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The Sixty-Sixth A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts: The Forest: America in the 1830s, Part 6: The Forest of Thought: On the Roof with Robert Montgomery Bird

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 sixth and final lecture, held May 7, 2017, is “The Forest of Thought: On the Roof with Robert Montgomery Bird.” Bird, author of the bloodthirsty frontier novel Nick of the Woods (1837), turned late in his life to photography, making pictures in 1852-1853 from the roof of his Philadelphia home. Austere and eerie, Bird’s depopulated photographs of Philadelphia rooftops ruminate in Poe-like fashion on artistic isolation and private thought. They also strangely call to mind Bird’s fascination with split skulls and brains—the preferred mode of murder in Nick of the Woods. How do the heights of the head and the heights of the building both portray the attic of the mind, the (seemingly unrepresentable) forest of thought? The greatest dream of representation, if it would portray life itself, would be to catch fleeting thought on the wing.