and communities are built with the idea of nature and parks around us. He is one of the first to put forth the principles of the City Beautiful Movement in America. He was also one of the first to introduce the idea of suburban development to the American landscape.

"My campaign here announces itself ominously," Sargent wrote in May of 1895 when he arrived at the Biltmore to paint the venerable landscape artist and the architect Richard Morris Hunt, "— both wives prove to me that I must imagine thus that their husbands look at all like what they look like at present — totally different really . . ."

Olmsted was in very poor health -- though his use of the cane actually came from a riding accident he suffered as a younger man when he was working on Central park from which he never fully recovered.

Olmsted had been at Biltmore since February of '95. He had plans for leaving earlier but Vanderbilt had asked him to stay on so Sargent could paint him. The firm which he had built up, now had his sons working for him and his reputation was known internationally. There was very real concern about the health of the company being so tied to Olmsted Sr. The family (we now know) was in a bit of a panic and the trouble that Sargent was getting from Olmsted's wife was in weighing all these considerations.

It was far more than just vanity. Their children were working for the firm and Olmsted's reputation at being able to carry on under failing health was at risk (he was beginning to lose his mind to dementia - and would sadly, later have to be institutionalized where he eventually died) They themselves didn't understand what was happening and she didn't want a portrait of his weaker moments displayed publicly to all of Olmsted's clients and possible future clients. The livelihood of their entire family was at risk.

Sargent wouldn't have known this. No one but the closest to the family would have. Unlike Hunt's portrait, this one is a bit more successful. Still, Sargent struggles with an imagined scene -- which is something so totally foreign to his method of painting. You can see he draws inspiration from what he did with Madame Edouard Pailleron in '79 -- the use of leafs surrounding a standing figure. The forest in Olmsted's case, is imagined. The grounds at Biltmore were nothing but saplings. Still, Sargent pulls it off relatively well putting the man of trees and flower leaning on his cane (which was very much his signature) among dogwood, laurel, and rhododendron.

Fatigued, Olmsted left with his wife before the portrait was finished and his son stepped into his coat to finish modeling for Sargent. You can almost feel the frustration of Sargent in dealing with the situation. In both cases, Hunt and Olmsted, both men appear more "flat" than most of his other work, and clearly shows Sargent's inability to paint beyond what he sees.

* * *

Studying people like John S. Sargent is inspiring to be sure, but there is a certain disconnect between the reality of life that I understand and the kind of life that Sargent and people like him seem to live. Though laudable, I never could fully relate to people that knew at an early age exactly what they wanted to do in life, and with blinders on to any other distractions, could pursue their objectives with a singular of purpose and determination.

If people like Sargent are to be our only model of excellence, then there is a great number of us that are already doomed. Olmsted wasn't like that. He was one of us. In a time in history when men were often deep into what ever line of work before they were even twenty (Women? well, we won't even talk about their expectations or lack thereof), Olmsted floundered in life searching and unsure until he was well into his thirties. He suffered serious and deep periods of depression, and moments of self doubt. He was saddled with debt from one failed attempt after another (though he paid every penny even though he wasn't legally bound).

The thing I like most about Olmsted is that he was profoundly human. And it's that which is so impressive about him. You see, even after failing in life repeatedly in other endeavors he reached the pinnacle of his profession. Remarkably, landscape architecture for Olmsted was a fallback. It was something he did as a job here and there and as a hobby. It was something he never really considered viable until much later.

What Olmsted did share in common with Sargent was the relentless energy of hard work. Both spent long hours of seeing a project through to completion. Both men were opinionated, well read and intellectual. Both knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish -- though the struggle in getting there might have been intense. And probably one of the most important things (besides the hard work) they both had the knack at networking with influential people that could open doors for them in the future.

Like any highly successful artist, he had a vision of of what needed to be done and an iron will to see it come to fruition. He was a genius when it came to organization and was able to sort an incredible amounts of details into a clear and concise plan. He had difficulty dealing with people that didn't see his vision, and on more than one occasion would simply walk away from a project when he came to loggerheads with his employers.…

He was intensely interested in the slavery issue that was ripping the country apart prior to the war. He was an abolitionist (a pragmatic moderate at first which hardened later) and traveled to the south as a correspondent for the northern papers (New York Times and others) writing about the plantations and the economy that were based on the backs of slaves. He bundled his papers and writings into a weighty tome (something like this essay is turning into) and called it "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States with Remarks on Their Economy" which would be the first of three books on the south -- all critically praised but economically flopped.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful post. Alos, i'd never seen a phot of the young Olmsted. Thanks.


GULAHIYI said...

Charles Frazier makes no secret of the many works woven into "Cold Mountain." Having read Olmsted's 1850s account of WNC only a short time before, I recognized bits of it while reading Frazier.