This exhibit showcases paintings in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park collections that tell the story of conservation history and land stewardship in America.
Marsh was a key figure in the intellectual ferment from which the conservation movement sprang in the mid-1800s.
He spent his childhood at the Marsh family's grand Federal house and adjacent farm in Woodstock, Vermont. The young man read and mastered languages and literature far beyond his years. He roamed the hills to learn about the natural world. Lawyer, congressman, diplomat, and man of wide ranging interests, Marsh helped to found the Smithsonian Institution and argued for the Union cause in Europe during the Civil War. He authored many books that broke new ground in the arts, sciences, languages, and history.
Marsh’s book Man and Nature, written while he was US Minister to Italy and published in 1864, is considered a founding text of the environmental movement.
Frederick Billings embodied the ethos of conservation stewardship that developed with the progress-driven spirit of the late 19th century industrial age. A native of Royalton, Vermont who grew up nearby in Woodstock, Billings served briefly in the office of the Vermont Governor as a young man. He went to California in 1849 and made his fortune as a lawyer and landowner. Billings was an early visitor to the Yosemite Valley with Frederick Law Olmsted at a crucial time when the valley was being recognized as a national treasure, worthy of preservation in perpetuity.
Billings stayed in California until 1864, when he brought his wife, Julia Parmly Billings, home to Woodstock to establish their growing family.
In 1869 the Marsh family property was offered for sale. Billings purchased it and transformed the property into a progressive farm and country estate. He imported purebred Jersey cattle and Southdown sheep and reforested the slopes of Mount Tom. Billings rebuilt the Federal house as a Victorian mansion with fine woodwork, furnishings, and works of art.
Through Julia, the Billings had a deeper connection with the artistic community. Her sister, Anna, married the artist Thomas Pritchard Rossiter, a well known portraitist and a good friend to many Hudson River Valley School artists. He traveled extensively throughout Europe with Durand and Casilear. The works of these artists would later grace the walls of Frederick and Julia's Woodstock home.
After Marsh’s death in 1882, he purchased Marsh’s extensive library and donated it to his alma mater, the University of Vermont. Billings was the President of the Northern Pacific Railroad during its construction as the third great transcontinental railroad in the US. The city of Billings, Montana was named in his honor at its founding in 1882. Frederick passed away in 1890, survived by his wife and five of his children.
In 1890, after Frederick Billings died, his widow Julia and their three daughters and two sons managed the estate with characteristic farsightedness. The daughters, Laura, Mary, and Elizabeth, were talented amateur naturalists in their own right. They enhanced the woods and gardens of the estate with ornamental plantings and botanical rarities.
Frederick Billings’ granddaughter, Mary French, grew up spending summers on the estate. In 1934 she married Laurance Spelman Rockefeller, one of the five sons of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Together they cherished the Woodstock estate, and sustained it through the twentieth century. The Rockefellers made many historically sensitive improvements to the mansion, grounds, and farm. Generous benefactors, they were involved in progressive business ventures in the community.
Laurance Rockefeller [1910-2004] applied the human values of stewardship to further the goals of conservation, outdoor recreation, and environmental protection in private and public arenas. He was a valued collaborator with Lady Bird Johnson on beautification campaigns nationwide in the 1960s. Rockefeller was a key supporter of the national parks, as his father had been before him. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1991 for his contributions to conservation and historic preservation.
In 1992 the Rockefellers gave the Mansion and grounds and the 550-acre forest on Mount Tom in Woodstock to the nation, to become Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.
For Laurance Rockefeller – who acquired this painting in the 1960s and added it to the historic furnishings of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion – it was a reminder of his family’s long loyalty to Grand Teton National Park, and the preservation of the mountains, lake and valley in that spectacularly beautiful and dramatic part of the West.
This glowing sunset view of Lake George was painted by Kensett in the final year of his life. It may have been purchased by Frederick and Julia Billings after his death, one of the six hundred works of art offered at the auction that emptied the contents of the artist’s studio in New York in March 1873.
Several views of the countryside in New England and New York favor autumn in their woodland colors. They evoke the New England landscapes that the Billings family knew well. Autumn foliage was a signature feature and event in the Northeast, inspiring artists, writers, and sightseers of the 19th and 20th centuries.
This view of Niagara exemplifies the story of art and conservation as told to visitors at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. It introduces the Hudson River School and the work of Cole, the school’s founder. It provides a rich opportunity to discuss great natural landmarks, and the role of art in bringing popular attention to America’s wilderness. Niagara was already a thoroughly commercialized tourist destination when Cole idealized its unspoiled wildness in this painting, attributed to about 1829-30.
Frederick and Julia Billings purchased this painting of Niagara, along with two small Arcadian studies by Cole, on the recommendation of the artist Frederic Church, who was acting as broker for Cole’s estate. In 1879 Church wrote to Frederick Billings, "I have selected three or four of the most attractive of the little pictures by Thomas Cole which the family will part with – to be sent to my studio in New York – for your inspection." Two months later he writes again to acknowledge Julia Billings’ letter, “relative to the three Coles," with details of their delivery and care.
The location is of interest because this scene was painted near “Bingham Place” in Oceanic, New Jersey, the country home and summer retreat of Julia Parmly Billings’ family in her girlhood. This painting is inscribed on the back “To Miss Julia Parmly / from J.F.K. / May 30th ’56.” It was a gift from Kensett at a time when he and his fellow artists Louis Lang, J.W. Casilear, Anton Wenzler, and T.P. Rossiter were part of an artistic and social circle in New York City that included the Parmly family.
This intimate view of a brook under autumn haze shows the Hudson River School’s affinity for woodland foliage and meadow scenes. Then, as now, the amber, red and gold of the autumn leaves drew sightseers and artists to the picturesque landscapes of New England and New York. Several paintings in the Mansion collection capture the north woods at this defining season.
Views of the Yosemite Valley and the San Francisco coastal cliffs evoke the Billings’ residence in California. Frederick was an Argonaut, one of the newcomers who arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849. He lived in California for a number of years thereafter, and brought his new bride Julia to San Francisco in 1862. Together they owned a portfolio of mammoth photo views of Yosemite, made by the pioneering landscape photographer Carleton Watkins.
A winter view of the Yosemite Valley with snow on the ground, by an artist best known for his marine and Arctic scenes. Bradford was a namesake and descendant of the New England Puritan leader. He grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, like his slightly younger contemporary Albert Bierstadt. Bradford turned to art in middle life, studying under a Dutch marine artist named Albert Van Beest. He exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum, the National Academy, and the Royal Academy. His studio was in New York City throughout most of his career.
This large pastoral landscape shows the influence of the French Barbizon School on American artists like Minor. The Barbizon artists painted in the open air, and their favored artistic retreat was the Forest of Fontainbleau outside Paris. The “vail” or valley of the River Kennett, in the countryside east of Cambridge, England was the subject of Minor’s painting.
In his diary for May 29, 1884, Frederick Billings wrote “Lanthiers sent up Hayborn picture mending nets & I took the Venice of Gifford bought [by Lanthiers] at sale last night… Wish to get the house beautiful so as to enjoy it while I live.” L.A. Lanthier was a New York art dealer from whom Frederick and Julia Billings often purchased paintings and decorative objects.
Frederick and Julia Billings acquired three Egyptian scenes by Charles Théodore Frère, a French landscape and genre painter. The Billings did not have the pleasure of traveling in Europe or the Near East together. However, in 1893, some years after Frederick’s death, Julia toured Egypt and the Mediterranean with several of her adult children.
This view of Arab travelers with a camel in the desert was one of several Near Eastern scenes acquired by Frederick and Julia Billings. As collectors of such views, the Billings apparently preferred small figure studies and landscapes of restrained character like this one. They lacked the sensuality or anecdotal narrative often associated with the most fashionable exotic scenes. Biskra is a town in modern-day Algeria.
This expansive seascape, typical of Edward Moran’s most accomplished work, is subtitled “A Squally Day at the Narrows”. It depicts the Verazzano Narrows that give entry to the harbor of New York City, in a seaward view near the fortification on Governor’s Island. It shows a grey rainy sky with sailing ships of many sizes, joined by one small steam vessel, moving across a light sea. The Narrows are now spanned by a bridge, but in the nineteenth century the vista was open, and busy with boat traffic. Frederick and Julia Billings would have known the harbor well, from many years of residence in the city and travel to its outlying shores.
This painting is identified in Julia Billings’ inventory as “Long Island Shore Near Little Neck – Clam Gatherers”. It calls to mind northern European shore scenes by artists of the Düsseldorf School, and by French realists such as Courbet and Millet. Scenes of traditional country labor in fields, forests, and seashores were characteristic of those artists. It is one of three works by Edward Moran, two oils and a large watercolor, acquired by Frederick and Julia Billings for the Mansion collection.