For the marine biologist Julie Packard, one of the founders of California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, to be an environmental activist means educating the public about conserving the world’s oceans. “We depend on it for so much. The good news is that the ocean is resilient,” Packard has said. “It can recover if we act quickly.”

Packard’s portrait by the American painter Hope Gangloff is featured—among a host of others depicting some of the nation’s most influential environmental activists—in the new exhibition “Forces of Nature: Voices That Shaped Environmentalism” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Packard is posed before a seafoam-green aquarium tank where fiery orange fish ripple the water column and sharks circle overhead, her wispy white hair laced with ecstatic purples, greens and yellows. Her arms are crossed assertively, and she looks beyond the frame, at once apart from and absorbed in the life of the sea.

Packard serves as a light in the show, says Mindy Farmer, the consulting curator for the exhibition: She assures us that “all is not lost.”

Burroughs and Muir, 1909
John Burroughs and John Muir by Carl Everton Moon, 1909 NPG, acquired through the generosity of Tracy Thompson and David C. Ward in recognition of NatureBridge

Staged in a tall, gray-and-white marble room, the display of more than 25 works of photography, painting and sculpture, selected from the museum’s collections, is but a beginning in the profiling of the many Americans who since the mid-19th century heeded the call to look closely and deliberately at the world around them.

This is not a comprehensive history of the environmental movement, Farmer insists. (Museum officials acknowledge the show falls short in recognizing Indigenous communities and early grassroots activists, whose visages were rarely captured in traditional portraiture and thus are absent from the collections.) Instead, the show, Farmer says, “is an attempt to let the [subjects] speak for themselves.”

Perhaps one of the most arresting images in “Forces of Nature” is one of its smallest. In a sepia-tinged 1909 photograph, measuring just shy of nine by seven inches, writer John Burroughs and naturalist John Muir are posed as if in dialogue against an expanse of sky at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The two bearded figures, in dark overcoats, appear almost ghostlike. Burroughs would later reflect on that scene. “The camera would have shown … only our silent, motionless forms as we stood transfixed by that first view of the stupendous spectacle. Words do not come readily to one’s lips, or gestures to one’s body in the presence of such a scene.”

Henry David Thoreau, ca. 1863
Henry David Thoreau by an unidentified artist, ca. 1863 NPG

In another minute portrait—a circa 1863 engraving that is slight enough to miss—the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau appears pensive, thoughtful, as if he is writing and rewriting lines in his mind. Thoreau, whose two years living at Walden Pond became the basis for his text of the same name, had written: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” His ideal world was a simple—though not simplistic—one. He urged his readers: “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.”

The thoughts the celebrated naturalist John Burroughs kept were manifold. Over a century ago, he imagined a future when the earth would be but “a sucked orange,” with its natural resources like coal and oil used up and depleted. In a solo portrait by the artist Walter Beck, a pastel created at Woodchuck Lodge, the writer’s summer home in the Catskill Mountains, the bearded Burroughs is seated with his folded hands in his lap, his reverence for nature reflected in the painting’s moss-green background.

John Burroughs, 1912
John Burroughs by Walter Beck, 1912 NPG, gift of Elizabeth A. Achelis, 1923

To be an observer, Burrough asserts in his 1908 essay “The Art of Seeing Things” is to “find what you are not looking for, to catch the shy winks and gestures on every side … missing no significant note or movement.” The observer lays aside his presumptions. He accepts that the world has something to show him. That, Burroughs contends, is an act of love: “Love sharpens the eye, the ear, the touch; it quickens the feet, it steadies the hand. … What we love to do, that we do well.”

George Washington Carver has that look of love about him in a 1938 black-and-white photograph by Prentice H. Polk. There, the scientist and inventor is at work in a greenhouse, eyes fixed on the spindly plant before him. “It’s a powerful way to look,” Farmer says of Carver. In his work, as in his portrait, “environmentalism becomes personal,” coloring every aspect of his life. Carver saw how farming practices in the South had destroyed the soil.

George Washington Carver, 1938
George Washington Carver by Prentice H. Polk, 1938 NPG, © Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, AL

“Wherever the soil is wasted,” Carver wrote in the Montgomery Advertiser in 1938, “the people are wasted.” For him, sustainable farmland was vital, especially to impoverished Black workers in the American South. The natural world was not out there, in the distance; it was at the doorstep, woven into his very being.

In the exhibition’s Dolores Huerta portrait, a 1974 photograph by Rudy Rodriguez, the advocate of migrant farmworkers is comparably spirited. Speaking at a rally, she is clad in jeans and an argyle shirt and sweater vest. She is in mid-speech, a stark double wrinkle on her forehead. Her hair is loose; she pays it no mind. There is work to be done.

Dolores Huerta, 1974
Dolores Huerta speaking at a rally by Rudy Rodriquez, 1974 NPG, gift of George Rodríguez in memory of his brother Rudy © Estate of Rudy Rodriguez

It’s easy to forget that, at times, the environmental movement has been bipartisan, Farmer stresses, pointing to the photographs of the Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and the Democratic former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.

In a 1903 gelatin silver print, Roosevelt can be seen beneath a giant sequoia, nearly lost in the gargantuan tree’s striated trunk. Roosevelt, who established the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, took an early interest in the natural world. Growing up, he kept a journal of his observations. In one entry, he noted that the grass warbler “is very active, and sings sweetly.” Conserving natural resources, Roosevelt argued in a 1908 White House speech, is part of “the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

Muskie shared Roosevelt’s conviction. In a 1976 black-and-white image, the photographer Richard Avedon captured the furrowed brow of the U.S. senator from Maine, who helped to pass the landmark bipartisan Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act two years later. In 1970, on the first Earth Day, Muskie addressed a crowd in Philadelphia, where he advocated for an environmental revolution “of laws, not men … one of achievement, not unfulfilled promises.”

Rachel Louise Carson, 1965
Rachel Louise Carson by Una Hanbury, 1965 NPG

“Both Roosevelt and Muskie tie environmentalism to patriotism,” Farmer says. To them, conserving the earth’s natural resources was not a choice; it was a moral responsibility.

Their call is reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s in her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. The marine biologist and passionate writer gave powerful voice to the harmful effect of pesticides like DDT. Her book opens with the richly imagined scenes of a fictional town—“in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms” where “wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye.” Soon a disquieting note settles over the town, sounding, as Carson describes it: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”

“If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones,” she warned, “we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

The visionary Carson is depicted in a 1965 bronze by Una Hanbury. Her hair is swept back, flame-like, as if carried by the wind, and she looks away, absorbed by something far out of sight.

Barry Commoner, 1970
Barry Commoner by Mathias Klarwein, 1970 NPG, gift of Time Magazine © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)

The microbiologist Barry Commoner is similarly transfixing. His portrait, commissioned from the artist Mathias Klarwein for Time magazine in 1970, shows the face of the activist split by two landscapes. In the fertile valley, pictured on the left, a town of red-tile roofs is flanked by lush, emerald-green forests, azure-blue water streaming in the foreground. On the right, the mushroom cloud of a bomb looms over swirls of factory smoke, the scene a motley milieu of muddied grays and browns.

Another Time cover is equally unsettling. In the starkly staged 1985 image, Toxic Wastes by James Marsh, a man emerges from the water beneath a deceptively blue sky where a tree swallow dips into a dive. The portrait does not represent a single environmental activist, but rather personifies the threats posed by environmental contamination. Under the water, the man appears as a skeleton, suspended in the murky sea. His face, even above water, is perspiring wildly, large droplets of sweat streaming down his forehead. Nothing, the work seems to say, is as it seems.

A portrait of former Secretary of the Interior James Watt, also commissioned for Time from Mark Hess, fronted the magazine’s cover in 1982, for a story about Watt’s plan to sell public lands to private parties. The museum’s label describes the politician as “a deeply polarizing member of the early Reagan administration.” Hess depicted Watt before a map of the United States wearing a bemused expression and sporting oversized white glasses. The map is dappled with pines and oaks, sharp-edged mountains and ice-blue streams. The land, though, has been upraised from the earth, a thick layer of crust visible beneath.

Russell Means and Dennis Banks, 1973
Russell Means and Dennis Banks by an unidentified artist, 1973 NPG, gift of Frank and Betsy Goodyear

More pointed is the photographic portrait of Dennis Banks and Russell Means, the activists and leaders in the Ojibwe and Oglala Lakota Nations, respectively. In the image by an unidentified artist, Banks and Means are at the American Indian Movement’s armed occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973, where protestors demanded the U.S. government honor treaties it had broken and voiced other Native sovereignty concerns. The two stand shoulder to shoulder. Means’ beaded bracelet and silver belt buckle catch the light of the sun, a powerful image reflecting what Means would write, nearly two decades later: the earth “is our mother, and it’s our right and duty to protect her. … It is our desire to defend our communities and our mother that makes sovereignty guaranteed by treaties the No. 1 demand of Indigenous people. … Our right is to have a clean environment on land that we control, where we can hunt, and fish, and gather foods and medicines without fearing that they are too polluted with toxins for us to eat or use.”

The pair were surely “environmental activists,” but the term itself is fluid, Farmer explains. “In the more than two dozen portraits on view, visitors can study its changing nature over time.”

From writers to scientists to political leaders, those featured are forceful but never despairing. As Burroughs wrote in a 1921 essay: “We may never hitch our wagons to the stars, but we can hitch them to the mountain streams, and make the summer breezes lift our burdens.”

Forces of Nature: Voices That Shaped Environmentalism,” guest curated by Lacey Baradel, former science historian at the National Science Foundation, is on view through September 2, 2024, at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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