Once the American landscape was visibly improved—by altering an original state of nature into one that was useful to man—it became a subject of interest to landowners and artists. Winthrop Chandler was one of the first American artists to visually engage with the landscape in a number of overmantels and portraits that he painted for relatives and neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The overmantel for his cousin John Chandler in Petersham, Massachusetts, however, seems totell a story that is closely allied to the concept of original genius.
The landscape is stratified into three levels. In the foreground is a desolate and rocky terrain, with inexplicable stepped paths. The middle ground is a neat arrangement of plantings, laid out in geometric formality. The background features an Italianate landscape that resembles the city of Florence, a center of artistic prospering during the Renaissance. A metaphorical reading of this scene evokes Enlightenment writings by Edward Young, Alexander Gerard, and William Duff, all of whom used the language of landscape as a symbolic device to express their ideas. The rocky terrain of the foreground is Young’s “barren waste” from which the “blooming spring” of original genius is to be wrested. Inspiration might flourish amid the untrodden paths of a primeval forest, but in the scheme of the Scottish Enlightenment, it would fly into incoherence unless reined in by taste, perhaps signified by the “improved” landscape of the middle ground. The Italianate scene in the distance represents the great achievements of the past, to whose heights the genius might aspire but which must be reached through original thought.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Scenic Overmantel,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.