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We do not live apart: John Berger and the Radical Politics of Rural Life’

« Nous ne vivons pas séparés » : John Berger et le radicalisme de la vie rurale
Maura Coughlin


Les essais de Berger sur les artistes du xixe siècle Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet et Ferdinand Cheval et son analyse du primitivisme, des classes, du travail, de la matérialité et du paysage sont mis en dialogue avec des textes écocritiques importants du xxie siècle. Arguant de sa contribution significative à l’histoire sociale du xixe siècle, cet essai attire également l’attention sur son attention aux interconnections entre animaux humains et non humains, et environnements ruraux et pratiques politiques artistiques visant à rendre visibles les rapports écologiques.

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1John Berger, ex-patriot British critic, artist and writer lived for decades in Quincy, a French Alpine village, near Mont Blanc. He often articulated the identity and agency of rural places writing that: ‘sometimes the landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with its inhabitants, are behind the curtain, the landmarks are no longer geographic but personal (1967, 13). This personal, deeply ingrained relationship drew him repeatedly to rural artists who lived, worked and made their art mostly ‘behind the curtain’ or within the landscape. In his own practices of living in Quincy, Berger understood his position as a sympathetic rural resident, but as someone who had not been utterly shaped by, bound to or constrained by the land. In the novel Pig Earth, he noted: ‘We do not live apart and we share many practices with those around us . . . we remain strangers who have chosen to live here. We are exempt from those necessities which have determined most lives in the village. To be able to choose or select was already a privilege’ (1979, 7). Over several decades, Berger wrote about the peasants living and working alongside him, never romanticising their stubborn persistence and survival in the face of modern changes from which they saw little benefit. His chosen rural life encouraged him to frequently return to the matter of what it means, as an artist and a person, to be formed by a place, and to be both close to and distant from the lives of peasants that are equally, but differently attached to the same landscape. It is no surprise that three nineteenth-century artists who were taught and formed by the land they inhabited—the realist painters Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) and the self-trained visionary constructor, Ferdinand Cheval (18361924)—figure prominently in his writing. Berger showed how their practices of dwelling and working in and on the landscape demanded speaking differently as artists, bending or reinventing visual languages to work for them.

2Berger’s ways of seeing the works and lives of these rural-born French artists has affinity with many important recent thinkers in the environmental humanities such as Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, Stacy Alaimo, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Donna Haraway, Vinciane Despret, Jocelyne Porcher and Serenella Iovino. Like Berger, these writers offer ecological, entangled and enmeshed approaches that emphasise the impossibility of being outside of the more-than-human ‘natural’ world. In exploring passages from Berger’s relevant essays, I wish to draw attention to his ecological emphasis on the always-interconnected nature of human and nonhuman animals and rural environments and to artistic political practices of making ecological relationships visible.

Millet and Courbet

3The perspective he gained in his decades in Quincy may have also drawn Berger to the ways that Millet and Courbet occupied strategic artistic positions between the worlds of their peasant subject matter and their presumed urban viewers. He often wrote on how they ‘for consciously social or political reasons, tried to extend the professional tradition of painting, so that it might express the experience of other classes’ (1980, 65). For Millet, the challenge was

painting the peasant working on the land instead of in front of it. This was because Millet inherited a language of landscape painting which had been developed to speak about the traveller’s view of a landscape. The problem is epitomised by the horizon. The traveller/spectator looks towards the horizon: for the working peasant bent over the land, the horizon is either invisible or is the totally surrounding edge of the sky from which the weather comes. The language of European landscape could not give expression to such an experience. (1980, 81)

4For Courbet, place was equally important: ‘His country landscapes were revolutionary in so far as they presented real places without suggesting any romantic antithesis with the city, but within them—not imposed upon them—one can also discover a sense of potential Arcadia’ (1960, 198). This unusual position of speaking of and from the rural is posited by Berger as a vantage point that orients the artist differently regarding traditions of representation. Rural and self-taught artists, however were often called ‘primitives’; for Berger, their subjects were unusual and outside the mainstream of visual art because their peasant perspective ‘could never be said with any ready-made skills. . . . For what it was saying was never meant, according to the cultural class system, to be said’ (1980, 68). In ‘The Primitive and the Professional,’ Berger describes three common art historical uses of the term ‘primitive’: European art before the time of Raphael, Non-European visual culture collected as ‘trophies’ from a colonial context, ‘and lastly [it is used] to put in its place the art of men and women from the working class—proletarian, peasant, petit-bourgeois’ (1980, 64). Countless modern artists and movements of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appropriate ‘otherness’ as a creative well-spring for avant-garde innovation. As philosopher Bruno Latour has noted, the concept of the ‘primitive’ operates as a cultural category that constructs an other to a self-identified modernity (84). Berger valorises the notion of the ‘primitive’ for other reasons: it is the artist who stands outside of or de-centred from urban modernity, and who thereby occupies a critical position of resistance and alternative authority. This voice speaks a different kind of experience from and for the margins.


5As Berger reminds us, the self-trained artists Douanier Rousseau (18441910) and Ferdinand Cheval were named and defined by their working-class jobs, as customs agent and postman (1980, 66). Yet as ‘primitives’ they offer something different to the visual arts:

The primitive begins alone; he inherits no practice. Because of this the term ‘primitive’ may appear at first to be justified. He does not use the pictorial grammar of the tradition—hence he is ungrammatical. He has not learnt the technical skills which have evolved with the conventions—hence he is clumsy. When he discovers on his own a solution to a pictorial problem, he often uses it many times—hence he is naive. But then one has to ask: why does he refuse the tradition? And the answer is only partly that he was born far away from that tradition . . . his whole experience is one of being excluded from the exercise of power in his society, and he realises from the compulsion he now feels that art too has a kind of power. The will of primitives derives from faith in their own experience and a profound scepticism about society as they have found it. (1980, 68)

Ferdinand Cheval and the ‘Palais idéal’ that he built

Ferdinand Cheval and the ‘Palais idéal’ that he built

Public domain, wikipedia 1890​wikipedia/​commons/​8/​8a/​Palais_ideal_-_Ferdinand_Cheval.jpg

6The rural Postman-turned outsider artist extraordinaire, Ferdinand Cheval is, for Berger, one of the first authentic ‘primitives.’ Berger begins his essay on Cheval noting that ‘very few peasants become artists—occasionally perhaps the son or daughter of peasants has done so. This is not a question of talent, but of opportunity and free time’ (1991, 83). As an ‘incredibly improbable’ artist, Cheval had no schooling, no knowledge of a tradition to follow or demolish. Unlike Berger in Quincy or Millet in Barbizon or Courbet in Normandy, the country postman was local to his place of birth. He left home only once, to work for a short time in Algeria. His rich visual knowledge of the world came from travel writing in early illustrated magazines and images of the simulated global spectacles at international exhibitions. Labour was central to his practice; as Berger tells us, he arose from, rather than transcended, his working-class position (1991, 88).

7On his daily 30kilometer postal route on foot, Cheval began collecting river-rounded cobbles, pebbles, porous tufa and fossil stones as he dreamt of far-away places. He remarked that ‘each commune has its own particular type of very hard stone. As I crossed the countryside I used to make small piles of these stones: in the evenings, I returned with my wheelbarrow to fetch them’ (1991, 84). As he selected from the lithic materiality of his environment, he picked up popular imagery of the world from the print culture he delivered. In 1879, he embarked on his great project of over thirty-three years, single-handedly building a visionary monument: ‘a palace passing all imagination,’ in his natal village of Hauterives, in the department of the Drôme (1991, 83–84). This iconic and early instance of outsider art (Art Brut) has come to be known as the Ideal Palace. Berger explains that as it took form first as a fountain and grotto, a motley hybrid of animals, humans, texts and architecture emerged as a combine of stairs and grottoes. Berger notes that it is impossible to place, categorise, or prise apart: the structure is completely permeable, but only reducible to local stones.

8In philosopher Jane Bennett’s words, it functions as an ecological assemblage, an entangled, interwoven collection that exerts a form of agency far in excess of its constituents (24). Bennett encourages the thinking about things like stones that work together “[a]ssemblages [that] are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistence of energies that confound them from within” (23–24). As she explains, ‘the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting . . . a fuller range of non-human powers . . . which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, [but] in any case call for our attentiveness, or even “respect”’ (ix). As such, assemblages have agency to act, ‘distributive agency,’ which isdistinct from the vital force of each materiality considered alone’ (24) and this resonates with Berger’s descriptions of the Ideal Palace:

As Cheval has explained, the origin of its imagery was stones: stones which, shaped during geological times, appeared to him as caricatures. ‘Strange sculptures of all kinds of animals and caricatures. Impossible for man to imitate. I said to myself: since nature wants to make sculpture, I will make the masonry and architecture for it.’ As you look into these stones, they become creatures, mostly birds or animals. Some look at you. Some you only glimpse as they disappear back into the stones from which they emerged briefly as profiles. The Palace is full of a life that is never entirely visible. (1991, 85)

9Berger foregrounds both the figures that Cheval saw in stones and the vibrancy of his sculpted figures that took form from stone. Building upon Bennet’s writings on the agency of matter, ecomaterialist literary scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen describes the allure of lithic aesthetics: ‘[w]e create art with stone because we recognise the art that stone discloses: fossils, a museum of strata, lustrous veins and faceted radiance’ (9). Cheval’s own moment of discovering an aesthetically pleasing stone is quoted by Berger to explain his unique, imaginative process:

My foot caught on something which almost made me fall: I wanted to know what it was: it was a stone of such strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire at leisure. The next day, passing through the same place, I found some more, which were even more beautiful. I arranged them together there and then on the spot and was amazed . . . I searched the ravines, the hillside, the most barren and desolate places . . . I found tufa which had been petrified by water and which is also wonderful. (1991, 84)

10Two essential qualities of the Ideal Palace, Berger tells us, are typical of peasant experience: first, a visceral physicality—born of labour more than ‘gutsy’ and a bit like the abject—a familiarity with birth and death as the peasant everyday (1991, 89). For Berger, visceral knowledge is ‘a closeness to what is unpredictable, invisible, uncontrollable and cyclical [ . . . where] the unknown is constant and central.’ Second is its quality of innerness—both what is within and being within (Cheval, after all, wanted to be buried within it) (1991, 91). This inward-facing materiality is in a continual state of transformation:

What surrounds you has a physical reality. It is constructed of sandstone, tufa, quicklime, sand, shell, and fossils. At the same time, all this diverse material is unified and made mysteriously figurative. I do not now speak of the population of its images. I speak of the mineral material as a whole being arranged to represent a living organic system. A kind of tissue connects everything. You can think of it as consisting of leaves, folds, follicles or cells. All of Cheval’s sustained energy, all his faith, went into creating this. It is in this tissue that you feel the actual rhythm of his movements as he moulded the cement or placed his stones. It was in seeing this tissue grow beneath his hands that he was confirmed. It is this tissue that surrounds you like a womb(1991, 87)

11Berger’s description of its ‘tissue’ resonates with metaphors of ‘enmeshment’ or ‘entanglement’ in ecological thinking, as in philosopher Timothy Morton’s term ‘the ecological thought. Morton defines his influential phrase as ‘a vast, sprawling mesh of interconnection without a definite center or edge. It is radical intimacy, coexistence with other beings, sentient and otherwise’ (7–8). As Berger notes, a visitor to the Ideal Palace finds themselves ‘in a system which includes the space [they] occupy’ (1991, 87). The embodied viewer thus experiences Cheval’s creation as a living network and gains what ecofeminist Stacy Alaimo describes as an ecological understanding of ‘trans-corporeality . . . material interchanges across human bodies, animal bodies, and the wider material world’ (112). In a similar vein to Alaimo’s thought, ecocritic Serenella Iovino foregrounds the importance of ‘materiality’ as ‘the condition through which bodies act with and relate with each other, shaping other bodies . . . Reflecting on matter means reflecting on the modes of production and consumption of nature(s) as reservoirs of usable elements; it means reflecting on the way the matter of the world is embodied in human experience, as well as in human “mind”’ (51). Prior to these ecocritical thinkers yet aligned with their concepts, Berger drew our attention to the way that the Ideal Palace functions as a kind of organic machine for thinking through somatic experience. Within the structure, a visitor might experience Cheval’s monument as a cryptic time capsule of physical knowledge and cultivate kinship with other biomes or ecologies.


12Peasant physical knowledge is embodied, gained through practice, engaged with specific materials in an intimately known place. As Berger notes, Cheval’s statement on his monument emphasised his decades of accumulating and transporting stones and ‘the enormous physical labour of its construction’ (1991, 89). Repetitive practices of rural labour and the physical and material knowledge of place threads through Berger’s writings on Millet, Courbet and Cheval. Millet had the ambition ‘to introduce previously unpainted experience’ and that his imagery was incompatible with previous ways of representing rural life: a ‘peasant’s interest in the land expressed through his actions is incommensurate with scenic landscape’ (1980, 76). Berger emphasised that Millet painted a life that he had, to some degree, experienced himself: by ‘choosing to paint physical labour, he had the passionate, highly sensuous, and sexual temperament that could lead him to intense physical identification’ (1960, 190). In a description of the painting Winter with Crows (1862) (that would deeply affect Van Gogh), Berger focuses our attention on Millet’s understanding of the relationship between peasant seasonal labour and the land:

It is nothing but a sky, a distant copse, and a vast deserted plain of inert earth, on which have been left a wooden plough and a harrow. Crows comb the ground whilst waiting, as they will all winter. A painting of the starkest simplicity. Scarcely a landscape but a portrait in November of a plain. The horizontality of that plain claims everything. To cultivate its soil is a continual struggle to encourage the vertical. This struggle, the painting declares, is back-breaking. (1980, 69)

13Berger reads Millet’s imagery as recounting peasant bodily experiences of ‘scything, sheep shearing, splitting wood, potato lifting, digging, shepherding, manuring [and] pruning’ (1980, 70): his working peasant bodies are shaped and enculturated by their daily realities, by the specificity of their corporeal demands and practices. In the most extreme and critically attacked examples of his works, he depicted the ways that rural work ground down a body and exhausted a mind. In these images, Berger again finds Millet forcing painting to do something it had never done before:

because Millet was inevitably addressing an urban and privileged public, he chose to depict moments which emphasise the harshness of the peasant experience—often a moment of exhaustion. Job and, once again, season determine the expression of this exhaustion. The man with a hoe leans, looking unseeing up at the sky, straightening his back. The haymakers lie prostrate in the shade. The man in the vineyard sits huddled on the parched earth surrounded by green leaves. (1980, 70–71)

Jean-François Millet, The Labours of the Fields c. 18651890, line block on paper, 69 cm × 85 cm.

Jean-François Millet, The Labours of the Fields c. 1865–1890, line block on paper, 69 cm × 85 cm.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) Public Domain/CC0.

14Berger shows us that Millet’s images were not merely important because artists like Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat and Vincent Van Gogh admired and were inspired by them: rather, they matter because ‘no other European painter had treated rural labour as the central theme of his art. His life’s work was to introduce a new subject into an old tradition, to force a language to speak of what it had ignored. The language was that of oil painting; the subject was the peasant as individual subject (1980, 69). And it was the representation of peasant labour, without mockery or sentimental framing, that caused his images to be so widely reproduced in popular and material culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: ‘Millet’s widely reproduced images of peasant labour and resilience afforded, eventually, a picturing of identity in which a class could recognise itself.’ For Berger, this explains the wide-spread appeal of reproductions of Millet’s iconic images like the Gleaners (1862) and the Angelus (1857–59).

Courbet, Truite, The Trout, 1872.

Courbet, Truite, The Trout, 1872.

Kunsthaus Zürich, Public Domain


15Comparing Millet to Courbet, Berger tells us that the former introduced ‘a new subject into an old tradition’ and forced ‘a language to speak of what it had ignored’ whereas the latter brought ‘a new kind of substantiality to painting,’ ‘perceived according to senses developed by habits different from those of the urban bourgeois. The fish as caught by a fisherman, dog as chosen by a hunter, the trees and snow as what a familiar path leads through, a funeral as a regular village meeting’ (1980, 70). The Paris Salon critics of their day often voiced outrage or disgust at the sight of a man with a pig on a leash (Courbet, Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, 1855) or a woman tied to a grazing cow (Millet, Woman Pasturing her Cow, 1858). Berger often described peasantsvisceral relationships with animals’ lives and deaths—as both intimacy and pragmatism, writing ‘a peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an and and not by a but’ (1980, 5). Berger’s writing on peasant life in the Alps emphasizes the everyday closeness to animal materiality that is echoed today in rural French ecomuseums full of horseshoes, yokes, plows, troughs, bells, harnesses: the material culture of working farm animals.

16Like Millet, Courbet pictured the peasant’s quotidian, material intimacy with their ‘companion species’: animals who were either hunted or raised or worked alongside them (Haraway 2003, 7). For many artists who followed him, Millet set the terms for depicting the everyday intimacies of peasant and animal labor. His picturing of peasant women and girls, tethered to a grazing bovine, echoes in the later artworks of Camille Pissarro and Paul Gauguin and in the work of many early 20th century photographers. This closeness has been extensively explored in the work of Vinciane Despret, Donna Haraway and Jocelyne Porcher who encourage us to think about collaborative animal labor and to always continue, in Porcher’s words, ‘thinking about humans and animals, farmers and their beasts, together. To no longer consider animals as victims is to think of a relation as capable of being other than an exploitative one; at the same time, it is to think a relation in which animals, because they are not natural or cultural idiots, actively implicate themselves, give, exchange, receive, and because it is not exploitative, farmers give, receive, exchange, and grow along with their animals’ (qtd. in Despret, 178). Likewise, Donna Haraway’s influential neologism, ‘natureculture’ foregrounds interconnectedness in the worlds that domesticated animals and humans have co-constituted over the course of our millennia together (Haraway 2008, 12). Haraway reminds us to neither forget nor deny ‘the fleshly historical reality of face-to-face, body-to-body subject making across species’ by mistakenly subscribing to ‘the humanist doctrine that holds only humans to be true subjects with real histories’ (Haraway 2003, 66–67). Berger’s focus on visceral materiality in the work of these realists always brings us back to an understanding of multispecies entanglement.

17In terms of the rural landscape, rather than engaging directly with the consequences of modern extractive industries, the ecological consciousness of these realists was expressed in a peasant understanding of matter: Courbet’s phenomenological world was intimately known through touch, scale, weight, texture and sensibility. Landscape could be conceived as an active force and a teacher: an entangled agent of culture (Cohen 8). Not only was the Jura’s landscape of stone and river formative to his aesthetic, it was foundational for his imagery. Courbet’s sense of materiality, his grounded, intimate knowledge of and formation by the stony landscape and the rivers of the Jura, Berger tells us, was an insistence on expressing ‘a large part of what exists’ that served to ‘challenge the chosen ignorance of the cultured’ (1980, 141). Berger similarly explains the distance between Millet’s images and his audiences: ‘Most of the public who went to look at paintings in the Salon were ignorant of the penury which existed in the countryside,’ and one of Millet’s conscious aims was ‘to disturb them in their contentment and leisure’ (1980, 72–73). Significantly, Berger often acknowledged the work of social art historians of his day such as Robert L. Herbert, Linda Nochlin and T. J. Clark on Millet and Courbet. The directions that Berger’s writing took, however, have a greater affinity with current thinkers in the environmental humanities than that of these monumental scholars.


18Berger never played at being a peasant, nor did he put peasant mentalities on a pedestal. He frequently turned to the fatalism and pessimism of Cheval and Millet’s statements on progress, writing on the former that ‘the peasant does not believe that Progress is pushing back the frontiers of the unknown, because he does not accept the strategic diagram implied by such a statement. In his experience the unknown is constant and central: knowledge surrounds it but will never eliminate it’ (1991, 90). On Millet he notes that his

Nostalgia . . . was not confined to the personal . . . He was skeptical of the Progress being proclaimed on every side and saw it, rather, as an eventual threat to human dignity. . . . Most of what he knew about peasants was that they were reduced to a brutal existence, especially the men. And, however conservative and negative his overall perspective may have been, he sensed, it seems to me, two things which, at the time, few others foresaw: that the poverty of the city and its suburbs; and that the market created by industrialization, to which the peasantry was being sacrificed, might one day entail the loss of all sense of history. This is why for Millet the peasant came to stand for man, and why he saw his paintings as having an historic function. (1980, 74)

19Berger focused on these three nineteenth-century artists because of the ways that they found to articulate peasant sensibilities and understandings. He knew well the reality of European rural depopulation that began in the mid nineteenth century, the always-implied landless economic migrants, pathologised as ‘the five million who were drifting landless towards the cities: they look like murderers, they are cretins, they are beasts not men, they are degenerate.’ Berger showed us how peasants experienced being situated as the other to modernity, to faith in progress and he demonstrated the alienation and rupture that these un-landed an un-homed people experienced. For all the dispossessed who took on alienated labour in urban and industrial centres, from the rural French peasant in the nineteenth century to the immigrant refugee of his day, Berger’s capacity for telling stories gave voice to otherwise ignored subjects. At Berger’s memorial, art historian Griselda Pollock reminded us that his

legacy lies between the daring of his skillfully crafted analyses of images and the ways in which his work brought down the walls that insulated ‘art’ from lived experiences of embodiment, class, sexuality and political upheaval. We were liberated to think about art alongside what we already knew, to put it into the world and see the different stories, often painful, that it could tell. (qtd. in Overton)

20Re-reading Berger through the lens of ecocritical art history, or ecomaterialism, as I have suggested in this essay, permits us to see the capacity of Berger’s texts to return our gaze to nineteenth-century art and to tell new, very vital stories.

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Berger, John, and Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

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Herbert, Robert L., ‘City vs. Country, the Rural Image in French Painting from Millet to Gauguin,’ Artforum 8 (Feb. 1970): 44–55.

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Porcher, Jocelyne, The Ethics of Animal Labor: A Collaborative Utopia, Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave 2017.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Ferdinand Cheval and the ‘Palais idéal’ that he built
Crédits Public domain, wikipedia 1890​wikipedia/​commons/​8/​8a/​Palais_ideal_-_Ferdinand_Cheval.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 934k
Titre Jean-François Millet, The Labours of the Fields c. 1865–1890, line block on paper, 69 cm × 85 cm.
Crédits Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) Public Domain/CC0.
Fichier image/jpeg, 373k
Titre Courbet, Truite, The Trout, 1872.
Crédits Kunsthaus Zürich, Public Domain
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
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Maura Coughlin, « We do not live apart: John Berger and the Radical Politics of Rural Life’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 65 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2023, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Maura Coughlin

Maura Coughlin is Teaching Professor in the Department of Art + Design at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. She is co-editor of Ecocriticism and the Anthropocene in Nineteenth-Century Art and Visual Culture (2019) and her recent research is concerned with nineteenth-century French Atlantic visual culture, industrial agriculture, wastelands and coastal ecologies in Brittany and Normandy. Works in progress include a study of French colonial dioramas at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, a co-edited collection of essays exploring extractive 19th-century visual culture in North America, and a compendium of Object Lessons for teaching ecocritical art history. She is a member of the Vienna Anthropocene Network and is also co-curating an exhibition devoted to Visual and material cultures of seaweed for the New Bedford Whaling Museum. She wrote her dissertation on Jean-François Millet (New York University, 2001).

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