Frederick Law Olmsted 
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina 
Oil on canvas 
254 x 139.7 cm (100 x 55 in.)
Inscribed: (Lower right:) John S. Sargent

 Jpg: Friend of the JSS Gallery 
"I have all my life been considering distant effects and sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future." 
-- Fredrick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is widely recognized as the founder of American landscape architecture and the nation's foremost parkmaker. His first, his most loved, and in many ways he's best known work was his design of Central Park in New York city (1858-1876) with his partner Calvert Vaux (1824-1895). But he would go on to have a significant influence in the way cities and communities are built with the idea of nature and parks around us. He is one of the first to put forth the principles of the City Beautiful Movement in America. He was also one of the first to introduce the idea of suburban development to the American landscape.  

* * * 

"My campaign here announces itself ominously," Sargent wrote in May of 1895 when he arrived at the Biltmore to paint the venerable landscape artist and the architect Richard Morris Hunt,  "— both wives prove to me that I must imagine thus that their husbands look at all like what they look like at present — totally different really . . ."  

Olmsted was in very poor health -- though his use of the cane actually came from a riding accident he suffered as a younger man when he was working on Central park from which he never fully recovered.  Olmsted  had been at Biltmore since February of '95. He had plans for leaving earlier but Vanderbilt had asked him to stay on so Sargent could paint him. The firm which he had built up, now had his sons working for him and his reputation was known internationally. There was very real concern about the health of the company being so tied to Olmsted Sr. The family (we now know) was in a bit of a panic and the trouble that Sargent was getting from Olmsted's wife was in weighing all these considerations. It was far more than just vanity. Their children were working for the firm and Olmsted's reputation at being able to carry on under failing health was at risk (he was beginning to lose his mind to dementia - and would sadly, later  have to be institutionalized where he eventually died) They themselves didn't understand what was happening and she didn't want a portrait of his weaker moments displayed publicly to all of Olmsted's clients and possible future clients. The livelihood of their entire family was at risk. 

Sargent wouldn't have known this. No one but the closest to the family would have. Unlike Hunt's portrait, this one is a bit more successful. Still, Sargent struggles with an imagined scene -- which is something so totally foreign to his method of painting. You can see he draws inspiration from what he did with Madame Edouard Pailleron in '79 -- the use of leafs surrounding a standing figure. The forest in Olmsted's case, is imagined. The grounds at Biltmore were nothing but saplings. Still, Sargent pulls it off relatively well putting the man of trees and flower leaning on his cane (which was very much his signature) among dogwood, laurel, and rhododendron. 

Fatigued, Olmsted left with his wife before the portrait was finished and his son stepped into his coat to finish modeling for Sargent.  You can almost feel the frustration of Sargent in dealing with the situation. In both cases, Hunt and Olmsted, both men appear more "flat" than most of his other work, and clearly shows Sargent's  inability to paint beyond what he sees. 

* * * 

Studying people like John S. Sargent is inspiring to be sure, but there is a certain disconnect between the reality of life that I understand and the kind of life that Sargent and people like him seem to live. Though laudable, I never could fully relate to people that knew at an early age exactly what they wanted to do in life, and with blinders on to any other distractions, could pursue their objectives with a singular of purpose and determination.  If people like Sargent are to be our only model of excellence, then there is a great number of us that are already doomed. Olmsted wasn't like that. He was one of us. In a time in history when men were often deep into what ever line of work before they were even twenty (Women? well, we won't even talk about their expectations or lack thereof), Olmsted floundered in life searching and unsure until he was well into his thirties. He suffered serious and deep periods of depression, and moments of self doubt. He was saddled with debt from one failed attempt after another (though he paid every penny even though he wasn't legally bound). 

The thing I like most about Olmsted is that he was profoundly human. And it's that which is so  impressive about him. You see, even after failing in life repeatedly in other endeavors he reached the pinnacle of his profession. Remarkably, landscape architecture for Olmsted was a fallback. It was something he did as a job here and there and as a hobby. It was something he never really considered viable until much later. 

What Olmsted did share in common with Sargent was the relentless energy of hard work. Both spent long hours of seeing a project through to completion. Both men were opinionated,  well read and intellectual. Both knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish -- though the struggle in getting there might have been intense.  And probably one of the most important things (besides the hard work) they both had the knack at networking with influential people that could open doors for them in the future. 

Like any highly successful artist, he had a vision of of what needed to be done and an iron will to see it come to fruition. He was a genius when it came to organization and was able to sort an incredible amounts of details into a clear and concise plan. (In the case of Central Park, there were as many as 3,600 workers to oversee at its height and something like over 300,000 specific trees and bushes to be planted, a lake to be built and grading -- remember there were no bulldozers and they did it by hand or with horse drawn machinery.) He had difficulty dealing with people that didn't see his vision, and on more than one occasion would simply walk away from a project when he came to loggerheads with his employers. 

He started his professional life with a brief stint as a surveyor, but found he didn't suit him. He spent a year as a seaman on a merchant ship to China but was disillusioned by the cruelty and harshness of the life.  From the love of horticulture he developed from one of his tutors (he never had any formal schooling - not too unusual for that period of time) and with the financial help of his father (who was upper middle class), he bought a farm on Staten Island with the intent of getting  into professional farming. He studied everything, writing papers for journals but the venture was unrewarding. He traveled to England and took walking tour to study the farming and became captivated by the public parks he saw. On his return, his farm was mostly unsuccessful, even after starting a tree nursery. He found himself detached from an intellectual community that he wanted to be apart of and distracted by his other interests.  He had sat in on lectures at Yale University, though he didn't have the time to formally enroll. He was intensely interested in the slavery issue that was ripping the country apart prior to the war. He was an abolitionist (a pragmatic moderate at first which hardened later) and  traveled to the south as a correspondent for the northern papers (New York Times and others) writing about the plantations and the economy that were based on the backs of slaves. He bundled his papers and writings into a weighty tome (something like this essay is turning into) and called it "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States with Remarks on Their Economy" which would be the first of three books on the south -- all critically praised but economically flopped.  

From his writings he became noticed in the literary world and was asked to join a new magazine as the  managing editor for Putnam's which was a monthly -- similar to Harpers. He threw himself into it totally and loved his work but inner disagreement of the partners and growing financial problems of the magazine, along with fledgling subscriptions led to total financial ruin. Friends of Olmsted that had invested in the venture were saddled with debt which he felt duty bound (though not lawfully) to repay. 

Again adrift, he was approached by a political friend from his connections and writings on the abolitionist issues and farming, he got an "inside track" to be the superintendent in charge of a workforce building a new public park in New York city. The park was to be named Central Park -- the year was 1857. He was 35 years old.  

Needing the money badly, he jumped at the chance. When the city opened a competition for design of the park, the new superintendent (Olmsted) was approached by an architect Calvert Vaux to partner in a design for the competition (Vaux, by the way would design the first Metropolitan Museum of Art building 1874-1880). Working together on a joint proposal they won. Together, Vaux and Olmsted worked and oversaw the construction of the new park, but continual political battles in maintaining the integrity of their plan and fights over patronage and other issues came to ahead by 1861 (the start of the war). Having seen much of it to completion Olmsted was ready to quit. 

Staying on as an advisory position for Central park, he got appointed general secretary to the United States Sanitary Commission (which was somewhat similar to what the Red Cross is today). The pay wasn't great but it was important to the war effort and he felt a personal need to contribute. Like always, he threw himself totally into his efforts and brought praise from many quarters on his logistical skills and management. As the war dragged on he saw a need to fully revamp the managerial structure of the commission, but his plans were throttled by political interests and he felt hamstrung and resigned. 

With no income, still in debt, he was approached by the largest gold mining company in California. The firm under new ownership in New York was losing money with some of the richest reserves of gold. They clearly needed a man of Olmsted's managerial skills to go and straighten out the mess. Though it would take him away from the war effort and his involvement in public life, he needed the money, and at a handsome salary, he took it. 

In California he fell in love with the country. Got himself appointed to the Yosemitie Commission by the governor and quickly became a key figure designing the plan and management of the new park essentially leaving it as untouched as possible. He was approached about designing an ambitious and visionary new city boulevard system for bustling San Francisco -- a city bursting at the seams from the gold rush. He designed the plan but it failed in the election because of its ultimate cost and lack of shared vision. All of this was on the side of running one of the largest mining companies.  

Through hard work, he turned a company around from losing money into profitable venture. He was able to pay off his personal debts; but on the cusp of really achieving something he was haunted yet again by forces out of his control. Only when the sheriff appeared at his office to impound the company's assets did he learn the owners back in New York were embezzling the profits and had defaulted on a note. With thousands of workers jobs at risk, he begged for time,  scrambled desperately, pleading in cables to New York for help. Upon his own integrity and good will with local creditors and without any assistance from New York, he renegotiated the debt to be paid directly out of company earnings -- bypassed New York. Olmsted found himself running the whole show with no guidance from his employers. Utterly cutoff, the company with disastrous debts, the owners self absorbed in bickering and entanglements of one lawsuit after another, and with no real chance of ever being further paid himself, he fell into one of his crippling depressions.  

Things looked pretty bleak. 

His friend Calvert Vaux begged with him to return to New York to form an independent landscape partnership. Olmsted couldn't see it making any money and told him he would hang on in California for another six months hoping for the best.  

The best never came. Staying longer than most people would without pay, at the end of six months he turned it  over to the creditors and walked away.  

Another failed adventure. He was 43 years old. 

 * * * 

"The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system."  
-- Fredrick Law Olmsted 
(quoted in A Clearing In the Distance, p. 258)  

The Vanderbelt landscaping commission for Olmsted started in 1891 and would continue beyond Olmsted's death and until 1909. It was a huge undertaking and at the same time he was working on a number of other projects  

With the help of his sons who would succeed him: John Charles and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (the latter would become just as influential as his father -- even leading to some confusion for me as the younger Olmsted would eventually drop the "Jr." from his name) the Olmsted Firm between 1857 and 1950 would leave a thumbprint on America that is as profound today as when they envisioned it on the draft boards of their offices. From the master list of drawing projects the firm participated, in some way, in 5,500 projects.  

Their remarkable farsighted vision touching, molding, nurturing some of the most profoundly beautiful public and private spaces in America. It seems that no matter where an Americans lives, the perception of  their environment has been touched, in some way, by Frederick Law Olmsted. 

A Very short list of selected Olmsted Projects: 

Frederick Law Olmsted with his partner Calvert Vaux 
1858-1876  Central Park, New York
1860-1874 Hartford Retreat for the Insane, Hartford Conn
1865 College of California, Berkley, Calif
1866 Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Washington DC
1865-1895 Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
1867 Seaside Park, Bridgeport, Conn.
1867-1873 Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
1867-1886 Fort Green Park, Brooklyn, NY
1868 Parade Ground, Kings County, Brooklyn, NY
1868 Tompkins Park, Brooklyn, NY
1868-1874 Eastern and Ocean Parkways, Brooklyn, NY
1868-1887 Riverside residential community, Ill
1886-1889 Riverside Park, New York city
1868-1915 Delaware Park, The Parade, and the Front, Buffalo, NY
1869-1871 Walnut Hill Park, New Britain, Conn.
1870-1872 Tarry Heights residential community, NY
1870-1895 South Park, Chicago, Ill
1869-1871 Walnut Hill Park, New Britain Conn.
1870-1872 Tarrytown Heights residential community, N.Y.
1870-1895 South Park, Chicago, Ill.
1870-1914 South Park, Falls River, Mass.
1870-1920 Donwing Park, Newburgh, N.Y.
1871 New York State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, N.Y.
1876-1889 Morningside Park, New York, N.Y.
1879-1895 State Reservation at Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Frederick Law Olmsted alone 
1864-1865  Mountaub View Cemetery, Oakland Calif.
1865-1867 San Francisco Public Grounds, Calif.
1870-1888 Staten Island Improvement Commission, Staten Island, N.Y
1872-1875 McLean Asylum grounds, Waverley, Mass.
1872-1886 Parkside subdivision, Buffalo, N.Y.
1872-1894 Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.
1873-1893 Mount Royal Park, Montreal, Canada
1873 Tacoma Land Company, Tacoma, Wash.
1874-1881 Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
1875-1878 Twenty-Third & Twenty-Fourth Wards, New York, N.Y.
1875-1894 U.S. Capitol Grounds, Washington, D.C.
1878-1920 Back Bay Fens, Boston, Mass
1879-1897 Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Mass
1889-1893 Muddy River Improvement, Boston, Mass
1881-1884 Bridgeport Parks, Bridgeport, Conn.
1881-1895 Belle Isle, Detroit, Mich
1881-1921 Franklin Park, Boston, Mass.
1883-1901 Lawrencevillle School, Lawrenceville, N.J.
Fredrick Law Olmsted with John Charles Olmsted (stepson) and Henry Sargent Codman (+1893) partner 
1884-1892  Brookline Hill subdivision, Brookline, Mass.
1866-1914 Standford University, Palo Alto, Calif.
1866-1890 Planter's Hill and World's End subdivision, Hingham, Mass
1887-1896 Wilmington Parks, Wilmington, Del.
1888-1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill.
1890-1895 Essex County Parks, Essex County, N.J.
1890-1906 National Zoooligical Park, Washington, D.C.
1890-1912 Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, N.Y.
1891-1895 Louisville Parks, Louisville, Ken.
1891-1909 Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.
1891-1909 Smith College, Northampton, Mass.
1892-1894 Bloomingdale Asylum, White Plains, N.Y.
1892-1905 Druid Hills residential community, Atlanta, Ga.
1893-1895 Wood Island Park, Boston, Mass.
The firm without Olmsted Sr.: Charles Eliot (+1897), John Charles Olmsted (1920+), and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.  
1895-1899  Washington University, St. Louis, Mo
1895-1912  Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, Canada
1895-1927 Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mar, Penn.
1896-1922 Mount Hoyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.
1896-1932 Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
1897-1914 Roland Park, Baltimore, Md.
1897-1924 Audubon Park, New Orleans, La.
1900-1906 Brown University, Providence, R.I.
1901-1910  University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.
1901-1930 Seattle Parks, Seattle, Wash.
1902-1912 Williams Collage, Williamstown, Mass.
1902-1920 University of Washinton, Seattle Wash.
1903 Lewis and Clark Exposition, Portland, Oreg.
1903-1919 John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.
1904-1905 Portland Parks, Portland, Me.
1906-1908 Sopkane Parks, Poakane, Wash.
1907-1921 New Haven Improvement Commission, New Haven, Conn.
1908-1925 Boulder Improvement Association, Boulder, Co.
1909 Alaska-Yokon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, Wash.
1909-1912 Batery Park, Charleston, S.C.
1909-1931 Forest Hills Gardens residential community, Queens, N.Y.
1909-1931 Pittsburgh Civic Commission, Pittsburgh, Penn.
1910-1911 Dayton Parks, Dayton, Oh.
1911 San Diego Exposition, San Diego, Calif.
1912-1913 Newport City Improvement, Newport, R.I
1914-1931 Rancho Palos Verdes residential community, Palos Verdes, Calif.
1925-1926 Philadelphia Sequicentennial Exposition, Philadelphia, Penn.
1925-1931 Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Mass.
1925-1932 Harverford College, Haverford, Penn.
1925-1926 Duke University, Durham, N.C.
1927-1935 Fort Tryon Park, New York, N.Y.
1929-1932 Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind.
1932-1933 Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, Penn.

Formerly in the collection of Vanderbilt, George, until 1914.
Cecil, Cornelia Amherst, until 1978.

Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray, "John Singer Sargent: complete paintings; volume 2, Portraits of the 1890s," New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, no. 320.
McKibbin, David, "Sargent's Boston," Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1956.
Antiques (Apr. 1980): pg. 865.

Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray, "John Singer Sargent: complete paintings; volume 2, Portraits of the 1890s," New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, pg. 103.
Antiques (Apr. 1980): pg. 865.
SIRIS IAP 80045109

Central Park 
Richard Morris Hunt  
Madame Edouard Pailleron 
Madame Edouard Pailleron  
  Created 2000