While fascination for the lifestyles of the rich and famous remains, the focus of our intrigue seems to have shifted from quality to quantity. Today’s so-called rich and famous are primarily noted for the sheer mass and price tag of their wealth rather than its artistic merit: the number of cars, the number of homes, even the number of successive wives (or husbands). Among those of us who are intrigued or disgusted or envious (or all of the above) by such plentitude, there are those who long for the days when quality seemed more important than quantity. A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era explores this vein of expression by looking at the country estate.

Naumkeag, Stockbridge, Mass., designed by Fletcher Steele, photography by Carol Betsch, part of ‘A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era’ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, up through Oct. 10.The exhibition, on display on the second floor of the IMA’s Lilly House — the focal point of the Oldfields estate and gardens — focuses on seven important estate landscapes designed during the early 20th century. The display includes extensive text written by curator and landscape historian Robin Carson, accompanied by iris print photographs by landscape photographer/collaborator Carol Betsch.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art, its beatifically landscaped grounds set against the bluff of the White River and meandering along the historic canal, is the perfect setting for an exhibition that focuses on the subtleties and grandeur of these designs. The recently restored Lilly House, former home of the late J.K. Lilly Jr., is itself an example of such an attentive expression of wealth. The IMA’s Oldfields-Lilly House & Gardens, a national historic landmark, is considered a rare and important Midwestern example of an American Country Place estate.

From a historical standpoint, the Country Place Era marked a pivotal transition for landscape design. Americans who had amassed great wealth as the economy shifted from an agrarian one to an industrial one often demonstrated their wealth and power by purchasing swaths of land and building country estates upon them. Also, they desired a respite from the overcrowded cities and tainted air of nearby factories. These estates, considered “retreats,” represented an artistic movement in addition to providing a place to breathe fresh air and enjoy green spaces. The homes themselves were often modeled after European designs such as the French chateau, the Italian villa or the English manor. But what set them apart, and set in motion an artistic movement, was the merging of rational European landscape design with an American approach to landscape design, which, instead of imposing itself upon the landscape, worked with it to accentuate its best qualities rather than thwart them.

In the case of the Lilly House and grounds, formal gardens exist in harmony with pathways that allow visitors to walk through tall stands of mature, indigenous trees. The estates included in A Genius for Place were chosen with such an interplay in mind: From Val Verde in Santa Barbara, Calif., to Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Mass., the estates manifest a keen sense of place. The Midwestern estates of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Point Shores, Mich., and the Gwinn estate in Cleveland, Ohio, appear as grand as any English manor along a windswept coast, executed to pay loving homage to their own Great Lakes shorelines.

A Genius for Place, which originated at UBS PaineWebber Art Gallery in New York City, is on view at the IMA’s Lilly House through Oct. 10. The museum is located at 4000 Michigan Road. Call 923-1331 or visit www.ima-art.org for hours and details.

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