Henry David Thoreau and His Influence on American Artists
by Meg Shaw
Harlan was one of many artists living in the 20th century who were inspired by Thoreau. Writers have commented on Henry David Thoreau’s vivid descriptions of nature and the visual sense that his writings embody. In his article “Thoreau and Nineteenth Century American Landscape Painting”, Richard J. Schneider discusses Thoreau’s relationship with nature and the belief that American landscape is exceptional. Furthermore, he states that, like Thoreau, American painters attach a spiritual significance to nature, and that he invited Americans to “truly and fully see what is before them.” Robert Richardson traces Thoreau’s interest in portraying the landscape through his reading of Goethe and especially William Gilpin. Thoreau would have been pleased to read all the references to the importance of the pencil in Gilpin’s essays on picturesque beauty and sketching the landscape3, as it was directly relevant to the Thoreau family business (making pencils). Richardson credits Gilpin with having a profound affect on “American landscape design through Olmsted, on American landscape painting through Cole and Church, and on American nature writing through Thoreau.”
Although Walden was published in 1854, it didn't immediately catch on, nor did the posthumous publication of excerpts from the Journal. The movement built gradually and by the time the twenty-volume set of collected writings was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1906, Thoreau had become a cultural icon. Lawrence Buell estimates that his full-scale canonization as a writer came two generations after his death. N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) was one artist who was particularly inspired by Thoreau’s life and work. Like Thoreau, Wyeth strove to translate his observations of nature into general principles of spirituality and humanity, as Leslie Perrin Wilson has written. Wyeth conceived of an illustrated anthology of Thoreau’s writing in 1918, and Houghton Mifflin agreed to the publication. It finally bore fruit in 1936 as the illustrated Men of Concord and Some Others, as Portrayed in the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Francis H. Allen. The birth of Wyeth’s son Andrew on July 12, 1917, exactly one hundred years after Thoreau, may have also inspired his conception of the book.
The exhibit and catalog, Henry David Thoreau as a Source for Artistic Inspiration, published by the De Cordova and Dana Museum in 1984, contains the most extensive survey of artists who have found a direct inspiration in the life and writings of Thoreau. The list of twentieth century American artists includes both Wyets, N.C. (1882-1945) and Andrew (1917-2009) , Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Edward Steichen (1879-1973), Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), John Cage (b. 1912), Robert Goodnough (b. 1917), and Neil Welliver (b. 1919).
Of all these artists, Charles Burchfield deserves special notice because, like Thoreau, he kept extensive journals to record his observations of the natural world, and to express his response to the events in his life. The journals span from 1914, when he was twenty years old until 1966, just a year before he died. On July 14, 1914, he wrote, “At times I read slowly from Thoreau’s Walden. I bless the chance that sent the book into my hands… From reading it, the doubts that have assailed me—i.e. whether a spiritual life was to be preferred to a sensual existence, and whether to work for money, or for the love of my work—were banished.” And on July 20, “Spend afternoon reading Walden… In it I find that he was pursued by the same doubts as I am myself and I have derived from him a new courage, for he speaks from having met and conquered his doubts.” Burchfield had discovered Thoreau the previous year, having first read the works of John Burroughs. Because he was a self-taught lepidopterist, botanist and ornithologist, he considered becoming a naturalist author/illustrator. As a young man, he sought solace and spirituality in nature with a pantheistic fervor. Thoreau’s transcendentalism must have struck a chord in him. But even in his later years, after his conversion to Christianity, Burchfield claimed a special fondness for Thoreau.
Henry David Thoreau’s writings had a special appeal for young men born at the turn of the century. The advisory tone of Walden met a need for counsel that these individuals were seeking in their late teens and early twenties. Walden has been compared to the guidebooks for young men that were popular in Thoreau’s day. Leonard N. Neufeldt has pointed out that Thoreau had four books of this type in his personal library, and used a similar first-person voice to promote his ideas. He states, “Like Walden, the guidebook incorporates features of the sermon, essay, lecture, and autobiography and could be characterized as a compound of these elements.”
Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980) provides a good example of a young man who found an immediate sympathy with the ideas expressed by Thoreau, during the course of pursuing his dreams. He has written that after he graduated from college, he set out on a rowboat for a 400-mile trip down the Ohio River starting in Louisville, to the Mississippi. After his companion abandoned the journey, he discovered a small volume of Thoreau’s writings in a bookstore in a river town along the way. During his voyage he would “pull out in the middle of the stream and let the boat ride with the current for half and hour at a time, reading as I drifted.” As a writer and photographer, Teale is one of several creative young men living at the beginning of the twentieth century who received guidance from Henry David Thoreau in the conduct of their lives.
Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988) was the artist whose life drew the most from the principles that Thoreau set forth in Walden and his other writings. Born in Bellevue Kentucky, he spent almost his entire life on the banks of the Ohio River. Like Teale, he made a river trip from the Ohio to the Mississippi, but he continued on to New Orleans and beyond, for a total of 1,385 miles, in his “shantyboat” with his wife, Anna. Like Burchfield and Thoreau, he kept a journal from the time he was in his twenties until his death. Of the period when he was 29 to 31 he wrote, “…Thoreau had taught me that one need not mortgage his soul to the current economic system. To grow your own food and forage for it, to build a shelter, to cut and burn wood for warmth, all this would bring me closer to the earth and be a pleasure in itself. The necessary physical labor would be a pleasure, too, and would enhance the spiritual seeking.” In his journal on Feb. 4, 1931 he expressed a dissatisfaction with the extent that Thoreau had lived at Walden pond, saying, “Why did Thoreau not go farther, quit playing at this natural life, throw aside life in this world entirely and live as nearly as he could conforming with ‘nature’.”
 Richard J. Schneider, “Thoreau and American Landscape Painting,” ESQ 31.2 (1985): 83-84.
 Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: a Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California, 1986.
3 William Gilpin, Three essays: on picturesque beauty; on picturesque travel; and on sketching the landscape: to which is added a poem, on landscape painting. London: printed for R. Blamire, 1792.
5 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard, 1995. 311.
6 Leslie Perrin Wilson,The Concord Saunterer. N.S. 8, 2000, 67
7 Francine Amy Koslow and Walter Harding, Henry David Thoreau as a Source for Artistic Inspiration. Lincoln, Mass.: De Cordova and Dana Museum, 1984.
8 J. Benjamin Townsend, Charles Burchfield’s Journals: the Poetry of Place. Albany: State University of New York, 1993, 74.
9 Townsend 92.
11 Townsend 629.
12 Leonard N. Neufeldt, The Economist: Henry Thoreau and Enterprise. New York: Oxford, 1989. 102
13 Edwin Way Teale, The Thoughts of Thoreau. New York: Dodd, Meade, 1987. ix
14 Vince Kohler and David F. Ward, ed.s, Harlan Hubbard Journals 1929-1944. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. 2.
15 Kohler & Ward 24.