People arrived in pairs Sunday to the opening of the Addison Gallery of American Art’s “A Wildness Distant From Ourselves: Art and Ecology in 19th-Century America.”

Couples, mothers and daughters, and friends inaugurated the new season and new show after the Andover museum’s annual month of August at rest.

Among the very first visitors to the Phillips Academy gallery were an art-ready older couple.

After speed-reading the installation’s introduction, they scooted from the white marble lobby to an adjoining exhibit room. The woman’s heels clacked. The man hurried to keep pace.

“Wow, this is so exciting,” she said, looking around the room, deciding where to start.

The exhibit, one of several new shows at the Addison this fall, includes works by heralded and unheralded artists.

The paintings, drawings, photographs, woven art and beadwork tell of people and the natural world in America. 

The show asks viewers to contemplate how changes to the American landscape, especially in the 19th century, corresponded to a Euro-centric view of nature.

An introductory statement greets visitors at the show’s entrance. In it is a quote from the original American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau: 

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such.”

Such does the exhibit begin, its works teeming with change and abounding in surprise. 

Pristine views of Niagara Falls and other New York waterfalls give way to scenes populated by formally attired people, primping on rocks and preening for group photographs — the falls in the distance.

Art pieces depict people on the move, especially westward, and the destruction and construction that paved the way for that movement. Scenes show canal construction, bridge construction, railroad construction.

Photographs and illustrations chronicle transformed landscapes faraway and closer to home. As near as Andover, Lawrence and Newburyport.

“I’m attempting to tell the very expansive story of the relationship between European-Americans and the natural world during the 19th century through this exhibition without losing sight of the local,” said the gallery’s Gordon Wilkins, who put the show together. 

Framed on the Addison walls are scenes showing area factories, mill housing and bridges. They reflect the wilderness-taming inclinations harbored by the first Europeans to arrive on these shores centuries earlier.

Reference items printed at the bottom of an 1855 illustration titled “View of the City of Lawrence, Mass.” caught Wilkins’ eye, appearing to him as particularly telling.

The two explanatory keys identify the factories and churches in the illustration.

“Industry and God are held in equal standing,” he said. “From these factories, chemicals leaked freely into the water and smoke billowed into the air while new immigrants to the United States lived in horrifying conditions without access to clean air and water and worked in unsafe mills.”

The exhibit, up through July 31, celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Andover Village Improvement Society, a conservation group that has preserved 29 sites and 1,100 acres, preserving Andover land in its natural state.

Among the works are prints by prolific American painter Winslow Homer, one of which depicts a throng of Victorian-era tourists at the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

The most prominent figure, a young woman in an elegant hat, rides side-saddle brandishing a long crop above the horse’s head, perhaps symbolizing the subjugation of nature.

“The inclusion of prints by Winslow Homer, many produced for popular media like Harper’s Weekly, reflect the artist’s abiding interest in the nuanced and complicated relationship between man and nature,” Wilkins said.

The exhibit also includes objects from the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology in Andover and natural history specimens lent by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“With this exhibition, I’ve attempted to bridge the divide between art and science, between ‘American’ art and art produced by indigenous peoples in order to tell a more complex and accurate history of an issue that has yet to be resolved,” Wilkins said. “Rare natural history specimens appear next to works by great American masters like Winslow Homer, and photographs, decorative arts, paintings and sculptures coexist without the imposition of artificial hierarchies.” 

He hopes the show enriches and surprises visitors and encourages them to think about the historical and contemporary relationship between America and the land.

IF YOU GO

What: “A Wildness Distant From Ourselves: Art and Ecology in 19th-Century America”

When: Through July 31. Gallery hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Open until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays when school is in session.

Where: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover

How much: Free

More information: 978-749-4015 or www.addisongallery.org

Also showing

“George Washington: American Icon,” through Nov. 15. The political leader, military general, statesman, founding father, planter, denture wearer, cherry tree chopper and first president of the United States is perhaps the first multihyphenate celebrity. Washington was also a prolific slaveholder who, at the time of his death in 1799, owned 317 men, women and children. Drawn from the Addison’s collection, this exhibit explores the multifaceted and often contradictory image of Washington in American culture.

“The Art of Ambition in the Colonial Northeast,” through Dec. 15. These works speak to the complexity and ambiguity of artistic identity in the British colonies of northeastern North America during the 18th century and to the difficulty of defining the boundaries of American art. Separated from their English homeland by the vast Atlantic Ocean, colonists nevertheless participated in a dynamic economic and cultural network that connected them with the peoples of Europe, West Africa and South America.

“Men of Steel, Women of Wonder,” Oct. 5 through Jan. 5. Superman and Wonder Woman are two of the most beloved icons in American pop culture. Created in times of economic adversity and war, these characters quickly emerged as beacons of American morality, representing the ideals of truth, justice and the American way. This exhibit examines art-world responses to the superheroes, ranging from their Depression-era origins to contemporary artists’ interpretations. 

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