The Geologic Revolution

     The science of geology developed as an influential field of study in the United States during the nineteenth century, affecting everything from government policy to art. Nearly everywhere, Americans were collecting rocks and minerals, attending public lectures on geology, and surveying the earth’s composition.
     Within that bustle of activity, the upper Hudson Valley became an important center for geological investigation. Amos Eaton, a lawyer turned scientist, and a founding member of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, conducted two model geology surveys, both commissioned and funded by wealthy landowner Stephan Van Rensselaer III: the first, a geological survey of Rensselaer County, New York (1821); and the second, a survey of the lands bordering the Erie Canal (1824). Years later in 1836, the New York State legislature approved support for a statewide survey that resulted in several indispensable reports. Other states carried out similar surveys with the main purpose of determining their “economical geology,” or their commercially valuable resources including building stones, clays, and metal ores.
     The interest in geology, however, reached well beyond official surveys, as suggested by The Knickerbocker magazine in 1834 when contributor Samuel L. Metcalf wrote: “It is, indeed, the fashionable science of the day.” For many, geology offered more than a glimpse at the earth’s strata; it opened a window onto moral and religious truths. In 1836, the North American Review elaborated: “It opens to us the great book of nature, where we may read the eternal truths of creation, those ‘sermons in stones,’ which were written by the finger of the ALMIGHTY.” Landscape artists were considered the interpreters of those truths, who captured with pencil and brush earth’s geological history.
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An Index to the Geology of the Northern States
Amos Eaton (1776–1842)
Published by W. S. Parker, Troy, NY, and Websters and Skinners, Albany, NY
Letterpress and engravings on paper in leather binding, 1820 (2nd ed.)
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC 551.8 EAT IND 1820
     "By attentively studying the present structure of the earth, and by duly considering the millions of organized beings whose remains are almost every where in the more recent strata, we may arrive at some correct views of the history of our planet.
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General View of the Economical Geology of New York and Part of the Adjoining States
Amos Eaton (1776–1842)
Hand-colored engraving, 1830
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, MAP 221
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Agriculture of New-York, Vol. 1
Ebenezer Emmons
Bound volume with lithographic plates, 1846
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC 630.9747 EMM AGR 1846 v. 1
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View of the Indian Pass
Charles Cromwell Ingham (1796-1863)
Lithographed by John Henry Bufford (1810-1870), New York City
Lithograph on paper, c. 1837
Albany Institute of History & Art, u1989.7.2
    Both this print and the following, Trap Dyke, at Avalanche Lake, illustrated the 1838 “Report of E. Emmons, Geologist of the 2d Geological District of the State of New-York,” also known as New York State Assembly Document no. 200. The report's ten views, drawn by Ebenezor Emmons, Charles Ingham, and others, and printed by the New York lithographic printer John Henry Bufford, are among the earliest printed views of the Adirondack Mountains and record the first use of the name “Adirondack.” These prints were also issued separately, attesting to the great interest in the region and its geological formations.
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Trap Dyke, at Avalanche Lake
Charles Cromwell Ingham (1796–1863)
Lithographed by John Henry Bufford (1810–1870), New York City
Lithograph on paper, c. 1837
Albany Institute of History & Art, u1989.7.4
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Cathedral Ledge
Asher B. Durand (1796-1886)
Oil on canvas, 1855
Gift of Miss Jane E. Rosell, 1987.20.4
    When donated to the Albany Institute by a descendent, Asher B. Durand’s painting was known as The Shawangunks, a mountain range just south of the Catskills. A rock climber visiting the museum observed that the rock formations in the painting were vertical like those found at Cathedral Ledge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, rather than horizontal, like rocks found in the Shawangunks. Further research revealed that Durand was working in North Conway, New Hampshire, during the summer of 1855, which led to a new title, Cathedral Ledge. Like other painters of the Hudson River School, Durand paid close attention to the structure and shape of rocks, providing information about a region's geological evolution.
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Nature Study
John Frederick Kensett (1816 – 1872)
Oil on canvas, c. 1850
Private Collection
    John Frederick Kensett frequently painted rock formations with amazing attention to detail. Here, in this narrow woodland scene, the light-colored boulder in the foreground attracts the viewer’s notice and draws the eye toward the rock’s crevices and moss-covered surface. The boulder is Kensett’s primary subject, the star of his production. He even focused a beam of light directly on the boulder, like a spotlight on a stage performer, and the trees and bushes that surround it form the backdrop.
     In the April 27, 1850, issue of Literary World, a reviewer of the National Academy of Design exhibition made note of Kensett’s talent with rocks: “As a painter of rocks we know of no one superior to Kensett.”
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Nahant Coast
William Stanley Haseltine (1835–1900)
Pencil and ink wash on paper, c. 1864
Gift of Helen Haseltine Plowden, 1958.13
    The small peninsula of Nahant juts into Massachusetts Bay just fifteen miles north of Boston. The fresh sea breezes and stunning views that visitors enjoy today began to attract wealthy summer vacationers as early as the 1820s. In 1855, the local engineer and architect, Alonzo Lewis, published the first guidebook to the fashionable resort, The Picture of Nahant, in which he lists the peninsula’s many pleasures, including its healthy and invigorating environment, its beautiful scenery, and its isolation from the heat and noise of cities. Lewis also touts “the numerous beaches and coves around its shores, interspersed and varied by the craggy and precipitous cliffs, comprising the greatest diversity of primitive and igneous formation any where to be found within so small a compass, affording a most interesting study for the geologist.”
     The rocks of Nahant were the resort’s most popular attractions. The Philadelphia-born artist William Stanley Haseltine visited Nahant in the early 1860s, possibly at the invitation of the acclaimed scientist Louis Agassiz, who maintained a summer cottage on the peninsula, and who studied and wrote about the rocks of Nahant. Haseltine’s paintings and drawings of Nahant’s rocks convey an accurate picture of their geologic origins and the effects of glaciation, which Agassiz described in his Harvard classes and public lectures. A notice in Watson’s Weekly Art Journal for October 1864 commented: “Agassiz pronounces the rocks of Nahant to be the oldest on the globe, and that they are of volcanic origin. Mr. Haseltine fully conveys their character in his pictures.”
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Watkins Glen
James Hope (1818–1892)
Oil on canvas, c. 1870
Collection of Nicholas V. Bulzacchelli
    The eroded limestone walls that form Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes of central New York are captured in amazing detail in this painting by James Hope. One can easily see in the layers and striations the transformative effects caused by thousands of years of running water. Yet Hope’s painting is not merely about geology and the processes of change; it is a visual embodiment of time itself, a tangible sign that allows its viewers to see something intangible.
     Hope spent his early years in Vermont after emigrating from Scotland. Although he worked as a wheelwright, he developed a talent for painting portraits in the late 1830s, while convalescing from a severe ankle injury. Within a few years he met the Albany artist William Hart, and later Frederic Edwin Church, who persuaded Hope to take up landscape painting. Hope painted the scenery of New York and New England and showed his work at many public exhibitions, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design.
     On his way to the Rocky Mountains in 1870, Hope stopped in central New York and found the area around Watkins Glen inspiring. He built a house and studio on the edge of the gorge and remained there for the rest of his life, painting the local scenery and exhibiting his work in the Glen Art Gallery, a museum Hope founded in 1872. Most of Hope’s paintings remained in family hands, and in 1935, more than eighty of his canvases were destroyed in a flood. The present painting was one of the rare survivors, suffering only minor damage along the lower edge.
Jacob’s Ladder, Watkins Glen
Photographed by Charles E. M. Taber, Albany, NY
c. 1870
Albumen stereograph on printed card, c. 1870
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, PC 31
     Photographic stereographs allowed Americans to travel in the comfort of their own homes. They could view the wonders of Rome and London, or the scenic charms of tourist sites such as Watkins Glen. Stereographs were also collected as souvenirs—keepsakes to remind one of attractions visited in person.
     Charles E. M. Taber sold his stereographs of Watkins Glen at his Indian Store and Glen Bazaar, the “Wholesale and Retail Emporium of Curiosities.” They sold for 20 to 25 cents for single views, $2.00 and $2.50 per dozen, or $3.00 and $4.00 per set (twenty cards in each set). In addition to stereographs, Taber offered customers other curiosities, including, “Indian, Swiss, French, English, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican Curiosities, Rock and Spar Ornaments, Agate Jewelry, Glen Specimens, Indian Relics, &c., &c.”
The Vista—Looking Up, Watkins Glen
Photographed by John C. Lytle, Watkins Glen, NY
c. 1870
Albumen Stereographs on printed card
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, PC 31
     John Lytle operated the Glen Mountain House, a tourist hotel located in the Glen. Lytle’s stereograph included an advertisement on the reverse side for his hotel, which he claimed “is fitted up with all modern conveniences, gas, hot and cold water baths, an abundance of pure water from the mountain springs, and, being far away from the bustle, excitement, and cares of business, at an elevation of about 300 feet above the level of Seneca Lake (which lies bright and sparkling half a mile away) it possesses advantages of mountain air and scenery unequalled by the position of any other house in the vicinity.”