The New England Transcendentalists expressed themselves primarily through the spoken, written, and printed word. Most of them had limited exposure to the visual arts and lacked fluency in the language of formal art criticism. Only a few in or closely associated with their coterie actively produced or promoted artwork. Among these were Unitarian minister, writer, musician, poet, and painter Christopher Pearse Cranch, an editor of The Western Messenger and a caricaturist of his Transcendental colleagues; financier and art patron Samuel Gray Ward (a friend of Emerson via Margaret Fuller), who traveled to Europe in the 1830s, copied works of art while there, wrote for The Dial,and became a founder and trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Sophia Amelia Peabody— Elizabeth Peabody’s sister, later the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who before her marriage was mentored by American artist Washington Allston; and Sarah Clarke—sister of James Freeman Clarke, friend of Sophia Peabody, drawing teacher at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School in Boston, and another of Allston’s advisees.
Allston was a close friend of one of the major influences on Transcendentalism—British poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and the brother-in-law of another—Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing. Compelled by Allston’s status as America’s first Romantic artist, Emerson, Fuller, and Peabody all responded in writing to the painter’s work. The July 1840 first issue of The Dial included are view by Fuller of Allston’s 1839 Boston exhibition.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Hudson River School of painting paralleled literary Transcendentalism as a form of American Romanticism. Despite scholarly assertions that Transcendentalism influenced the Hudson River School or vice versa, there is debate as to whether either truly affected the course of the other.
Naturally, research collections devoted to a primarily text-based movement consist mainly of manuscripts, books, and other printed materials. The collecting of manuscripts and books and the collecting of art are usually approached as two separate specialties. Moreover, New England Transcendentalism as a subject did not inspire a remarkable amount of contemporary artistic representation. Nevertheless, well-developed collections on any topic often include some visual material (photographs, prints, and illustrations as well as paintings and sculpture). Such items extend the usefulness of a collection for exhibition, publishing, and teaching purposes and constitute primary source material for studies of author influence and reputation. Sometimes, as with manuscript journals illustrated with sketches, text and image are combined. In other instances, they are separate, the image serving as a response to a text or an idea. For example, the Concord Free Public Library’s rich collections of photographs by Alfred Winslow Hosmer, Herbert Wendell Gleason, and Esther Howe Wheeler Anderson all present a kind of visual reading of Thoreau’s writings. The Concord Free Public Library Special Collections and the Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Literature at the University of South Carolina are among the collections of New England Transcendentalism incorporating significant visual holdings. William James Stillman’s oil painting The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks at the Concord Free Public Library and Christopher Cranch’s caricatures in the Joel Myerson Collection are widely recognized visual interpretations of Transcendentalism. Both Stillman and Cranch were personally connected with the Transcendental circle. Each in his own way, to very different effect, depicted Emerson as the “transparent eye-ball” of the book Nature (1836).
68. William James Stillman. The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks, 1858.
69. Christopher Pearse Cranch. Caricature sketch of a rotund man proclaiming “They are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person,” [1838?].
70. Christopher Pearse Cranch. Caricature sketch of Emerson as a transparent eyeball: “Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, & uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent Eye-ball,” [1837?].
71. Christopher Pearse Cranch. Caricature sketches of zoomorphic figures lined up before a man: “The ambitious soul sits down before each refractory fact”; of beasts chasing a man with the caption “The man has never lived that can feed us ever”; and of bugs: “Men in the world of today are bugs, ” [1838?].