Last November, I made a trip to the Benson Ford Research Library to see a small (8-by-6.75-inch) album of watercolor drawings made by Lewis Miller, a Pennsylvania German carpenter who lived from the time of the American Revolution to the Centennial. I have long been intrigued by his drawings, which have provided me with great material for the history of American landscape design, my specialization as an art historian.
Over the years I had seen hundreds of Miller’s drawings, which are primarily in two collections: the York Heritage Center, York, Penn., and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum, Williamsburg, Va. There are about 2,000 of his drawings in these collections. The album, however, is alone in Dearborn and how it got there is an interesting story.
Donald Shelley, former executive director of Henry Ford Museum was himself from York, and knew well “the Chronicler” of his hometown. When Miller’s album appeared on the market in New York in the 1960s, Shelley purchased it for The Henry Ford collection. In his introduction to the only major work on Miller, (Miller, Lewis. Lewis Miller, Sketches and Chronicles: The Reflections of a Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania German Folk Artist. York, Pa: Historical Society of York County, 1966) Shelley said Miller’s work was unmatched by that of any other American folk artist.
When the opportunity arose to write an online article for Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, my colleagues, Kathryn Barush, Emily Pugh, and I immediately saw that Miller, whose large body of work had not been seriously studied in almost fifty years, was an ideal topic. The Dearborn album is a guide to Central Park, the greatest public urban park in America. It offered a focused entry into both Miller’s worldview and into the study of the most important landscape undertaking of the nineteenth century, New York City's first public park. The 54 leaves are filled with watercolors of the park’s earliest features and structures and inscribed with English and German poems and commentary.
Upon seeing the album, my first reaction, after delighting in its bright colors and charm that are lost in reproductions, was to query, what is this object? Why did this folk artist make it? How does it relate to the rest of his work? Kathryn Barush undertook the identification of all the texts that filled the sketchbook, English and German. That was the first breakthrough in terms of understanding the breadth of Miller’s literary appetite: William Cullen Bryant, Shakespeare, Martin Luther--a miscellany of poems, fiction, and travel literature as well as botanical lists. Then the images, once analyzed, compared and decoded, revealed a wealth of pictorial sources that drew from newspapers, magazines and again, travel literature. Miller was not the naive folk artist we took him to be, but rather a man of his times, and his works were an omnium-gatherum of visual culture.
This study has taught us a great deal about the penetration of the new pictorial press, especially in the middle decades of the 19th century, when innovations in printing and photographic technology revolutionized popular publishing. It is fitting that today’s innovations in online publishing has made it possible to bring the Miller album to the Web in a multifaceted digital facsimile. The online article designed by Emily Pugh unifies traditional scholarly interpretation with new tools and links to rich digital resources. Thus, the Dearborn album is important for two reasons. First, its study provided a model for how digital humanities can be a tool to enhance scholarly communication. More significantly, it has provided a key to writing a new interpretation of Miller’s lifetime of drawing and writing, one which sees him not as an exponent of a closed tradition but as a person partaking very much in contemporary life, where the deluge of visual and textual culture impressed and shaped his worldview. This is just the beginning of a new history of Lewis Miller.
Therese O'Malley is associate dean at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She oversees the Center's publications and scholarly programs. Her scholarly publications have focused on the history of landscape architecture and garden design, from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, concentrating on the transatlantic exchange of plants, ideas, and people.
Her recent publications include Keywords in American Landscape Design (Yale University Press), The Art of Natural History, co-edited with Amy W. Meyers (National Gallery of Art), and several articles on aspects of the early profession of landscape design and the history of botanic gardens.