At the start of the 19th century, the United States was still a place where many people ate what they grew and many women made the family clothes. But with technological innovations such as the railroad, telegraph and steamboat, the United States grew into one of the world’s leading industrial powers. Meanwhile, the country had become a transcontinental empire, which these innovations in transportation and communications helped facilitate.

The Great American Hall of Wonders , an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., presents a graphic representation of this transformative era. It emphasizes precisely those forces of science and technology that were driving the changes: images of water, like those on the following pages, typify the interrelationships among art, technology and science forged by the Americans of that era. The exhibition’s organizer, Claire Perry, an independent curator, writes that she was interested in “the nineteenth century’s spirit of inquiry through science and technology, the arts, and materials of everyday life that defined the experimentations taking place in the vast laboratory of the United States.”

Waters were the interstate highways of the early 19th-century United States. Many Americans earned their living as farmers, and waterways provided an efficient means of getting crops to market. The steamboat greatly enhanced that ability. In 1787, John Fitch and James Rumsey each built American steamboats, but they could not sustain financial backing and died in frustration. The first commercially successful steamboat, Robert Fulton’s Clermont , plied the Hudson River starting in 1807. (The exhibition includes two drawings, below right, for Fulton’s steamboat-engine patent application.) Steamboats proved most valuable for trips upstream on rivers with powerful currents, of which the Mississippi was the ultimate example. Previously, traffic on the Mississippi had been mostly downstream; at New Orleans boatmen broke up their barges to sell for lumber and walked back home to Kentucky or Tennessee along the Natchez Trace.

Sandbars and other obstructions impeded commerce. Abraham Lincoln was among the political leaders of the time who favored government aid for making rivers navigable. Lincoln even patented an invention to help grounded steamboats lift themselves off shoals.

It was also an era of monumental canal-building, usually to connect two natural waterways or parallel a single stream and avoid waterfalls, rapids or other impasses. The country’s most economically important and financially successful artificial waterway was the Erie Canal in New York. Astonishingly, this ambitious undertaking from Albany to Buffalo—363 miles—was completed in eight years. The canal contributed mightily to the prosperity of New York City and brought commercial civilization to the western part of the state, including Niagara Falls.

George Catlin’s eye-popping, circa 1827 painting A Bird’s Eye View of Niagara Falls synthesizes landscape art with cartography. The bird’s-eye view that we take for granted today likely struck viewers at the time as highly imaginative. Niagara Falls, which Perry describes as “an icon of the beauty, monumentality and power of the U.S. landscape,” typified for many Americans the tremendous power of Nature and God. Meanwhile, businessmen harnessed Niagara’s power for industry.

Catlin, anxious to record an America in the process of disappearing, created Buffalo Herds Crossing the Upper Missouri in 1832 . The painting contrasts the vast number of bison swimming across the river with the handful of explorers in a rowboat. A man in the boat seems to wave his rifle defiantly at the animals, a gesture that to a modern viewer would appear to predict their coming slaughter.

For 19th-century Americans, water represented both nature and civilization. The painter Robert S. Duncanson, then the nation’s most celebrated African-American artist, subtly addresses both these themes in Landscape with Rainbow of 1859. The rainbow, of course, has been the object of scientific, artistic and religious interest for centuries. And this painting has been described over the decades as an Arcadian celebration. The artist captures the transition from wilderness to settlement. The calm water and verdant land are balanced by the children, the cabin and the cattle grazing. The rainbow—one of nature’s most evanescent phenomena—reminds us today that it was also a fragile moment. The work is a rich and, to our eyes, poignant commentary on Americans’ early enthusiasm for progress.

Daniel Walker Howe is a historian and the author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 .

Is a “Garden” the World’s Greatest New Artwork?

What’s the best new work of art in the world? Good question. The most interesting and mind-bending new artwork that I’ve encountered is a remarkable garden in Paris titled Who to Believe? , recently designed and assembled by Francois Abelanet . We’re accustomed to the idea that paint can form an illusion. But it’s a bit startling to find this effect created with grass and trees. Yet this is the conceit of Abelanet’s work, made from 3,500 square feet of turf and many truckloads of dirt and straw and assembled with the help of about 90 carefully supervised gardeners. Here’s a pretty good video of it:

When you stare down at it from the steps of the City Hall in Paris, Abelanet’s carefully designed garden resembles a terrestrial globe. It’s a nearly perfect sphere, with neat lines marking latitude and longitude and two trees growing out of the top. It looks like one of those planets sketched by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince .

But move a little and its appearance changes. From any other angle, it’s an irregular crazy-quilt of shapes—a weirdly configured, Alice-In-Wonderland world. Abelanet has brought together two seemingly divergent artistic traditions—the French garden and Anamorphosis.

Gardens are one of the most notable accomplishments of French culture and reached their height in the work of André Le Notre (1613-1700), chief gardener for King Louis XIV (1638-1715), most notably at the Palace of Versailles. The distinguishing trait of French gardens is their geometric logic and mastery of vistas. From a vantage point at the center of the great terrace at Versailles, the eye is directed down grand avenues in which lines of trees, and strategically placed lakes, fountains and statues, lead the eye seemingly to infinity. Happiest when working on a grand scale, Le Notre sometimes moved entire villages to create the strictly regulated vistas that he wanted.

Notably, Le Notre was also interested in the dramatic impact of surprising effects which can be discerned from only one place. There’s an effect of this sort at the garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte , for example, created just before Versailles for the Minister of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet. Stand before the statue of the Gallic Hercules, which marks the end of the Grand Avenue, and look back at the Chateau: The reflection of the distant building floats, seemingly miraculously, on the surface of a body of water that’s very close to you. Visually, it seems impossible, although in fact it’s simply a careful application of an optical principle that had recently been enunciated by Descartes—“the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In other words, if we carefully choose the right vantage point, we can see the world in a way possible nowhere else.

This concept of a unique, privileged vantage point provides the basis for Abelanet’s garden. But unlike Le Notre’s work, it discloses a world which is not predictable and logical, or under our control, but topsy-turvy and unpredictable. In essence, he has combined the techniques of Le Notre with an approach to representation normally found only in painting.

Anamorphosis. The word, which is Greek, refers to an image that needs to be seen from a special angle to be seen without distortion. It’s a kind of zany extrapolation of the principles of perspective, and it developed early in the Renaissance, very soon after vanishing-point perspective was developed. The masterpiece of the genre is arguably a large and imposing painting by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors .

An ingenious visual puzzle, executed around 1533, The Ambassadors shows two nearly life-size figures who have been identified as Jean de Dintevile, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and George de Sleve, Bishop of Lavaur. Behind them are a two-tiered table on which are piled a selection of books, globes (one terrestrial, one celestial) and scientific instruments, including a quadrant, an astrolabe and a sundial. There’s also a lute with a broken string, next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s translation. Scholars have long argued about what these objects signify. Presumably the instruments are saying something about the world of knowledge, or about the celestial and terrestrial world. The hymnbook and lute seem to allude to strife between scholar’s and clergy.

But the oddest thing in The Ambassadors is a strangely distorted shape in the lower center, which when viewed from the painting’s right (or the viewer’s left) takes the form of a skull. Surely this alludes to the fact that death is always present, but we only see it if we look at reality from a particular angle.

Holbein’s painting alerts us to the fact that Anamorphosis is a device that can not only amuse us with its strange visual distortions, but can provide a metaphor. Part of the wit of Abelanet’s marvelous garden is that it functions in a way that carries metaphorical and metaphysical punch. Probably no form on government on earth is so famously centralized and bureaucratic as that of France. Decisions made at the top are carried out rigorously to the lowest level. It’s been said that if you enter any schoolroom in France you’ll find that the students are studying the same page in the same book as in every other schoolroom in the realm. But how do the people at the top make their decisions? What do they see from their vantage point?

Abelanet’s garden reminds us that the view from City Hall can be quite different from everywhere else—that, in fact, the seeming logic of its view of things can be nonsensical. To fully grasp reality we need to see how it looks from more than one place (politicians, take note). Like much of the world’s best art, Abelanet’s creation is at once silly and profound.

Is this the world’s best new work of art? I’d welcome other suggestions.

Simple Pleasures

In science and in life, Albert Einstein recommended simplicity. His wisdom can be seen at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. A series of contemporary art exhibitions there illustrates how artists have counteracted modernity’s disorder with the simplicity of sparse lines, intense colors and varying perspectives.

Over the past two years, artists such as Anne Truitt, Josef Albers, Yves Klein and Blinky Palermo have given Hirshhorn visitors, including me, experiences that challenge the intellect and stimulate insight. Truitt used sculpture to explore the interplay between proportion, color, structure and surface. Albers created optical illusions on canvases using basic shapes and brilliant colors. Klein produced controversial and boundary-breaking single-color paintings, elemental canvases of fire, water and air, and even galleries emptied of all artworks. (You can experience the Klein exhibition on one of the Smithsonian’s first smartphone apps at sidu/connect/mobile .) Palermo challenged conventional painting by fashioning alternative materials into vividly colored geometric forms.

Individually these were all powerful exhibitions, but combined they have demonstrated contemporary art’s transformative capacity. The Hirshhorn showcases innovative works that act like prisms, refracting our expectations and challenging our assumptions. Several current and upcoming Hirshhorn exhibitions and programs reflect this rich tradition. “ColorForms,” open through November 13, presents works that explore the meaning and potential of color. “Shadows” (on view through January 15 and complemented by an array of public programs and a Warhol show at the National Gallery of Art during “Warhol on the Mall”) for the first time exhibits all of Andy Warhol’s 102 vibrant canvases depicting color and shadow. And in March, artist Doug Aitken’s 360-degree video projection will transform the Hirshhorn’s exterior into a giant, ever-changing artwork. New perspectives through art are also reflected in such programs as ArtLab, which allows teens to create videos, animations, websites, games and podcasts.

Einstein peered through the lens of science to filter out the clutter of modern life and observe the simple elegance of the natural world. Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek, chief curator Kerry Brougher and their talented staff are similarly using contemporary art and hands-on experiences to refocus our perception of the world. I invite you to step out of life’s hustle and bustle, enjoy the profound simplicity and beauty of the Hirshhorn, and learn to look at your surroundings in a whole new way.

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

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