Maura Coughlin, Ph.D., Professor of Visual Studies in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, was among the leading scholars invited to speak at “Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective,” a Princeton University symposium exploring ecocritical approaches to visual culture.
The symposium accompanied "Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment," a traveling exhibition on view at the Princeton University Art Museum.
“Picture Ecology” was organized by Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum and co-curator of "Nature’s Nation," a groundbreaking exhibition that brings an ecocritical lens to American art. The symposium featured a series of talks presented by leading voices in art history and criticism who offered ecocritical analysis of a broad spectrum of international artists and objects.
According to the curators, an ecocritical approach to interpreting art involves the search for “the environmental implications of [a] work, both conceptually and materially.”
"Scholars are increasingly realizing the importance of ecocriticism because of the environmental crisis we’re in. ... It gives us a new tool that opens up whole new things—and new artists—to talk about.”
Coughlin, an award-winning scholar and educator, co-presented the talk “Confluence: Painting Seawater Across the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic” with Emily Gephart, Lecturer at Tufts University. They focused on American and French artists William Trost Richards (1833-1905) and Élodie La Villette (1848-1917), both nineteenth-century painters of Atlantic coastlines. The presentation discussed how, amid the rise of maritime ecoscience in the late nineteenth century, the artists “participated in a growing, transatlantic awareness of the ocean’s formative importance to life itself,” with works that translated their “phenomenological perceptions of seemingly boundless water breaking at land’s edge into works conveying the inexhaustible vibrancy of coastal life.”
“Ecocriticism has been highly influential in literary studies," Coughlin says, "but art history has been slower to adopt it. Scholars are increasingly realizing the importance of ecocriticism because of the environmental crisis we’re in—and because it gives us a new tool that opens up whole new things—and new artists—to talk about, including in 19th century art.”