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History of Early American Landscape Design

Deer park

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Despite the proliferation of British definitions of deer park, American authors such as Noah Webster (1828) typically discussed it as a subcategory of the term “park” (see Park). The American context yields only a few examples, which are mostly located in the mid-Atlantic region; thus the feature was relatively rare in America, despite the prevalence of white-tailed deer throughout the East Coast during the colonial and federal periods. Notably, however, deer cannot be truly domesticated and can be kept only in a semi-domesticated state from which humans can cull the species.1 There were several reasons that the deer park was a feature that generally belonged to private landowners and not the public community. The lack of demarcated hunting areas in the colonial and federal periods in addition to the costs of devoting land to deer instead of more productive animals, such as cattle, prohibited their development. Nevertheless, the few deer parks identified indicate that the feature had both symbolic and practical value.

An early representation of a deer park is the overmantle painting from Morattico Hall in Virginia [Fig. 1]. To the left, sharply demarcated from the urbanized mansion houses surrounding the harbor, is a panoramic landscape with deer and ele.gantly dressed hunters. This luxurious (and highly fictionalized) setting suggests that the keeping of deer in parks for pleasure hunting was one of many signifiers of wealth and status in the colonial period. Many painted landscape views featured deer in a park-like setting [Figs. 2 and 3].

Accounts of actual deer parks support this thesis. Deer parks generally belonged to wealthy landowners who were anxious to display their prominent status. In 1830, Gen. John Mason, for example, noted that his father, a prominent Virginia landowner and political figure, created a fenced-in deer park, occupying an entire “plain” and “in full view” from the garden at Gunston Hall. Situating the deer park next to the garden would have given viewers from the house the impression of extensive land holdings.

Several descriptions and images of the deer park at Mount Vernon emphasize the value George Washington placed on the animals. Although Washington used the phrase “deer paddock” to refer to this area between the house and the river, other writers, such as Jedidiah Morse and Isaac Weld, called it the deer park. Letters between Washington and George Fairfax indicate that Washington received deer from several friends, suggesting that the practice of exchanging deer reinforced social relation.ships.2 In addition, the deer park offered a ready supply of food, as well as prominent evidence of the landowner’s ability to devote acreage to nonagricultural products. In the case of Eleutherian Mills, in Wilmington, Del., the deer park was located next to a Whitewater, Ohio, delineated an enclosed deer park as one of the various productive components of the town [Fig. 7]. Without such an enclosure, either at Whitewater or at Mount Vernon, a deer park would have been incompatible with agricultural production.

-- Anne L. Helmreich






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