Passing Strange

As an official boundary sketch artist for the U.S. government, Arthur Schott was a dismal failure. Schott's job in 1850 was to travel the border between Mexico and the United States and render unmistakable landmarks that would prove where each country started or stopped. Schott was only one of a cadre of illustrators and photographers who went out with surveyors to mark, once and for all, what was where and whose was what. As art historians looked back through these century-old documents, Schott's work stood out as "strange." Very strange.

"When I first saw these illustrations," says Robin Kelsey, assistant professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard University, "I was struck by their strangeness also. One series of views along the U.S.-Mexico boundary didn't look like anything I had ever seen before." Kelsey says he wondered why Schott's style of picture was acceptable for this type of survey. "What struck me first was this strange split in the pictures between a very close, even scrutinizing attention to plants and rocks in the foreground," Kelsey says, "then a sketchy rendition of the background." This was odd, Kelsey says, since the backgrounds would be the most important factor in locating boundaries for the viewer. These pictures would be used to place or replace border markers, Kelsey says, so a vague, sloping hill behind a perfectly detailed cactus wouldn't be much help.

Kelsey has devoted some time to solving the Schott mystery and will discuss it at the Meadows Museum during a free lecture called "Points of Viewing: Arthur Schott (1814-1875) and the U.S.-Mexico Boundary." You don't have to wait to hear the punch line, though. "The mystery of why Schott paid very close attention to plants in the foreground," Kelsey says, "is that he was frustrated by the lack of attention being paid to botany in the U.S. He realized this boundary survey report would be shown to very many more people than he could reach on his own." <

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Annabelle Massey Helber