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Conservation and Visual Art

By Elizabeth Mangone, MCMA Curatorial Intern, Summer 2020


From cave paintings of animals to landscape paintings to visual commentaries on a changing planet, the natural world has always inspired artists. These images of nature hold power outside of the art world as well. Especially in the United States, the visual arts have greatly affected the public’s support for nature conservation.

The Hudson River School is often associated with the beginning of the conservation movement in the United States. The Hudson River School was a group of mid-19th century artists working in and around the Hudson River Valley. They painted landscapes and borrowed techniques from romantic painters in Europe to exhibit nature as a sublime and overpowering beauty. These paintings grew popular with the urban rich at the time and were bought by collectors from all over the country. The images allowed urban dwellers to see and connect with nature in a new way, which helped spark a call to conserve natural beauty in the United States.1

(Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, Oil on canvas,  1836) 

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(Asher Brown Durand, High Point: Shandaken Mountains, Oil on canvas, 1853)

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When thinking about the connection between art and conservation, it is impossible to not invoke Ansel Adams. Adams was a 20th century photographer most well known for his images of national parks. His most famous works are from Yosemite National Park, but he photographed many others as well. His effect on the conservation movement was not accidental either. He had a great interest in preserving natural beauty and worked for the Sierra Club, an environmental group. His crisp, highly contrasted photographic prints captured the nation’s attention and brought renewed interest from the public in the national parks program and conservation . In 1968, Adams was even awarded the Conservation Science Award from the Department of the Interior for his work to preserve the United States’ natural lands. This work included his photographic endeavours as well as direct lobbying to government officials that directly resulted in the creation of Kings Canyon National Park. Adams was a strong supporter of environmentalism, and that key aspect of his life has become the legacy of his work. 2

(Ansel Adams, Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Gelatin Silver Photograph, 1947-48)

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Athos Menaboni produced art that aligned with conservation art in many ways. He created images of nature, especially birds, that lifted ordinary animals up to become creative muses. The care that he felt towards his subjects is evident in the extreme detail he put into his paintings and drawings. Every feather is painstakingly accounted for, every line has a purpose. It is hard to imagine how anyone could look at Menaboni’s paintings and not feel the need to care about and protect these animals. His work not only captured the interest of his patrons, but also bird lovers across the country who bought his book of paintings, Menaboni’s Birds. Menaboni also set an example of nature conservation in his personal life, establishing a bird sanctuary, garden, and aviary at his Georgia estate with his wife, Sara.

(Athos Menaboni, Great Blue Heron, 1984)

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Menaboni, through his love and passion for the flora and fauna around him, carried on the legacy of nature conservation and art in the United States. Locally, he was a long time partner with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. His work with them included covers for the department’s magazine and a mural showing magnolia and birds local to the region. Menaboni created work that inspired people to fall in love with both the regal peacock as well as the common cardinal. The care that he put into his artwork emits from each piece and affects all who view it.


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