The enjoyment of beauty is dependent on, and in ratio with, the moral excellence of the individual.
- The Crayon, New York's leading art magazine of the 1850's -
Don't you just love the definitive certainty of a connection between moral and beauty in the quote above? At the time when The Crayon wrote this, most writing about art was quite evangelical, full of conviction of that the arts could change the moral dimension of life. In America, the wilderness was seen as a prototype of Nature, the place where the designs of God could be seen in their pure and unedited stage. The vast, wild landscape and nature, that was being discovered during this period especially in the far West, became a symbol for America in art, and lead to numerous paintings depicting the American landscape, often in an idealized form.
The art of landscape gardening followed the same paths of thought. Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), one of the most significant voices in the area during 19th century, writes in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening from 1841 that "Although music, poetry, and painting, sister fine arts, have in all enlightened countries sooner arrived at perfection than Landscape Gardening, yet the latter offers to the cultivated mind in its more perfect examples, in a considerable degree a union of these sources of enjoyment...". Jackson Downing explains the two 'distinct modes' of landscape gardening art as the 'Ancient, Formal or Geometric Style', with regular forms and right lines, and the 'Modern, Natural or Irregular Style' with varied forms and flowing lines. He goes on to explain how "Every one, thought possessed of the least possible portion of taste, readily appreciates the cost and labour incurred in the first case, and bestows his admiration accordingly; but we must infer the presence of a cultivated and refined mind, to realize and enjoy the more exquisite beauty of natural forms". Which could be translated that the more moral excellence and taste the onlooker has, the more he or she enjoys the purest form of landscape architecture, which according to Jackson Downing is the 'Modern, Natural or Irregular Style'.
Jackson Downing continues to explain the reason for the change of taste (a favourite concept during of the first half of the 18th century) from the Formal to the Natural Style: "The increased admiration of landscape painting, poetry, and other fine arts, by imbuing many minds with a love of beautiful and picturesque nature, also tended to create a change in taste. Gradually, men of refined sensibilities perceived that besides mere beauty of form, natural objects have another and much higher kind of beauty - namely, the beauty of expression." And he ends his essay with the conclusion that "A natural group of trees, an accidental pond of water, or some equally simple object, may form a study more convincing to the mind of a true admirer of natural beauty, than the most carefully drawn plan, or the most elaborately written description". Of course, Jackson Downing's text follows similar developments and writings in Europe. It is interesting, though, that something of the "moral supremacy" of the Informal or 'Natural' style that Jackson Downing's writes about, can still be felt when reading about and visiting gardens of today, especially here in the United States (and I am not talking about sustainability or ecological issues here).
Coming back to the original quote: considering all the money and time we spend on all things of 'beauty' like art, books, films, magazines, most of us should be creatures of a great moral excellence, if that predication would have been true. Sadly, it does not seem to be so.
On the picture: A Tricyrtis hirta, a beautiful member of the lily family from the Himalayas. I grew it in my garden in Melbourne, Australia, and still get a bit nostalgic when I see it. I took this photo in a wonderful, private garden that Daniel Mount showed me for a couple of weeks ago; he has designed parts of the large garden and is the head gardener for it.