Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on December 7, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author at:
Albert Tissandier: Drawings of Nature and Industry in the United States: 1885
by Mary Francey
When Albert Tissandier (1839-1906) arrived in New York City in 1885 to begin a six month long journey across the United States he was, like many European tourists, eager to explore unfamiliar American territories. However, while most adventurous nineteenth century travelers were attracted by promises of spectacular scenery beyond the Mississippi River, Tissandier was equally interested in mechanized and electrified urban centers. Trained the architecture program at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he had mastered the philosophical foundation of an academic education as well as an extensive knowledge of mechanics and engineering. His route across the country offered a wide range of subjects from which he produced finished drawings of nature and industry that, as engravings, illustrated accounts of his travels in the French publications Le Monde and La Nature. Although most travelers expected to find a picturesque and idealized nature, Tissandier looked forward to experiencing all aspects of sparsely inhabited and geographically imposing western territories. At the same time, he was equally fascinated by the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, widely acclaimed as the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century, and was intrigued by the elevator, invented in 1851 by Elisha Otis, which made it possible to reach upper levels of the growing number of skyscrapers in large Eastern cities.
Like most French citizens, Tissandier had observed the urbanizing effects of industrialization with mixed feelings. The idea that mechanization could improve society, and that industries offered a better way of life for the large population of peasants who for centuries had depended on the land for their livelihood, was not easily accepted in France. Following the social upheaval of the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution caused the nearly complete demise of a long-established social class as entire communities of people abandoned an agrarian way of life to work in city-located factories. Painters in particular viewed industrialization and mechanization as dehumanizing intruders in their landscapes. Some, including Camille Pissarro and Charles Daubigny reluctantly acknowledged the changes by incorporating factories in their compositions. In contrast, Vincent van Gogh expressed deep concern about the effects of industry in his Paris paintings of 1886 and 1887 by emphasizing excavations that scarred the perimeter of the expanding city.
Tissandier's observations of how easily Americans incorporated mechanical and technical innovations into their daily routines must therefore be understood from the viewpoint of a Frenchman who had seen a different situation in his own country. He wrote:
Americans associated nature, and the natural sublime, with an emerging definition of a cultural identity that evolved from this continent instead of one that imitated European standards. Niagara Falls, which Tissandier visited twice, symbolized nature in the service of industry and represented the country's emerging economic power. An image that inspired more artistic production than any other contemporary subject, it became a pictorial symbol of the nation's identity as a chosen land (Hughes, 160). In fact, the nineteenth century landscape was, in general, a subject that supported a vigorous economy in tourism and leisure activity (Roskill, 121). For European travelers, the American landscape offered welcome reassurance of a spiritual presence in nature. Accordingly, Tissandier's publishers targeted an audience of wealthy tourists who were seeking natural phenomena which, they believed, would be invested with an element of the sacred that was increasingly less evident in modernized, secularized, urbanized Europe (Roskill).
As his route took him from the engineering and architectural achievements of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. to the unincorporated territories of the West, Tissandier saw unusual geographical conditions and long stretches of uninhabited land. He found no tall buildings or masterfully engineered bridges; instead he filled the pages of his sketch books with drawings of majestic mountains, vast open spaces, and strange geological structures. Viewed from the security and relative comfort of a Pullman palace car speeding along at twenty-five miles an hour, the changing geographies often seemed a blur of desolate prairies punctuated by occasional signs of human or animal habitation. However, Tissandier rarely enjoyed the opulence of Pullman travel as most of his itinerary took him to remote regions of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California and Washington that required travel on foot, horseback, or horse drawn wagon. Describing his route from Milford to Cedar City, Utah, he wrote:
Although little land in the United States was still unclaimed at the end of the nineteenth century, many western territories were uncultured, untamed, and unincorporated. "The American landscape" observed George Templeton Strong grumpily in the 1840s, had neither "a legendary past nor a poetic present," only "large mountains, extensive prairies,, tall cataracts, long rivers, millions of dirty acres of every cosmological character which do not provide a basis for poetry" (Hyde, 17). Visitors who looked for a picturesque ideal unspoiled by human presence were surprised and often, like Strong, disappointed. The rigors of travel through genuine wilderness was far from their expectations of a cultivated nature that invited genteel discovery.
Artists too were compelled to revise their approach to landscape subjects when confronted by the limitless space and towering mountains of the American west. Landscape, for artists, was a scenic reiteration of Claude Lorrain's picturesque neoclassical formula for imposing an intellectualized structure on an unpredictable and chaotic nature. Adherence to the seventeenth century Claudian convention was, for American painters, an attempt to depict nature filtered through the discerning eyes of a "great European artist." (Knight, 152-153) Furthermore, Americans who imitated French or English models were more successful in gaining recognition and support for their work (Hyde, 17).
Much regional nineteenth century American landscape painting was, therefore, derivative and less than authentic. However, the distinctive features of the North American landscape with its rugged mountains, vibrant colors, and unique characteristics of indigenous people and animals, offered challenges well outside the range of established European artistic standards. The formulaic pictorial vocabulary that described classical monuments set in an orderly nature proved surprisingly inadequate when attempting to represent the limitless space of the western deserts, or the scale of the Rocky Mountains, on paper or canvas. The savage splendor of the mountains and deserts of the western regions could not be described in European terms, the distinctive power of the western American landscape demanded visual and literary language independent of foreign models. Defying expectations of orderly arrangements of natural forms was John Fremont's description of his first view of the Rocky Mountains as "...a gigantic disorder of enormous masses and a savage sublimity of naked rock" (Hyde, 4). While European landscape incorporated a sense of a cultural past, the western American landscape was, in contrast, a vast wilderness with little evidence of earlier societies.
The power of that wilderness became more apparent to Tissandier as he viewed rock formations, canyons, mountains, deserts and forests of giant Sequoias. The perspective that regulated his perceptions shaped his record of the route through Utah, Arizona,California, and the Dakota territories. His drawings are intricately detailed and controlled, yet they acknowledge the harsh conditions of dry deserts and treacherous canyons. Hostile to human habitation, desert environments can offer a version of the sublime that has nourished civilization for centuries. Old Testament prophets saw the Sinai Desert as a place where they might discern the nature of God's transcendent power and redemptive love (Kemel and Gaskell, 143-145). The New Testament chronicles Jesus's forty days in the wilderness where he was sent to endure Satan's temptations. While Tissandier's reactions cannot be construed as biblical in origin, he recorded his desert experiences with drawings that contrast diminutive figures with overpowering rock and cliff formations that clearly communicate feelings of endless space and loneliness. Defined as tropology, in which a particular point of view on the part of artist or author solicits a related response from an intended audience (Roskill, 121), Tissandier represented a humanity that neither dominates, or is dominated by, nature but is in accord with nature's power. With its seemingly endless plains, strong winds, desolation, and scarcity of life, the desert helped shape a definition of a strong new-world culture. During the late nineteenth century, many Americans saw the possibility of agricultural wealth in the deserts of the West and Southwest, and optimistically believed that the planting of crops would produce rain (Kemal and Gaskell).
The desert that Tissandier visited supported only meager livelihood for the few hardy people he met. These included some sheepherders, ranchers, and cowboys whose lonely existence he described:
He also commented that:
The history of humankind in this desolate environment was represented by a local American Indian culture. Skilled in adapting to desert, forest, and prairie conditions, they were models for pioneering white settlers who established communities in these remote territories. Instead of a backward people, nineteenth century anthropologists recognized Indians as heirs of ancient and complex societies that had fashioned beautiful and functional objects, built religious and domestic architecture, and maintained written records that defined civilization even by European standards (Hyde, 229-231). Americans, ever in search of a national identity, found they could claim a cultural history derived from, and shaped by, the presence of humans who had, for centuries, co-existed harmoniously with a God-created nature.
Changing attitudes notwithstanding, most tourists clung to the myth of a "good" Indian who adhered dutifully to federal regulations that relegated them to living on designated reservations. Tourists who had discovered the documentary potential of the camera were especially attracted to Indians as subjects. Tissandier, however, regarded the Ute Indians he met at Mangum Spring as people with primitive but gentle customs. He described their general appearance as "...impressive with slightly flat faces, broad prominent cheekbones, and skin the color of old Florentine bronzes." He wrote that: "..their long, dark hair was braided, forming long tresses intermixed with red cotton threads in the manner of ancient Gauls." In comparison to most Americans who regarded Indians as uncivilized, cunning, and cruel, Tissandier's description was more like prevailing French attitudes toward their African colonies. He measured Indians by European standards, viewing them as a less culturally evolved people, but industrious, demonstrating an admirable sense of community and a deep respect for the land. He also noted that, as the Indians established a camp their fires would often cause forest fires that destroyed acres of trees creating clearings that, often, were claimed later by westward migrating settlers.
As his journey took him through the spectacular scenery of the Kaibab Plateau and Marble Canyon, Tissandier met a party of pioneers who were attempting to repair the broken wheels of their covered wagon. The despairing women, he said, were weeping as they emptied the wagon of their baggage and tried to comfort their children. This unfortunate group was typical of the people who braved life in the desolate regions of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Although the desert, ringed with cinder covered mountains, was strangely beautiful, it did not sustain human life easily. Tissandier repeatedly commented on the harsh conditions in which the few people he met there supported themselves by ranching, herding sheep, and mining. Mormon families, he said, lived in this desolate land in isolated villages in the manner of ancient pastoral people. They lived a reclusive life, rarely receiving news from the outside world. Letters were delivered by a "postman in a primitive conveyance" who regularly but infrequently left mail in a small white box located in a grassy field. This was a communal post office where people could sort through accumulated mail in the hope there might be a letter addressed to them. Tissandier noted the strong faith and "bizarre" religious beliefs of these Mormon families who defended their practice of polygamy on biblical grounds. However, he attributed the fact that he saw no polygamous households to their extremely poor living conditions, and that most men found it a hardship to support one family. He regarded his experiences in Utah and Arizona as pleasant, and perceived Mormons to be hospitable, good to strangers, gentle, and educated, with an interest in all aspects of history and civilization. "They accepted me as a brother, and I could ask for nothing more" he wrote.
Leaving southern Utah, Tissandier returned to Salt Lake City where he boarded a train for California, noting along the trip that: "Fertile plains became more and more frequent along our route as we approached California and the great city of San Francisco." In sharp contrast with the harsh living conditions in rural Utah and Arizona, San Francisco offered opportunities to experience urban life on the country's west coast. Like New York's elevated trains, the cable cars merited a thorough mechanical analysis in his journal. Begun in 1873, the tramway system quickly became the favored mode of transportation in the city and, as Tissandier commented, had already "...received the sanction of practice."
Although San Francisco, and trips to the Mariposa Forest and Yosemite Valley appealed to a majority of European tourists, it was Yellowstone Park's strangely alien terrain that attracted the hardiest and most adventurous travelers. John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, first described Yellowstone's geysers and lakes in 1807 when it was known only to Indians, trappers and mountain men. Later, Thomas Moran joined the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey expedition that explored north-western Wyoming (Hughes, 199). Moran's paintings of the area, based on sketches he made during the expedition, were instrumental in persuading Congress to declare Yellowstone the nation's first national park in 1872. Moran's paintings also identified the Park as a marketable tourist attraction although there were no roads through the area and no accommodations within or near the Park. Tourist travel increased after 1883 when the Northern Pacific Railroad finally reached Livingston, Montana and, following President Chester Arthur's three-week visit that year, the Park received national exposure (Hyde, 246).
Noting that the trip to Yellowstone by train was long but less difficult than it had been five years before, Tissandier's description of the Park was characteristically written in meticulous detail. He found the geothermal activity so fascinating that he visited all the major geysers. He documented distinctive formations produced by silica and limestone deposits that had accumulated for centuries with drawings that capture the unique qualities of the terrain honeycombed with numerous cave formations.
When translated into prints for publication in La Nature, Tissandier's drawings reached a wide audience of travelers eager to explore designated sites in the United States that were receiving widespread publicity. Three years after Tissandier's cross-country trek, Rudyard Kipling visited Yellowstone Park and described the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as a
The Northern Pacific Railroad launched a promotional campaign to market the Park by distributing pamphlets and maps of the region that described its myriad geothermal and geologic attractions. Like Niagara Falls, Yellowstone's picturesque and sublime qualities were vigorously promoted to support a rapidly growing tourist industry.
Because his interests were wide-ranging, drawings in Tissandier's journal were not limited to landscapes. He recorded a variety of unique experiences in both sparsely and densely populated regions of the country that would appeal to other travelers. Niagara Falls, Old Faithful Geyser, Pueblo Indian dwellings and spectacular western mountains and canyons had already become commodities that supported a brisk tourist trade, and photographs, drawings, and paintings of such attractions were eagerly reproduced in promotional literature. Tissandier's drawings in LeMonde and LaNature, and those in his book Six Mois aux États Unis, published in 1888, of interesting but less widely known places caught the attention of travelers, both American and European, whose experiences were inevitably mediated by his initial responses to these subjects,
Andrews, Malcolm. Landscape and Western Art. Cambridge University Press, 1993
Berker, Jules. The Course of Exclusion. San Francisco. Mellon Research University Press, 1991
Bjelajac, David. American Art, A Cultural History. New York, Abrams, 2000.
Haines, Aubrey L. The Yellowstone Story, vol. 1: A History of Our First National Park. Yellowstone Library and Museum Association, Colorado Associated Press, 1977.
Hyde, Anne Farrar. An American Vision-Far Western Landscape and American Culture, 1820-1920. New York. New York University Press, 1990.
Kemal, Salim and Gaskell, Ivan. Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts. Massachusetts, Blackwell Press, 1998.
Kinsey, Joni L. The Majesty of the Grand Canyon, 150 Years in Art. California, First Glance Books, 1998.
Roskill, Mark. The Languages of Landscape. Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
Tissandier, Albert. Six Mois Aux Etats-Unis, 1885-1886.
La Nature, 1888.
Tissandier drawings and accompanying essays
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About the Author
Mary Francey, Ph.D, is Professor Emerita of Art and Art History, University of Utah, and retired Curator of American Art, Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
The images of the Albert Tissandier drawings were provided to Resource Library by the author.
This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on December 7, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author granted to TFAO on November 30, 2009. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author at:
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