Evolution of Nature in Art

Upon the discovery that the Seattle Art Museum exhibit that I had hoped to see was not in fact on display until 2017, I undertook the task of finding a progression of the portrayal of nature in the SAM’s collection over time.  I hoped to better understand, at least from an artist’s perspective, how the conception of the wilderness that we have discussed throughout this course came into being.

Beginning in this gallery of Joseph Cornell‘s work, I initially thought that I was observing very traditional art, due to the influences that Cornell references and states to inspire his work.  The two works that are most notable for the purpose of determining this place are Tombeau de Caroline von Gunderode (read about Cornell’s work referencing von Gunderode here) and Untitled (which you can find by looking for work 96.86.  I had hoped to find images online, but have been unable to, so if you make it the museum before August 16th, 2015, definitely check them out.  The central idea that defined the portrayal of nature here is that it is secondary to the primary subject of each work: either a person or a human creation.  Due to the de-emphasis of exploration for the sake of discovery (as opposed to political or financial motives), at the pre-19th century historical point which these works reference, there was no incentive to show nature in isolation.  Society, even in a natural context, was what people were actually concerned with.

Forested Landscape with Waterfall and Old Church – Allart van Everdingen

Actually going back to this time period, the most symbolic work in the SAM’s collection on this theme is mid-17th century Allart van Everdingen‘s Forested Landscape with Waterfall and Old Church (left).  An interesting statement regarding this painting is made in its caption at the SAM: that it demonstrates “a powerful sense of nature’s vitality.”  The question that this caused me to raise, particularly with the specific inclusion of a church as the human presence in the scene, was what the connection is between this perception and religion at the time.  Perhaps the simple idea of the sublime must be associated with God because of the distinct power it holds over all things human.  Furthermore, though, the important transitions that this work represented in art from the complete lack of natural representation in earlier works is the capability that was developed by artists to work in the outdoors more consistently due to increasing wealth and the specialization that allowed.  Of course, an important distinction to be made here is that this is of a “countryside” as opposed to what we might consider “wilderness” because of the requisite inclusion of aforementioned human presence.  This was necessary to maintain the relevance of the work to its audience.

Before I transition to the unique stage in this progression,

Buzzard’s Bay – Helen Frankenthaler

Buzzard’s Bay

inspired by exploration, I briefly looked at some modernist work that alludes to nature.  Helen Frankenthaler‘s Buzzard’s Bay (right) illustrates a bay in Massachusetts (left) based on a variety of artistic assumptions and ascriptions.  The bright, contrasting colors, obviously in opposition to reality, present an indication of violence, conflict, or impact.  These are all seemingly human qualities, so perhaps this work does depend on human presence, but they can also act as ascriptions of these qualities to aspects of nature and the emotional significance of this place.

Mount Rainer, Bay of Tacoma – Puget Sound – Sanford Robinson Gifford

The transition which I refer to can be found in the SAM’s gallery of local art.  To the left is Sanford Robinson Gifford‘s Mount Rainier Bay of Tacoma (1875).  There are two essential quotes from the gallery which present an opening to the way nature is portrayed here.  First, William Cullen Bryant in Thanatopsis: “To him who in the love of Nature holds communion with her visible forms she speaks a various language.”  Second, from The Home Book of the Picturesque: “The Hand of man generally improves a landscape.  The Earth has been given to him, and his presence in Eden is natural; he gives life and spirit to the garden.”  With regards to the former, the realization that both Gifford’s and Bryant’s works embody is of the independent importance and beauty of nature.  Entirely aside from the societal and industrial expansion that discovered spaces and places allow, the religious awe that they inspire holds its own inspiration for those who are privy to it.  The culture of exploration in the late 19th century finally brought this somewhat to the mainstream, at least with concerning art.  This presents something of an irony with the second quote, which cites man’s presence as essential to the portrayal of these scenes.  I would argue that the opposite is the reason why artists like Gifford undertook the task of creating these works: that what they observed was so far beyond them that it was necessary to attempt to capture it, while actively knowing that the true scale and impact cannot ever be captured.


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