Skip to Main Content

The Sixty-Sixth A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts: The Forest: America in the 1830s, Part 4: Animals Are Where They Are

Alexander Nemerov, department chair and Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities, Stanford University. In the six-part lecture series The Forest: America in the 1830s, Nemerov explores the Hudson River School painters and their contemporaries, focusing on what their art did and did not show of the teeming world around them. The forest serves as a metaphor for the unruly and wooded realms of lived experience to which art can only gesture. The lectures present a fundamentally new account of Thomas Cole (1801–1848), John Quidor (1801–1881), James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), and other artists and writers of that time.  The title of the fourth lecture, held on April 23, 2017, is “Animals Are Where They Are.” A tobacco bag made from the skin of a black-footed ferret, created by an Eastern Plains tribe around 1840, both is and is not a creature that once roamed through the woods. Augmented by leather, festooned by porcupine quills, wool cloth, silk ribbon, bird claws, brass bells and buttons, metal cones, a feather and animal hair, the ferret is exalted beyond its padding, ravenous life on the forest floor. Yet it is still itself, the same as it ever was. What is the special quality of animals that remains “in” works of art, even after they have been primped and styled and transformed into sacred and separate objects? As in the scholarship of Jennifer Roberts, how might John James Audubon’s depictions of birds have explored this same idea—that the creature, no matter how represented, always remains what and where it is?