Nature in art: Defined and processed.

"Nature" refers to the phenomena of the physical world.

It comes from the Latin natura, meaning 'essential qualities, innate disposition.'

Natura was a Latin translation of the Greek physis which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics that plants, animals, and other features of the world develop of their own accord.

Nature is most often taken to mean "the natural environment" or "wilderness"--in general those things which have not been substantially altered by human intervention, or which persist in spite of human intervention.

Human Interrelationship

Humans comprise only a miniscule proportion of the biomass on earth, but have a disproportionately large effect on nature. We are only now coming to realize that there is a highly complex feedback loop between the use of our 'advanced' technology and changes to the environment.

In art, the human conception of nature has moved from one of threat to one of admiration.

In much of Western historical painting and art, Nature is a reflection of the mood of the gods or other supernatural forces. Nature must be feared because it holds unknown beasts, spirits, highwaymen, and other dangerous threats. Nature has power over people and the only 'acceptable' nature is that which can be controlled or conquered. Nature is also a communication device from the higher powers:

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View over Toledo - El Greco. 1597. At this portentous moment, the voice of God speaks through the forces of Nature.

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The Tempest, Giorgione. 1506-1508. The storm is about to break, and tension runs throughout the scene.

Aesthetic theories in both the East and West gave highest status to the works that required the most imagination of the artist. In the West, this was historical paintings (mythological, religious, or actual history events), but in the East it was the imaginary landscape. However, history paintings in the West often required an extensive background where appropriate, and for several centuries landscapes were 'promoted' to the status of history painting with the addition of small figures to make a narrative scene.

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Crossing the River Styx - Joachim Patinir. 1515-1524

Early in the 15th century, landscape was established as a genre in painting in Europe, but only as a setting for human activity, often expressed in a religious subject. The end of the 15th century saw "pure" landscape drawings and watercolors from artists like Da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, Fra Bartolomeo, and others.

By the 16th century, the re-discovery of the rules of geometrically constructed perspective enabled large and highly complex scenes to be painted very effectively, including landscapes with a realistic sense of depth and distance. Landscapes at this time reflected idealized nature, most often pastoral scenes drawn from classical poetry and associated with the hilly, wooded Italian landscape. This was in keeping with the view of orderly, maintained nature which was non-threatening and controlled.

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Et en Arcadia Ego, Nicolas Poussin. 1637-1638. A Latin phrase meaning 'And in Arcadia I' - often taken as a memento mori, a reminder of the fragility of existence. Arcadia refers to this world--the earth. So the phrase refers to the fact that the subject was also once upon this world and could partake of the idealised Italian landscape *cough* erm.. its pleasures.

Landscape at this time was never portrayed 'as it really was' and anyways, was not seen as adequate subject matter for painting. However, artists who had never even been to Italy could make a good living by painting Italian landscapes with imaginary ruins, temples, mythological scenes, and religious events. The phrase 'rose colored glasses' referred to a particular atmosphere of light in the Italian scenes popularized by the French painter Claude Lorraine. And, if my art history professor is to be taken as a reliable source, people actually walked around with rose-colored glasses in an attempt to feel this atmospheric light.

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Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, Claude Lorraine. 1648.

Landscape painting in the 17th century entered into what is now known as 'the Picturesque' period. In this we see a wildness to nature that is different from the pastoral scenes before this. It could be attributed to the colonial exploration going on in North and South America - the untouched landscape unconquered by humans. However, even in the picturesque period, nature is 'arranged' for optimal viewing pleasure. Repoussoir, a compositional method where a landscape element (such as a large tree or rock formation)in the foreground swept the viewer's gaze to the centre of the scene, was perfected at this time. And the picturesque movement is rather ironically seen as the beginning of 'landscape design' where those who had the luxury of deer parks and private green spaces around their estates began to trim and move nature into the 'correct' image of wildness.

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River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumean Sibyl, Salvator Rosa. 1655. Brooding, melancholic fantasies awash with ruins and brigands, and nature... picturesquely arranged around the canvas.

The Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century saw landscape rise as a respected genre on its own, and the Flemish painters developed highly subtle realist techniques for depicting light and weather.

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Haarlem, Jacob van Ruisdael. 1672. In Dutch landscape painting, the horizon lowers to the bottom third of the canvas, and there is no historical subject beyond the depiction of the landscape itself.

The popularity of landscapes at this time was in part a reflection of the virtual disappearance of religions painting in a Calvinist society, and the decline of religious painting in the 18th and 19th centuries all over Europe combined with Romanticism to give landscapes a much greater and more prestigious place in art than ever before.

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Harwich Lighthouse, John Constable. 1820. Constable painted landscapes as he saw them, with no compositional alterations. Ironically, his realistic portrayal of the landscape was considered unfashionable compared to the falsified wildness of overgrown ruins and other 'picturesque' style landscapes.

Nature as a backdrop; Nature as a metaphor; Nature as a symbol... by the time the industrial revolution was taking place in the 19th century, nature came to be seen as a refuge from the unclean city. The agrarian way of life was coming to a close, and people lost their connection to the cycles of the seasons that had aligned the occupation of their time by means of seasonal tasks like planting and harvesting. To be able to escape to 'nature' from the crowded, diseased, and pollution infested city, became a major motif in 19th century Europe.

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Rain, Steam, and Speed, JMW Turner. 1844.

Feudal estates in and around cities were transformed, if the owner was benificent enough, into public parks. Rail lines were constructed, and access out of the city was relatively easy to obtain if you could afford a train ticket. Victorian England experienced an obsession with categorization of plants and animals that were being discovered in colonies. Darwin printed 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859, bringing a completely new perspective on how this enormous spectra of life developed and calling into question traditional theology and the assumed moral laws that had goverened human perception of man's relationship with nature.

The 19th century debate on "man's place in nature" ranged broadly and deeply. It engaged the reading public at every level, leading popular periodicals to follow closely developments in biology, geology, brain research, psychology, natural theology, and political economy. New ideas were not fragmented into academic disciplines but were viewed as part of a common set of themes for a common culture. Great issues hung on them: the basis for morality and responsibility; the relations between 'races' and between humans and other species; hopes for the future of society and for an afterlife.

At the same time, nature was being swiftly conquered through rampant colonization, and only now was the loss of 'wilderness' beginning to be felt; the idolization of untouched landscapes grew and the loss of a 'simpler' way of life was mourned.

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Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich. 1818.

The development of public parks in cities was encouraged by all kinds of public health agencies throughout the 19th century to bring fresh air and light into the city. This period saw the emergence of botanic gardens and the conversion of common grazing lands into planted gardens and maintained parks. Existing green spaces, like the Tiergarten in Berlin, were converted from private hunting grounds into maintained public parks. The idea that there should be public green space, maintained by the city government for the benefit of the citizens, was rather new. Some of the most famous parks were conceived of and built during this time: Central Park in New York, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted; Birkenhead in Liverpool, by Sir Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame), Peel Park, and various botanic and Victorian gardens in former British colonies worldwide.

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Central Park, New York. Man-made nature from top to bottom.

This is of course an extremely broad and generalized account of a purely Western perspective of "Nature," and specifically through the medium of painting, but it does provide a context for how 'nature' was dealt with, and shows how the concept of public parks are a fairly modern invention.

The questions I have been pondering with reference to my thesis are:

  • How is nature different in an urban context then in a 'natural' context?
  • is the perception of nature as undeveloped, untouched, and undamaged crucial to our appreciation of it?
  • What are our expectations of the natural environment, and are they realistic?
  • Is human activity always adverse to nature?
  • How do we welcome nature into the city?
  • What kind of connections do we experience in nature that we cannot experience in the city, and vice versa?
  • How does nature 'make up for' what we lack in our built environment?

Next time: an image based summary of my research and site analysis.