Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs

Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861. Oil on canvas. Dallas Museum of Art.

Ecocritical Art History on the A&AePortal

Patricia Fidler, Executive Director of the A&AePortal, recently interviewed Alan C. Braddock, Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History and Environmental Humanities at William & Mary, about his new born-digital ebook Implication: An Ecocritical Dictionary for Art History, in which a wide array of creative works from different cultures and time periods reveal the inescapable entanglement of art with ecology. Ancient Roman mosaics, Song dynasty Taihu rocks, a Tlaxcalan lienzo, early modern European engravings and altarpieces, a Kongo dibondo, nineteenth-century landscape paintings by Hudson River School artists and by African American artist Edward Mitchell Bannister, French Impressionist urban scenes, and contemporary activist art, among other works, disclose the intrinsic ecological conditions of art.

Kongo artist (Democratic Republic of Congo), Dibondo (grave object), ca. 1800. Ceramic, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Patricia Fidler: Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of the field of ecocritical art history? How did you first become interested in pursuing this in your research and writing?

Alan C. Braddock: Ecocritical art history evolved from scholarly innovations in literary studies and history. Literature scholars were doing something called “ecocriticism” and historians were exploring environmental history pretty extensively by the 1990s. Contemporary artists and art critics occasionally addressed ecological concerns during the late twentieth century, and a few art historians pondered the environmental significance of historical landscape painting, but none of these efforts were as focused or sustained as what scholars were doing elsewhere in the humanities. The first really important study in art history to take ecology seriously was Greg M. Thomas’s book Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau (Princeton, 2000), examining the work of a leading member of the Barbizon school in France. Several years later, my volume of essays co-edited with Christoph Irmscher, A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (Alabama, 2009), was the first book in art history to refer to ecocriticism in its title, as a way of signaling an interdisciplinary affiliation with scholars in literature and history. My own interest in ecocriticism grew directly out of my research on the art of Thomas Eakins, a Philadelphia painter whose pictures of athletic rowers and other outdoor scenes seem very realistic even as they discreetly filter out troubling truths about ecological modernity, including disastrous water pollution and environmental injustice. Eakins’s own sister, Margaret, died of typhoid—a disease caused by polluted water—but his pictures give no inkling of such problems, suggesting a disconnect between ecology and representation that invited ecocritical scrutiny. The 2010s and 2020s have seen an explosion of new scholarship in ecocritical art history addressing a wide range of topics and contexts.

PF: What are your goals for Implication? After reading your book, how do you hope students will reconsider the way they experience and appreciate art?

ACB: I hope that students and other readers of Implication will come away convinced that all art—regardless of historical period, context, genre, or medium—has an ecological connection to the world in which it was created. Sometimes the connection is obvious and intentional on the part of the artist as an explicit expression of environmentalist attitudes. More often, though, especially when considering historical art that is rarely environmentalist in orientation, the connection must be discerned through careful ecocritical inquiry that takes various kinds of evidence into account, including the formal appearance of the work, the materials with which it was made, the attitudes and historical context of the artist, and interdisciplinary knowledge about ecology and environmental history. Ultimately, I believe strongly that ecocritical interpretation makes art history both more interesting and more responsive to the world in which we live.

PF: With what audiences beyond art history do you hope your book will resonate?

ACB: I would be delighted if students, scholars, and other readers outside art history—notably in literature, history, and environmental studies—were to take an interest in my book. I think the book also has some important things to say about environmental justice. After all, art helps us recognize there are various ways of seeing and understanding ecology, depending on one’s perspective, so it has the power to reveal inequities and disproportionalities.

PF: You have been a pioneer in ecocritical art history and now you are at the forefront of embracing new publishing formats. What factors contributed to your decision to publish Implication as a born-digital book on the A&AePortal?

ACB: No publishing medium is without some sort of environmental footprint, but I really do like the fact that the A&AePortal will distribute Implication without consuming trees for paper or generating mountains of physical waste. I’ll feel even better when our electrical grid runs primarily on clean, renewable energy instead of fossil fuels and nuclear power. Perhaps just as importantly, a digital publication like this should be more accessible than a traditional printed book.

Launched in 2019, the A&AePortal is an authoritative resource that features important works of scholarship in the history of art, architecture, decorative arts, photography, and design. With its innovative features and user-friendly reading experience, the site offers students and scholars an engaging experience, encourages critical thinking skills, and supports rigorous academic study. The platform—especially beneficial for online coursework and remote learning—can dynamically transform research and publishing in the academic disciplines it represents.

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