William James Stillman’s painting “The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks.” Courtesy of Concord Free Public Library
By Philip Kokotailo
Will recently reported discussions about the future of Follensby Pond (between representatives of the Nature Conservancy and New York State) acknowledge the powerful themes of art as well as the enduring lessons of history? Let’s hope so. It was Follensby Pond, after all, that provided the setting for William James Stillman’s 1858 painting, The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks. It has become, in the 163 years that followed, the most frequently reproduced image of a much-celebrated event. The past two summers in particular reveal why.
Everyone who lives inside the Blue Line knows personally what the news media have been reporting nationally: that the Covid pandemic brought a surge of visitors to our state and national parks in 2020 and 2021. Here they have re-discovered what The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks promised long ago: that people from all walks of life can find spiritual inspiration as well as physical health in the natural world. The people now discussing Follensby’s future should honor that democratic vision.
Stillman (1828-1901) was the organizer as well as the painter of The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks. In August of 1858 he brought ten “scholars”—including three of America’s most renowned public intellectuals (Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Louis Agassiz)—from Boston to Follensby Pond for two weeks of camping, hunting, and naturalist exploration.
For the previous ten years, Stillman had vacillated between careers as a painter and a journalist. After his graduation from Schenectedy’s Union College, he studied first in New York City with Frederic Edwin Church, who soon rose to fame in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. Stillman then traveled to Europe, studying in London with Charles Davidson, a watercolorist admired for his depictions of the English countryside, and in Paris with Adolphe Yvon, a realist acclaimed for his scenes from military history. In London, Stillman also met his artistic hero: the influential critic John Ruskin.
Stillman turned to criticism himself in 1854, co-founding with John Durand (son of the Hudson River School painter Asher Durand) The Crayon, America’s first “Journal Devoted to the Graphic Arts.” To attract contributors, Stillman then travelled to Boston, where he met the philosophers who would camp with him at Follensby.
For a body of water with ten miles of shoreline, the word “pond” must have seemed a misnomer to the philosophers. Although Stillman had not been to it before, he knew the general area well, having made extended excursions into the central Adirondacks on four previous occasions. With the help of local guides, he found what he was now seeking for his camp—“virgin forest.” Though logging was taking place elsewhere in the area, Follensby’s narrow, winding outlet to the Raquette River had prevented loggers from reaching its woods.
Stillman arrived a week before the main party, knowing what the camp would need: a beach where boats could be pulled ashore, a natural spring for fresh water, and elevated but level ground where temporary structures could be raised. Some of these structures can be seen in Stillman’s painting, but they do not provide a basis for its composition. The groups of people do.
To the left, in front of a white canvas tent, one group gathers around Louis Agassiz, who is dissecting a lake trout on a tree stump. Agassiz in 1858 was the most prominent of the ten scholars. He had emigrated to the United States in 1846, already renowned in the academic world for his research on fish, fossils, and glaciers, to become professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University. He was now being celebrated in the popular American press, too—for his patriotism. Agassiz had recently chosen to stay at Harvard rather than accept Emperor Napoleon III’s offer to join the Museum of Natural History in Paris and be appointed to the French senate.
At Follensby Pond, Agassiz experienced most dramatically what the other campers also felt: the physical benefits that are attracting the current surge of visitors to the Adirondacks, too. In his book “A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden,” the most thorough account we have of the Philosophers’ Camp, James Schlett reports that before the trip Agassiz was suffering from rheumatism and deteriorating eyesight, but that his condition returned to normal in the natural world. With a daily regime that included much swimming and rowing, observes Schlett: “he and his fellow campers did find something miraculous at Follensby, namely health.”
The fellow campers on the painting’s left include the other scientists in the group. On Agassiz’s right, helping to dissect the trout, stands Jeffries Wyman (an expert in anatomy and physiology who also taught at Harvard); observing from the left is Estes Howe (a graduate of Harvard Medical School); and seated slightly behind is John Holmes (younger brother of the well-known Fireside Poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.).
To the painting’s right, standing in front of a shanty, a second group is engaged in target practice at a firing range. Waiting his turn to shoot is the best known in this group, James Russell Lowell: another popular Fireside Poet, professor of modern languages at Harvard, and first editor of the recently founded Atlantic Monthly magazine. Watching from behind him is Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, who was nearly as well known at the time. Actively involved in the rising Republican Party, he would later serve as US Attorney General in the Grant administration and in the US House of Representatives. (It was Hoar who purchased Stillman’s painting and bequeathed it to the Concord, Massachusetts Free Public Library, where it hangs today.)
Aiming the rifle is Amos Binney, who became the US Army’s chief paymaster during the Civil War. Stillman himself stands next to Binney. Seated on the ground, looking at the target is Horatio Woodman, a Boston lawyer and leading organizer of the Saturday Club there, which the other nine attended monthly for dinner and conversation.
Both to the right of this group and to the left of the other stand four unnamed guides. Their brighter clothing allies them with the naturalist Agassiz, who is dressed in white shirtsleeves and green vest. Their posture makes them look more natural, too. One stands with his forearm resting on the shoulder of another, both looking at the shooting target, as does Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson stands in profile at the center of the painting, separated from both the scientists and the marksmen. At age 55 the oldest of the campers, he had already written most of the poems, lectures, and essays that have made him so influential and inspirational, including “Nature,” “The American Scholar,” the “Divinity School Address,” and “Self-Reliance.” Because he was such a champion of individualism, it is no surprise to see him standing alone in Stillman’s painting, but it is surprising to detect a pilgrim’s staff in his right hand.
Emerson must have agreed with Stillman’s portrayal of him as a religious pilgrim, because he reinforced it in a poem begun shortly after his return from Follensby Pond but not published until 1867, “The Adirondacs.” After dedicating it to “My Fellow Travellers,” Emerson asserts: “Chaucer had no such worthy crew.”
Five centuries earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer’s English pilgrims travelled to Canterbury Cathedral, each telling a story that contributes to his Canterbury Tales. Emerson speaks instead for all his American travellers, enhancing their story-in-common with such religious descriptions as “skies of benediction” and “sacred mountains.” Stillman went further by transforming their camp into their Canterbury.
Just as a Gothic cathedral guides a viewer’s eyes upward, so too does Stillman’s painting. In the background, the dappled fir trees reach beyond the upper frame. Above the shanty flies an American flag, but it cascades vertically; it does not flutter horizontally. Most strikingly, the light a Gothic cathedral is designed to admit falls on two great maple trees at the center of the painting. They too reach above the frame, angled so as to form a Gothic arch. Below, the human figures are as small as they would have been in Canterbury.
While Stillman may have learned from Adolphe Yvon how to portray an historic event, his painting demonstrates more strongly what he learned from Frederic Edwin Church and Charles Davidson—how to use realistic detail and dramatic light. He brought these lessons together under the canopy of John Ruskin’s teaching—“truth to nature.” For Stillman, though, truth was spiritual as well as physical. His painting reveals the spiritual elevation open to all—scientists as well as sportsmen, philosophers as well as guides—in the natural world.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to learn that The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks is not what Stillman first called his masterpiece. The original title was Morning at Camp Maple: Adirondack Woods. It was Lowell who gave the camp that name, but it was Stillman who found a cathedral in the morning light and the maple trees.
Unlike Canterbury, Camp Maple was not designed to last. Nevertheless, Stillman was dismayed by what he discovered upon his return in 1884—“ashes and ruin.” Only the large boulder visible in the painting’s lower right corner enabled him to locate the campsite. The maples had fallen to loggers, the spring was choked up, and “the whole forest round had been burned,” thanks to the “careless sportsmen” who “let the fires in.” In only a quarter century, human destruction had transformed Stillman’s “virgin forest” into “a tangled thicket.”
Again unlike Canterbury, Camp Maple is lost to the pilgrims of today, too. When the Nature Conservancy purchased Follensby Pond and its surrounding 14,600 acres (in 2008), it did so with the intention of holding the property until New York State could buy it. The intended sale was postponed when similar negotiations over the Finch Pruyn lands took precedence. As a result, Follensby Pond today remains closed to the public, as it has been for well over a century.
Surely, though, with the experience in wilderness management they have gained during that time, the Nature Conservancy and New York can find ways to prevent what so dismayed Stillman on his return in 1884—human destruction. Both parties in the current discussions should be inspired now by what Stillman revealed in his 1858 painting—that there are cathedrals in the natural world capable of bringing spiritual elevation to pilgrims from all walks of life. Follensby Pond is one of them. It’s time to let us experience it.
Philip Kokotailo writes about the intersections of history, health, and the arts. He is the author of “The Lost Generation in Saranac Lake,” which appeared in the June 2021 issue of Adirondack Life magazine.