Andrew Jackson (A. J.) Downing (1815-1852) was an American landscape designer, horticulturist and writer who became influential in American architectural design despite not being an architect himself. A proponent of the Gothic Revival style, Downing believed that one’s home could influence the morals of its owners and that America would be uplifted if the middle class lived in tasteful surroundings augmented by nature.
In 1842 Downing collaborated with architect Alexander Jackson (A. J.) Davis on Cottage Residences, a pattern book of houses for prospective homebuilders that mixed aspects of Romantic architecture with the pastoral picturesque architecture of the English countryside. With the accessibility of this and subsequent pattern books marketed to the middle class, Downing and his philosophical ideals became enormously popular in his time.
A native son of Newburgh, Downing’s career was cut short at age 36 when he was killed along with 80 others in a boiler explosion and fire aboard the steamship Henry Clay on its way to New York City. His ideas influenced the design of New York City’s Central Park designed by his collaborator Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted and raise the tantalizing question of what else Downing might have done had he not lost his life so young.
On the occasion of the bicentennial of Downing’s birth on October 31, 1815, the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College in Poughkeepsie is presenting a daylong symposium, “Worlds of Andrew Jackson Downing: A Bicentennial Celebration,” on Saturday, October 24 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The program is free of charge to attend and open to the public, but an RSVP is requested a week prior to [email protected]. Lunch at the college dining hall will be available for a fee; the RSVP should include whether the attendee plans to purchase lunch.
The following day, Sunday, October 25, a walking tour of the landscape restoration at Springside in Poughkeepsie will be conducted by Vassar College’s Harvey Flad at 10:30 a.m. The event is free to attend. Later that afternoon at 1 p.m., “In the Footsteps of Downing” will take attendees on a walking tour of landscapes and buildings in Newburgh designed by A. J. Downing and his partners Calvert Vaux and Frederick Clarke Withers. Participants will assemble at the Old City Courthouse and Newburgh Heritage Center at 123 Grand Street in Newburgh for a brief talk and slideshow. The suggested donation is $20 per person to benefit the Newburgh Preservation Association and the Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance.
Speakers at the symposium include Thomas Wermuth, director of the Hudson River Valley Institute, Marist College; Aaron Sachs, associate professor of History at Cornell University; William Krattinger, northern New York coordinator for the state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation; Caren Yglesias, architect and author; David Schuyler, professor of Humanities and American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College; Harvey Flad, professor emeritus of Geography at Vassar College; Francis R. Kowsky, SUNY distinguished professor emeritus, Buffalo State College; Arleyn Levee, independent scholar; J. Winthrop Aldrich, former deputy commissioner for historic preservation; and Kerry Dean Carso, chair and associate professor of Art History at SUNY-New Paltz, where she teaches courses on American Art and Architecture.
Carso is the author of American Gothic Art and Architecture in the Age of Romantic Literature (2014) and is working on a second book manuscript, Landscapes of Nationalism: Garden and Park Architecture in America, 1776-1876. She has published several articles on Gothic Revival architecture and Romantic painting in peer-reviewed journals and several essays on architecture in Hudson River School paintings in exhibition catalogs for SUNY-New Paltz’s Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. Her essay on Hudson River School painter Jervis McEntee appears in the catalogue for the current exhibit there. In fall 2014, she co-edited with Thomas Wermuth an issue of The Hudson River Valley Review on “Painters, Writers and Tourists in the 19th Century” and contributed an essay to the volume. Recently Carso sat down with Almanac Weekly’s Sharyn Flanagan to discuss A. J. Downing.
What is the most important thing to know about A. J. Downing if you had to encapsulate it?
The important thing to know is that he was, in this antebellum period, the premier tastemaker in America. Through his books and through his published journal [The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste], he was teaching people how to be refined, how to be genteel. He was encouraging his readers to be aspirational: You want to have a fine-looking home that expresses who you are.
Downing believed that having a beautiful home in the American countryside elevated us as a country. This was an era of nationalism, when Americans were searching around and trying to figure out what makes us unique from Europeans. Downing suggests the importance of the home, and how this thing so vital to everyone’s lives has a civilizing effect on people; and if we were going to be taken seriously as a nation, then we needed to have beautiful homes. And I think that still resonates with people today. Your home expresses something about you and your status in society.
Why has there been so much scholarship about Downing?
Downing strikes a chord with people, I think, because he’s so accessible. You can still buy his books in Dover editions on Amazon or look at them online; they’ve been digitized. And most of his writings were published. Whereas someone like A. J. Davis had a long life – into his 80s – and wrote down everything he did every day; all of his letters and sketches are in four libraries in New York City, and it would take a lifetime to go through it all. So nobody has ever written a definitive book on Davis. Also, Davis would draw something early in his life and then annotate it years later, so there’s always the question of, “When did he write that?” There’s a lot of primary source material to get a handle on with Davis, and buildings you have to go visit. But with Downing, his books and articles are the key sources.
Most of his designs no longer exist because Downing was a landscape designer, not an architect, and landscapes don’t last like architecture does. His legacy is these books, and they were very influential, so it’s easy to trace the influence of what he did.
Downing was able to reach a lot of people. The books weren’t expensive to produce: They had no color imagery, they were small-scale, so they were accessible. The books became wildly successful and it did make the styles, predominantly Gothic Revival, proliferate, especially for domestic architecture. And other people followed in his footsteps.
The other thing about Downing is that he was a theorist. That is always influential. If someone like Davis is designing a Gothic Revival house, it’s just the house. But what’s the theory behind it? Why should we like that style? What does that house mean to me? Downing was the one who provided the theoretical background, and the reason why. He gave us a reason to care about it: that you were connected to nature, and that was morally uplifting. Downing provided us with the rationale for building houses like this, and he was persuasive.
Why did Downing equate nature with moral living?
In a country that was quickly industrializing and urbanizing in the 19th century, Downing was advocating a rural life. It was a Romantic idea: You want to get out of the city and commune with nature. If you have a porch – or a veranda, as he calls them – you are simultaneously inside and outside in nature. That was healthy, and had a civilizing effect; you would improve your house further by adding a landscape around it.
A lot of what he’s saying is still relevant today. I think we’re still struggling with that idea of being stressed out about city life. I think there’s a natural longing we have for nature, and Downing writes a lot about that.
Your portion of the symposium is on Downing’s influence into the 20th century from the standpoint of American art. Would you tell me a little more about that?
I teach American Art, and I’ve always taught American Gothic, the Grant Wood painting from 1930. The name of the painting comes from the Gothic Revival house in the background; it’s a real house in existence still in Eldon, Iowa, and Grant Wood was from Iowa. But why does he name a painting after the style of the house? It’s interesting to me, because my specialty is Gothic Revival architecture in the 19th century, and here it is appearing in 1930.
When putting together my lectures many years ago, I found photographs by Walker Evans of Gothic Revival cottages like the ones Downing was promoting in his books in the 19th century. I was curious: Why would Evans and Wood be photographing or painting these houses in the 1930s? And it’s not just these two; I found it fascinating that there were a number of painters at that time who were attracted to painting these Downingesque board-and-batten cottages. I wondered, why this kind of Downing revival? And were these 20th-century artists aware that this is Downing?
So that’s what I’ve been trying to uncover. Over the summer I spent a week in Iowa and went to the house in Eldon; it’s a tourist attraction now called the American Gothic House. I was interested in finding out what Grant Wood knew.
What did you discover?
As far as I can find, I don’t think he knew anything about Downing; but he had been to Europe, and he was fascinated by real medieval Gothic architecture. He did a lot of paintings of that, and when he came back to Iowa and saw this kind of flimsy wood-frame example of the pointed arch that he had seen in Gothic cathedrals, he just found that to be kind of absurd. Wood happened on this house while driving with a friend in Eldon, this tiny town. He jumped out of the car and made a sketch of it on the spot and then incorporated it into the painting. With American Gothic, he wanted to paint what the people who lived in a house like that would look like. He painted them with elongated faces, like you see in the Middle Ages, and they’re very serious farm folk.
This launched his career; it won an award in 1930 and was illustrated in a lot of national newspapers. It gave Wood a lot of success and was a new style for him that he called “regionalism.” People were interested in it because they couldn’t figure out: Was he praising the people of the heartland, or is it a critique? It was controversial, but it was talked about – and that got his career going.
“Worlds of Andrew Jackson Downing: A Bicentennial Celebration,” Saturday, October 24, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., free, Hudson River Valley Institute, Marist College, 3399 North Road, Poughkeepsie; RSVP by October 16 to [email protected], (845) 575-3052, www.hudsonrivervalley.org.
Walking tour of Springside landscape renovation, Sunday, October 25, 10:30 a.m., free, 26 Loockerman Avenue, Poughkeepsie.
“In the Footsteps of Downing,” Sunday, October 25, 1 p.m., $20, Old City Courthouse & Newburgh Heritage Center, 123 Grand Street, Newburgh; [email protected]