By Dell Upton, University of California, Los Angeles
Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851–1934) was a pioneering critic and theorist of American architecture and landscape architecture. Between the late 1870s and the late 1890s, she was among the most influential voices in those fields, although she was never a practitioner of either.
Early Life and Education
Mariana Alley Griswold was born on February 25, 1851 to a wealthy New York family that made its money in the Canton tea trade and in real estate and finance. In common with many young women of her status, she was educated at home (on Fifth Avenue) by private tutors and, after her father closed the business and moved the family to Dresden in 1868, in Germany. By the time she returned from five years in Germany, Mariana had become fluent in German and French. In 1873, she married Schuyler Van Rensselaer, who bore the names of two of New York’s elite Dutch families of the seventeenth century. Her husband worked as a mining engineer until his early death in 1884, leaving his widow and their son comfortable but not extremely wealthy. Van Rensselaer’s education, as well as her husband’s profession, steeped her in current scientific thought, including that of Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, and Asa Gray, which helped to shape her thinking both about the relationship of design to environment and about the nature of artistic talent.11James Early, “Van Rensselaer, Mariana Alley Griswold,” in Notable American Women, 1607–1950, ed. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 3: 511–13; Judith K. Major, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 15–21, 183; David Gebhard, Introduction to Accents as Well as Broad Effects: Writings on Architecture, Landscape, and the Environment, 1876–1925, by Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer [henceforth MGVR, ed. David Gebhard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 4.
Mariana Van Rensselaer’s socioeconomic position deeply influenced her view of architecture and landscape architecture and provided her with the connections through which she was able to make a career as a writer. When she was young, Mariana Griswold had spent time at the Newport summer house of her uncle, J. N. A. Griswold, which had been designed by Richard Morris Hunt, while her brother George Griswold was a founder of the elite New York suburb of Tuxedo Park, whose houses were designed by many of the leading architects of the late nineteenth century. In adulthood, she met and engaged intellectually with some of the foremost designers of her day, most notably Frederick Law Olmsted and Henry Hobson Richardson. These circumstances of her youth and early adulthood stimulated an intense interest in architecture and landscape design.
Van Rensselaer should be understood first as a writer, one who was deeply occupied for about twenty years with the criticism and history of art, architecture, and landscape architecture, but who also published poetry and fiction, children’s literature, an anti-suffragist tract, and a two-volume history of seventeenth-century New York City. Her first publication was a poem, but she quickly turned to art criticism for the American Art Review. After that journal expired in 1881, her friendship with editor Richard Watson Gilder led to a long association with Century Magazine, in which many of her most important essays appeared. Her engagement with the Olmsted circle and others prominent in the growing field of landscape architecture (or landscape gardening, as she preferred to call it), led in 1887 to an active role in the journal, Garden and Forest, that lasted through most of that periodical’s run. In addition to a long list of signed articles, Van Rensselaer also wrote at least 333 unsigned editorials and articles for the magazine, as Judith K. Major has recently discovered.22Major, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, 207. Revised versions of many of these, along with the substance of her seven-part series “Landscape Gardening,” were collected in Art Out-of-Doors: Hints on Good Taste in Gardening (1893). During the same years, she also published book-length compilations of her art and architectural writings, translations of the works of European art critics, and a biography of Henry Hobson Richardson, which is probably her best-remembered work.
Van Rensselaer espoused conventional ideologies of domesticity and the woman’s sphere even as her career contradicted it. When Colorado women were granted the vote while she lived there in the winter of 1893–94, she voted, considering it a civic responsibility, but she opposed the suffragist movement. “Women are much weaker than men,” she wrote, their bodies fitted especially for motherhood. Although women needed more intellectual liberty than they then enjoyed, men were “the executive.” Because men had the whole economic responsibility, they should have the whole decision-making responsibility that voting exemplified. Women were sometimes forced to take the leading role in their own families, but this was “a misfortune, not an ‘opportunity.’”33Ibid., 274–75.
These contradictions were evident in Van Rensselaer’s writing career. In 1881, she declined an offer of the managing editorship of the foundering American Art Review on the grounds of her domestic duties, but she later described herself as “a working-woman who for many years has been thrown much with other working-women and with men of various classes and kinds.”44Major, 161–65; MGVR, “Woman in Public Life” (excerpt from Should We Ask for the Suffrage? ), in The Woman’s Athenaeum IX, The Woman of Affairs, Business, Professions, Public Life (New York: The Woman’s Athenaeum, 1912), 274. She was proud of her journalistic professionalism and insisted that editors and publishers extend her the respect and the prompt payment that her work merited. She published her books, intended for a wide audience, under the socially authoritative byline “Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer,” but her essays, which were aimed at a more intellectually engaged audience, were signed with the gender-neutral “M. G. Van Rensselaer.” Although she was ardently committed to advancing the architectural and landscape architectural professions, she never suggested that they were appropriate careers for women.
Van Rensselaer’s central theme was that architecture and landscape gardening were arts deserving of the same respect and requiring the same talents as the traditional fine arts. The landscape architect, for example, “must always interpret [the site]. To interpret means that he must invent; to invent means that he must use his mind; and, in truth, it is simply in using his mind that he gets the chance to be an artist. The less the beauty of his work depends upon mere imitative efforts, the more it depends upon qualities for which he is himself responsible—upon expression—the higher may be its rank as a work of art. . . . It is no truer to say of him than of the painter or sculptor that he copies nature.”55MGVR, “Landscape Gardening–III,” Garden and Forest [G&F] 1, no. 3 (March 14, 1888): 27.
Nevertheless, Van Rensselaer believed that there was a critical difference between architecture and garden design and the traditional fine arts. The latter were works of the imagination unconstrained by preexisting conditions or non-aesthetic demands, whereas the design of buildings and landscapes required attention to both the aesthetic and the practical. She saw architecture as a “mixed art whose ends are use and beauty interwoven.”66MGVR, “Public Buildings (1),” in Accents as Well as Broad Effects, 125. The art of design consisted in expressing the necessary in a beautiful way.
Appropriateness and fitness were the building blocks of Van Rensselaer’s critical lexicon, the “foundation of all artistic excellence.”77MGVR, “Architectural Fitness,” in Accents as Well as Broad Effects, 49. For the landscape architect, appropriateness consisted in “respect[ing] the frame which she [Nature] furnishes for his picture,” using the site’s natural topography as a guide and employing plants suited to the climate and topography. Yet the simple imitation of nature was not appropriate, since nature never creates in the small space with which the designer has to work the unified, fully imagined work of art that such a space requires. Ultimately, in fact, landscape architecture was about art more than about nature, and if one were forced to choose, an artistic education would suffice even in the absence of botanical expertise or a particular fondness for natural landscapes, which might develop as the designer matured.88MGVR, “Landscape Gardening–I,” American Architect and Building News 22, no. 614 (October 1, 1887): 159. Shortly before she published her seven-part “Landscape Gardening” series in Garden and Forest, MGVR published a three-part essay under the same title in American Architect and Building News.
Architects must also think in a site-specific manner, but most of all, they must start from a consideration of the “character” of the projected structure, which embodied “the functions of its several necessary parts, and the qualities and demands of its materials.” She wrote, “Architecture is, like every other art, first of all a means of expression,” but it did not follow that architecture was merely visual. It was wrong to believe “that building and architecture are two different things, that delight alone is the object of the latter, and . . . is to be attained through superficial decoration. . . . From this mistaken theory, consciously or unconsciously held, have come not only most of the stupidity and vacillation of modern criticism, but much of the poverty and falseness of modern work itself. . . . The chief elements in architectural beauty, as in architectural strength and fitness, are structural elements,” although Van Rensselaer was unwilling to believe that architectural beauty could be achieved through structural expression alone.99MGVR, “Public Buildings (1),” 131–32.
Van Rensselaer’s consciousness of architecture’s and landscape gardening’s origins in the specific extended to her understanding of their context and the circumstances of their creation. Her criticism of new buildings such as Madison Square Garden (1890) or the Boston Public Library (1895), both designed by McKim, Mead and White, often included extended histories of their sites and consideration of nearby structures. She treated the works under review as agents of urban cultural and physical evolution—for the better, she hoped. Madison Square Garden, she predicted in 1894, “will preserve the whole of Madison Square from degrading, and even from all baldly commercial, [sic] innovations.”1010MGVR, “The Madison Square Garden,” in Accents as Well as Broad Effects, 96. She also thought that Madison Square Garden was “so big and so beautiful that it will never be removed” (97).
Van Rensselaer was keenly aware that buildings and landscapes were shaped not only by the particular demands of the project at hand, but by architects’ interactions with their clients and by the ways that architectural offices operated. She produced several essays devoted to architect-client relations, urging upon clients the employment of architects or landscape architects even for the simplest projects and the treatment of designers as equals, not as (mere) employees. The final work, if successful, should be credited equally to skilled architect and wise client.1111MGVR, “Client and Architect,” in Accents as Well as Broad Effects, 41–43. She also understood the division of labor in a large architectural office and argued that its products (here, she was thinking explicitly of McKim, Mead and White), “should be publicly credited to that firm, to that office” as a whole rather than to a single designer.1212MGVR, “Madison Square Garden,” 87.
In keeping with her contextual understanding of the design process, Van Rensselaer proposed in 1887 a program of study that acknowledged the “mixed” character of the professions and emphasized practical knowledge over individual genius. A budding landscape architect should study visual composition and art theories in the same way prospective painters do and should have the three-dimensional training of a sculptor.1313MGVR, “Landscape Gardening–I,” 158. His understanding of nature should not be that of a “scientific botanist” but of a “practical cultivator.” He should also be educated as an architect and civil engineer. And he should travel to Europe to understand the work of his predecessors.1414MGVR, “Landscape Gardening–II,” 263.
In 1887, Van Rensselaer devoted an entire essay to architectural education. For the most part, she recommended then-standard elements of professional training. She added the necessity of a college education, which in the second half of the nineteenth century was increasingly used as a social filter to distinguish the social status of professionals from that of manual workers.1515MGVR, “Architecture as a Profession,” in Accents as Well as Broad Effects, 32; Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), 88–89, 277–78, 288–90. College was useful primarily as a source of contacts and a school of genteel manners: “Tact—which means a keen insight into other minds and a perfect control of one’s own mind and tongue—is desirable in every relationship of life, but absolutely essential if one would succeed in architecture. And tact grows best and quickest through such commerce with cultivated men of various aims and ages as college life supplies.” In college, one should also study history and foreign languages—French, at least—which would convey “the broadest, deepest cultivation . . . demanded for the fostering of that precious quality called taste,” since “an architect must be able to meet any possible client upon equal intellectual terms . . .” Next should come study in an American architecture school, followed by a year or two at the École des Beaux-Arts, and apprenticeship in an active architectural office at home.1616MGVR, “Architecture as a Profession,” 33–34. This was not a path available to the kinds of rough-hewn, trained-on-the-job practitioners who constituted the majority of the profession through most of the nineteenth century.
For Van Rensselaer, architecture and landscape architecture were skills that could be acquired through personal, professional, and architectural education. Yet when she turned to her two favorite designers, Olmsted and Richardson, her view was much more romantic and effusive. Her treatments of both men combined the Vasarian and the Darwinian in equal measures. Like Giorgio Vasari, she sought signs of genius and vocation in their early lives. Olmsted “was instinctively, persistently a rambler” who “was never tempted into any scientific study, but gave himself up to the silent influence of wood and field, hillside, brook, and cloud.” But, in the mode of popular Darwinism, she also thought that genius was in some sense a hereditary quality. She searched for its explanation in genealogy, reviewing the life and character of Richardson’s great-grandfather, the scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley, for example, for clues to that architect’s talent.1717MGVR, “Frederick Law Olmsted,” 861; MGVR, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works (New York: Dover, 1888, 1969), 1–3.
Van Rensselaer’s critical goal was to define a genteel, distinctly American landscape, free of crudity and commercialism, “the pulling of overhead and underground political wires,” and other “illegitimate vexations.”1818MGVR, “Frederick Law Olmsted,” Century Illustrated Magazine 46, no. 6 (October 1893): 860–67. Architecture should “harmonize with the ideas of cultivated men and women who are heirs of all the ages, living in a state of superior enlightenment,” rather than indulging the regrettable popular taste for “the new and marvellous.”1919MGVR, “Architectural Fitness,” 49; MGVR, “The Triumph of the Fair-Builders,” in Accents as Well as Broad Effects, 74. She saw Olmsted’s struggle to achieve his own artistic vision as equally a “battle for better municipal conditions.” She approved, for example, “the decorous, law-abiding, rule-respecting throngs” who came to Central Park on Sundays, “throngs much larger and of much more motley composition” than those foreseen when the park was initially planned, and she laughed at the early critics who thought Olmsted and Vaux’s plan too “aristocratic” and “artistic” to be successful in the United States. At the same time, Van Rensselaer was equally scornful of the architectural excesses wrought by those with large new fortunes.2020MGVR, “Frederick Law Olmsted,” 864–65.
Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer’s promotion of the design professions earned her honorary membership in both the American Institute of Architects (circa 1890) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (1920). At the end of the nineteenth century, though, her interests turned from the criticism of architecture and landscape to broader concerns with culture, environment, and social welfare characteristic of genteel Americans in the Progressive Era. For the remainder of her life, she volunteered in a wide range of social and aesthetic causes. For example, she taught for several years at the University Settlement in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (est. 1886), served as the president of the Public Education Association of New York, worked as a school inspector, and raised funds for the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement and the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. In the same spirit, she worked with the New York State Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage for Women. She advocated rural planning and the construction of parks in the wilderness and in poor urban neighborhoods.2121Early, “Van Rensselaer,” 511–13; Major, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, 3, 13, 176. The break was as not as abrupt as it seems, for these new pursuits were consonant with the genteel reformist view of design that she had presented in her design criticism.
Van Rensselaer owned a house on West Tenth Street, where she entertained friends in the arts and literature and publishing. Among her guests were her friend Richard Watson Gilder, who had published many of her most important essays in the Century Magazine, and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose bronze relief of Van Rensselaer, in a frame designed by Stanford White, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The unframed original is at Harvard’s Fogg Museum.) Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer died in New York City on January 20, 1934.