Landscape Gardening, A Definition
by M. G. van Rensselaer
SOME of the Fine Arts appeal to the ear, others to the
eye. The latter are the Arts of Design, and they are
usually named as three—Architecture, Sculpture and Painting.
A man who practices one of these in any of its
branches is an artist; other men who work with forms and
colors are at the best but artisans. This is the popular belief.
But in fact there is a fourth art which has a right to be
rated with the others, which is as fine as the finest, and
which demands as much of its professors in the way of
creative power and executive skill as the most difficult.
This is the art whose purpose it is to create beautiful compositions
upon the surface of the ground.
The mere statement of its purpose is sufficient to establish
its rank. It is the effort to produce organic beauty—to
compose a beautiful whole with a number of related
parts—which makes a man an artist; neither the production
of a merely useful organism nor of a single beautiful
detail suffices. A clearly told story or a single beautiful
word is not a work of art—only a story told in beautifully
connected words. A solidly and conveniently built
house, if it is nothing more, is not a work of architecture,
nor is an isolated stone, however lovely in shape and surface.
A delightful tint, a graceful line, does not make a
picture; and though the painter may reproduce ugly
models he must put some kind of beauty into the reproduction
if it is to be esteemed above any other manufactured
article—if not beauty of form, then beauty of color or of
meaning or at least of execution. Similarly, when a man
disposes the surface of the soil with an eye to crops alone
he is an agriculturist; when he grows plants for their
beauty as isolated objects he is a horticulturist; but when
he disposes ground and plants together to produce
organic beauty of effect, he is an artist with the best.
Yet though all the fine arts are thus akin in general purpose
they differ each from each in many ways. And in
the radical differences which exist between the landscape-gardener’s
and all the others we find some reasons why
its affinity with them is so commonly ignored. One difference
is that it uses the same materials as nature herself.
In what is called “natural” gardening it uses them to produce
effects which under fortunate conditions nature might
produce without man’s aid. Then, the better the result,
the less likely it is to be recognized as an artificial—artistic—result.
The more perfectly the artist attains his aim,
the more likely we are to forget that he has been at work.
In “formal” gardening, on the other hand, nature’s materials
are disposed and treated in frankly unnatural ways;
and then—as a more or less intelligent love for natural
beauty is very common to-day, and an intelligent eye for
art is rare—the artist’s work is apt to be resented as an impertinence,
denied its right to its name, called a mere
contorting and disfiguring of his materials.
Again, the landscape-gardener’s art differs from all others
in the unstable character of its productions. When surfaces
are modeled and plants arranged, nature and the
artist must work a long time together before the true result
appears; and when once it has revealed itself, day to day
attention will be forever needed to preserve it from the deforming
effects of time. It is easy to see how often neglect
or interference must work havoc with the best intentions,
how often the passage of years must travesty or
destroy the best results, how rare must be the cases in
which a work of landscape art really does justice to its
Still another thing which affects popular recognition of
the art as such is our lack of clearly understood terms by
which to speak of it and of those who practice it. “Gardens”
once meant pleasure-grounds of every kind and
“gardener” then had an adequately artistic sound. But as
the significance of the one term has been gradually specialized,
so the other has gradually come to denote a mere
grower of plants. “Landscape gardener” was a title first
used by the artists of the eighteenth century to mark the
new tendency which they represented—the search for
“natural” as opposed to “formal” beauty; and it seemed
to them to need an apology as savoring, perhaps, of
grandiloquence or conceit. But as taste declined in England
it was assumed by men who had not the slightest
right, judged either by their aims or by their results, to be
considered artists; and to-day it is fallen into such disesteem
that it is often replaced by “landscape architect.”
This title has French usage to support it and is in many
respects a good one. But its correlative—“landscape
architecture”—is unsatisfactory; and so, on the other
hand, is “landscape artist,” though “landscape art” is an
excellent generic term. Perhaps the best we can do is to
keep to “landscape gardener,” and try to remember that it
ought always to mean an artist and an artist only.