Valerie Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt, right, shreds a facsimile of Albert Bierstadt’s iconic Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, left, in the art museum’s new exhibition.
From left: Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830–1902, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, ca. 1871–73. Oil on canvas. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) and various donors, by exchange. Valerie Hegarty, American, born 1967, Fallen Bierstadt, 2007. Foamcore, paint, paper, glue, gel medium, canvas, wire, wood. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Campari USA 2008. © Valerie Hegarty.

In one of its largest exhibitions ever, the Princeton University Art Museum is pioneering a new approach to American art history that traces its complex relationship with the natural world.

“Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” on display through Jan. 6, offers more than 100 works from the 18th century to the present drawn from 70 public and private collections. Through the lens of ecocriticism — interdisciplinary inquiry that explores environmental issues — “Nature’s Nation” examines how artists have reflected and shaped our understanding of the physical world.

“The exhibition’s overarching theme is charting the 180-degree turn of how people construed their relationship with nature,” said co-curator Karl Kusserow, the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art. “It engages the history of an idea: How did modern ecological thought come into being, and how did art engender it?” Touching on art, history, science, politics, and philosophy, the exhibition organizes this evolution in three broad categories: colonization and empire; industrialization and conservation; and ecology and environmentalism.

The introductory gallery gives a hint of what is to come. It juxtaposes Albert Bierstadt’s iconic 19th-century Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, with its awe-inspiring depiction of the water crashing on the rocks, with Valerie Hegarty’s contemporary multimedia work Fallen Bierstadt, which shreds a facsimile of Bierstadt’s work, suggesting that humans have despoiled his lofty vision.

“In the broadest terms, this show is part of what I want the museum to be — when appropriate, to grapple with big questions that resonate with contemporary issues and go beyond academics,” said museum director James Steward.

Kusserow and co-curator Alan Braddock mix well-known masterpieces with works as varied as a Native American buffalo robe, Ansel Adams photographs, and a video installation by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. A mahogany Chippendale chest becomes a case study on the environmental impact of materials used to make art, beginning with the extraction of its wood from a Jamaican forest.

Seven years in the making, “Nature’s Nation” began as a dialogue between Kusserow and Braddock, a professor at William and Mary and a former visiting professor at Princeton. They received extensive support from the Princeton Environmental Institute, the Humanities Council, the Office of the Dean for Research, and the Department of Art and Archaeology.

In a fitting addendum to a show devoted to environmental awareness, “Nature’s Nation” includes a website about the creation of its own environmental footprint. 

A 448-page catalog with contributions from artists, art historians, and environmental theorists accompanies the exhibition. “Nature’s Nation” will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts after its Princeton run, and then to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. Among the events planned during its time in Princeton is a symposium Dec. 7–8 at which international guests will speak, Kusserow said, expanding the dialogue beyond American borders to the larger world.