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What American Art Reveals About Our Changing Environment and National Identity

Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment

On view at PEM February 2 Through May 5, 2019

Save the Date: Press Preview Reception January 31 @ 6-8PM

SALEM, MA – The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents an exhibition of more than 100 works by American artists from the 18th century through present day that explores evolving ideas about the environment and our place within it. Nation’s Nation: American Art and Environment features major paintings, photographs, works on paper, and sculpture drawn from museum and private collections around the country by artists such as Ansel Adams, John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Kent Monkman (Cree), Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob August Riis, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish-Kootenai), and Andrew Wyeth. This is the first exhibition to examine how American and Native American artists reflect and shape our understanding of the environment over the last 300 years, from deeply held perspectives of interconnected ties to the universe to colonial beliefs that imagines nature as a hierarchy of species with men at the top, and also the modern emergence of ecological ethics. Organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment is on view at PEM from February 2 through May 5, 2019.

Fallen Bierstadt, 2007.

This timely exhibition opens on the heels of landmark reports from the United Nations and the White House that underscore the dire and impending consequences of climate change. Both conclude humans’ activities are having a dangerous impact on the environment and, as a result, there is an extreme risk of irreversibly affecting all human, built, and natural systems. It is critical to our time to acknowledge that humans, animals, water, land, and sky are all connected.

Nature’s Nation reconsiders American and Native American art within the context of environmental history and the study of living things’ relation to their surroundings. The exhibition highlights shifting visions and realities of nature as artists reflect and shape societal attitudes toward the natural world. As perspectives emerge, we are learning anew that the natural world is not a fixed concept but dynamic reality.

The exhibition opens with a bold, contemporary work, Repellent Fence/Valla Repelente, by an Indigenous artist collective Postcommodity. In 2015, the collective installed 26 tethered balloons along a two-mile route crossing the United States-Mexico border. Each balloon, 10 feet in diameter and floating 50 feet high, looked out on the setting through its “scare eye,” a graphic intended to repel wildlife from property. From this aerial perspective, the “scare eye” is redeployed to “see” land, communities, and ecosystems connected as a unified whole, not divided by artificial, man-made borders and boundaries between cultures and land.

Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park, 1893

The exhibition includes iconic landscapes such as Thomas Moran’s late 19th-century work that captures the sublime grandeur of the Yellowstone region and is credited with helping convince the U.S. government to establish the country’s first national park. Yet, some contend that these paintings — which include Moran’s Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park (Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone), 1872 — perpetuate Romantic myths about nature as a pristine and untouchable environment that is separate from the human experience and immune from human impact. The idyllic scene also omits the human toll: that many Indigenous people were forcibly removed from the land by U.S. soldiers to make Yellowstone the tourist destination it is today.

“This is an outstanding painting by an artist revered in the canon of American art,” said Austen Barron Bailly, coordinating curator and PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art. “But we believe it is important to recognize that works of art can reinforce destructive ideas about the environment and Indigenous people. You can still love to look at this painting. What we are suggesting is that people need to have a broader framework to understand what they are looking at.”

Nature’s Nation also places historic masterworks in dialogue with contemporary responses. Alfred Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite (1871–73) presents an awe-inspiring view of the thunderous falls, while Valerie Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt (2007) questions the way traditional landscape paintings idealize nature as an untouched wilderness retreat. Her deconstructed view of the transporting painting imagines nature as something much more fragile.

Tlingit artist, Chilkat blanket, before 1832

Nature’s Nation features more than a dozen works from PEM’s renowned Native American collection, an inclusion that reflects the museum’s ongoing initiative to challenge traditionally held boundaries between Native American and American art. A Chilkat robe from PEM’s collection was created entirely from materials local to the 19th-century female Tlinglt weaver: cedar bark woven with mountain goat wool. It depicts killer whale motifs and symbols of chiefly wealth and status. Ultimately, this robe embodies ideas of reciprocity and balance exchanged between the wearer and their Tlingit community, which includes other humans, animals and supernatural beings. “Indigenous people have never held this view that humans are separate from nature. There is an interconnectedness to everything,” said Karen Kramer, coordinating curator and PEM’s curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture. “To view wilderness as this separate entity is a farce and creates major disconnects, which can lead to human environmental catastrophes.”

Caribou Migration I

The exhibition features many artists who bear witness to environmental injustices — from Alexandre Hogue’s 1939 painting, Crucified Land that depicts the destruction wrought by over-farming in the Dust Bowl era, to the more recent work of Subhankar Banerjee whose aerial photographs of migrating caribou challenged perceptions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as an empty wasteland ripe for petroleum extraction. Also on view is a poster designed by Robert Rauschenberg for the first Earth Day in 1970, and two shields designed by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota) as part of his 2016 Mirror Shield Project. Luger conceptualized shields for the water protectors to hold, encamped at Oceti Sakowin near Standing Rock, North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline construction (#NoDAPL). In response to the pipeline posing major threats to the region’s clean water and to ancient burial grounds, Luger’s mirror shields, with their reflective surfaces, protected activists on the front lines and forced law enforcement to face their own violent behavior. These shields are connected to Luger’s larger artistic practice deeply committed to collaborative social engagement. Luger shared an instructional video on social media, inviting people to create shields, and hundreds responded. A mesmerizing video of the shields in action from drone footage accompanies two shields in the exhibition.

The exhibition also raises questions about the environmental impact of the materials used to make art. To create Intrigue, artist Morris Louis used a mixture of acrylic paint and turpentine poured directly onto his canvas. Regular exposure to the toxic fumes of turpentine, a resin obtained from live trees, likely played a role in Louis’ death from lung cancer at age 49 in 1962. By then, the turpentine industry had devastated forests in the southeastern United States and endangered the health of poorly paid, primarily African American, workers.

“We have an opportunity to explore the tension between the aesthetic beauty of the work versus the dangers presented by the materials, including a look at the human cost of their use and production,” says Bailly. “These are important conversations to be having around major works of art. Things can change. It is not all doom and gloom. We want to follow the lead of the extraordinary artists included in this exhibition who have used their vision and their talents to inspire us to imagine new ways forward.”

Thursday, January 31, 2019 | 6:00 pm Cocktail Reception | 6:30 pm Remarks & Exhibition Tour

Please join us for a cocktail reception and exhibition preview of Nature’s Nation featuring a behind-the-scenes tour with PEM curators Austen Barron Bailly and Karen Kramer. RSVP to Paige Besse at

High-resolution publicity images and captions available for download at:

Share your impressions with us on social media using #NaturesNation

Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment has been organized by the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition is co-curated by Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, and Alan C. Braddock, Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History and American Studies at William & Mary. Leadership support has been provided by Shelly and Tony Malkin; Annette Merle-Smith; the Henry Luce Foundation; and the National Endowment for the Arts. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.


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A major 448-page catalogue, published by the Princeton University Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, accompanies the exhibition. In addition to a series of expansive narrative essays by the curators, the publication features contributions by 13 distinguished scholars and artists in a variety of fields, including art historians Rachael DeLue and Robin Kelsey, artists Mark Dion and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and environmental theorists Timothy Morton and Rob Nixon. Available in the PEM Shop and


  1. Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830–1902, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, ca. 1871–73. Oil on canvas. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) and various donors, by exchange.

  2. Valerie Hegarty, American, born 1967, Fallen Bierstadt, 2007. Foamcore, paint, paper, glue, gel medium, canvas, wire, wood. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Campari, USA 2008. © Valerie Hegarty.

  3. Thomas Moran, 1837-1926, Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park, 1893. Oil on canvas. © Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

  4. Tlingit artist, Chilkat blanket, before 1832. Mountain goat wool and cedar bark. Gift of Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, 1832. © 2010 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

  5. Subhankar Banerjee, Indian, active in United States, born 1967, Caribou Migration I (Oil and the Caribou, Coleen River Valley), 2002. Digital chromogenic print. Collection Lannan Foundation. © Subhankar Banerjee.

Over the last 20 years, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has distinguished itself as one of the fastest-growing art museums in North America. Founded in 1799, it is also the country’s oldest continuously operating museum. At its heart is a mission to enrich and transform people's lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. PEM celebrates outstanding artistic and cultural creativity through exhibitions, programming and special events that emphasize cross-cultural connections, integrate past and present and underscore the vital importance of creative expression. The museum's collection is among the finest of its kind boasting superlative works from around the globe and across time -- including American art and architecture, Asian export art, photography, maritime art and history, Native American, Oceanic, and African art, as well as one of the nation’s most important museum-based collections of rare books and manuscripts. PEM's campus affords a varied and unique visitor experience with hands-on creativity zones, interactive opportunities and performance spaces. Twenty-two noted historic structures grace PEM’s campus, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old Chinese house that is the only such example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States. HOURS: Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-5 pm. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. ADMISSION: Adults $20; seniors $18; students $12. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $6 (plus museum admission). Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang. INFO: Call 866-745-1876 or visit

With a collecting history that extends back to 1755, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums in the country, with collections that have grown to include over 100,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary art and spanning the globe. Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum also serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world. Intimate in scale yet expansive in scope, the Museum offers a respite from the rush of daily life, a revitalizing experience of extraordinary works of art and an opportunity to delve deeply into the study of art and culture. The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus, a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Nassau Street. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Call 609-2583788 or visit

Media Relations Contacts:
Whitney Van Dyke | Director of Communications | | 978-542-1828
Amelia Kantrovitz | Exhibition Publicist | | 978-542-1830
Melissa Woods | Communications Specialist | | 978-542-1609