By Song My Hoang
On Thursday, Jan. 17, Janice Simon, a professor of Art History at University of Georgia, presented her Ph.D. dissertation entitled, “The Crayon (1855-1861): The Voice of Nature in Criticism, Poetry and the Fine Arts”.
William James Stillman, Union class of 1848, was a co-founding editor of The Crayon, which was the first American periodical devoted exclusively to art.
Stillman was an American polymath who championed many causes throughout his life. He counted among his professions: landscape painter, art critic, U.S. ambassador to Rome and Crete, journalist, war correspondent, aspiring archeologist, Adirondacks woodsman and photographer.
During his early years, he held the profound belief in the united powers of art and nature to redeem humanity. “He carried out his belief through a transcendental engagement of the eye and mind,” commented Simon.
Simon explained, “The Crayon simply embodied the approach to nature with the eyes, senses heart, and soul.” Stillman believed that human beings needed to have a connection with nature.
“The journal was devoted to the advocacy of the interest of art, the exposition of the principles of taste and most importantly in my mind, the culture of the love of nature,” she continued.
Stillman, an avid traveler, discovered the reposeful spirit of transcendental idealism in the forest primeval of the Adirondacks.
He first traveled to the Adirondack wilderness in the summer of 1854, where he stayed in a log cabin on Upper Saranac Lake. His goal was to find new subjects for his paintings. He also sought spiritual freedom and closer contact to the spiritual world.
He returned yearly during the summer, sometimes staying in the woods for months. His letters to Charles Elliot Norton from the summer of 1855 to 1857 indicate the profound transformation that the Adirondack wilderness evoked in his mind.
“I had been there two days when all my annoyances had passed away. I came into the most delectable serenity. I was happy as a bird,” Stillman confessed to Norton.
A year later, Stillman expanded on his spiritual and mystical experiences in an article for The Atlantic. He recounted the procession of pine trees along the lake shoreline.
Stillman stated, “The pine trees overhead had an overtone in their meaning. Everything I saw manifested in life. Nature and I had all in common.”
The first two years of The Crayon exhausted Stillman to the point that he resigned editorship after the third volume.
Fortunately, Stillman painted more canvasses after his abandonment of The Crayon, which included his most famous painting, ‘The Philosopher’s Camp in the Adirondacks of 1858.” The 20 by 30 inch canvas depicts the first meeting of the Adirondack Club, a group of scientists and literati, who under the initiation of Stillman, left the city to return to the wilderness for physical and mental renewal.
The group consisted of Louis Agassiz, Jeffries Wyman, Estes Howe, E.R Hoar, James Russell Lowell, Amos Binney, Horatio Woodman, Williams James Stillman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson wrote a poem entitled “The Adirondacks” about his experience during the 1858 woodsman experience. At the age of 55, this was Emerson’s first visit to true wilderness.
The Adirondacks served as the locus and inspiration for the fundamental shift in Stillman’s artistic practice as he transitioned from being a painter to a photographer.
Stillman’s first ambitious photographic experiment, titled “Photographic Studies – Part 1: The Forest, Adirondack Woods,” consisted of a limited portfolio of 15 photographs of the Adirondack woods and was formally published in 1859.
His camera lens focused on trunks, ferns, sticks, twisted branches, masses of leaves, cliffs of dirt and crevices of rock.
“Stillman insisted on an uncomfortable closeness of the forest’s microcosmic materiality and denied the viewer any conventions of pictorial composition. The sky rarely appeared, horizon lines were non-existent, depth was shallow and perspective was repeatedly denied,” explained Simon.
This foreshadowed Stillman’s forthcoming abandonment of painting in the early 1860s. He turned to photography as his visual medium of choice to complement his journalistic endeavors. His photographs accompanied poetry by James Russell Lowell.
“Stillman participated in the transcendental strategy of cataloguing nature’s humble diversity as a means to express its divinity,” concluded Simon. Stillman’s photographic studies represented his connection with nature and served as visual records of the natural Adirondack forest.