Art and Our Relationship to the Environment: Images from the State Capitol

Walk into the Minnesota State Capitol rotunda and look up.

Civilization of the Northwest, part 1
Civilization of the Northwest, part 1: Hope and Wisdom

This is one of four paintings you will see. We’ve written a fair amount in this blog about the Capitol art and how it portrays American Indians and early Minnesota history. We now turn to a related theme, looking at art with a strong message about our relationship to the environment.

The four rotunda paintings  collectively are called “The Civilization of the Northwest.” (At one point, the Minnesota Territory represented the Northwestern part of the United States, hence the name.) In contrast to the Native American concept of Mother Earth as a relative, these images paint a picture of the earth as a resource to be cultivated and the environment as something to be controlled.

In the first panel (above) we see a young man of sturdy classical proportions leaving home in the East. He is held back by a figure representing timidity, but has Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom, at his side and is beckoned forward by a lithe woman representing Hope. (The Minerva image is symbolic of divine approval, the Greek goddess version of Manifest Destiny.)

Clearing the land, making way for civilization.
Clearing the land, making way for civilization.

In the next panel, we see the young man as he clears the land of its defilements, making way for civilization. Still accompanied by Hope and Wisdom, he does battle with four allegorical figures. Whip in hand, he chases away savagery represented by a bear and cowardice represented by a cougar. The other two allegorical figures are human or part human. The youth also purges the land of sin in the form of a woman with the head of a fox (she carries a deadly nightshade plant). Lastly, he pursues stupidity in the form of stooped, dark-skinned figure, possibly representing Native Americans. (This figure holds a sprig of stramonium, another deadly plant.)

The wealth hidden in the land
The wealth hidden in the land

So it’s out with the old, in with the new. The third panel focuses on the wealth lying in Minnesota’s soil. Here the youth-become-man begins the enterprise of resource extraction. He wrests an immense boulder from the ground, breaking the soil. The boulder is encrusted with crystals and gold, symbolizing the land’s wealth. Hope and Wisdom still accompany the man. Figures holding maize and flowers rise out of the soil. The presence of the naked woman with a small child adds to the painting’s theme of fertility.

Controlling the four winds.
Controlling the four winds.

The last panel shows the man enthroned, resting from his work. Minerva (Wisdom) is gone but the man has her cloak over his shoulder and her shield rests on his knee.  The figure of Hope sits beside him, watching instead of leading. She has jewels and flowers, representing  prosperity. Most significantly, the man “is commanding the Four Winds to bear to the four corners of the earth, the products of the state—wheat, minerals, the fine arts, etc.,” according to a description from the Minnesota Historical Society. That is a powerful message, verging on hubris—the belief that we are powerful enough to direct the very winds.

The themes of the rotunda art are repeated elsewhere in the Capitol. 1) European settlers viewed the culture and landscape here as savage, sinful and uncivilized, to which they brought Hope and Wisdom. 2) Minnesota’s soil held great wealth awaiting cultivation. 3) The work of civilizing and cultivating this place was divinely ordained.

These paintings have not been part of the debate about controversial art. Yet they are worth a discussion. The painting is titled “Civilization of the Northwest.” Is this how we view “civilization” today? How do we see our relationship to the land today — Is it about dominion or stewardship? The message here seems to focus on dominion.

We close with one example of why this question of Dominion vs. Stewardship is an important one for the home of state government. Do we build dams and levees to try to control floods and, if so, what are the unintended consequences? The following is from the New York Times article: The High Risks of Denying Rivers Their Flood Plains, about the Mississippi River flooding of 1993:

But nature still wins often enough, as this month’s destructive floods in the upper Mississippi valley vividly testify. Even the gains [from levees and flood walls] have come at enormous cost to the ecology of flood plains, some experts say, and in some cases control measures have perversely resulted in worse flooding. … These realizations are leading flood- plain managers at all levels of government toward a different approach: cooperating with nature rather than trying to subdue it.

A special thanks to volunteer Ken Ford who did the research for Healing Minnesota Stories on the art in the Capitol and took the photos. The background on this series of paintings is explained in the officially sanctioned Capitol Guidebook published in 1912 as well as the more recent fine art summary from the Minnesota Historical Society.

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