Nature in Western Painting

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Nature in Western Painting


“oriental art is not concerned with Nature, but with the nature of Nature”, Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan philosopher once said.

            But does Nature have a ‘nature’ ? For the two dominant Western world-views, those of Judaeo-Christianity and of modern scientific rationalism, ‘Nature’ is not much more than a handy term and has no intrinsic existence, let alone a ‘character’ or nature. God created the universe but is not directly manifest within it : the natural world, though it may show evidence of its designer to those who know what they are looking for, is not divine and Man, who is a little higher up the ladder than trees and animals, is specifically given dominion over the rest of creation because the latter does not, and cannot, know God whereas mankind can. To believe otherwise was always been dangerous while the Church was in command, though a very different, essentially ‘pagan’, attitude to Nature subsisted nonetheless as an undercurrent, emerging into the light of day spasmodically in such phenomena as Courtly Love and Mariolatry (the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary), or in the teachings of Saint Francis.    

            For Western scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the presence of God in the natural world could be detected by way of the physical and mathematical principles that, allegedly, in the last resort governed everything — everything physical at any rate. But these traces could not be seen or heard directly : only people trained in higher mathematics had any chance of identifying them, and even then with considerable difficulty.  And in the eyes of modern science Nature is nothing but a complicated play of atoms and molecules which are ‘governed’ by a mixture of statistical laws and chance (the latter because of random mutations and the Uncertainty Principle). Nature is no longer subject to supernatural interference but has not gained much in the exchange : she, or rather it, remains essentially inert, has no purpose, no will, no intelligence, no consciousness, no emotions, no inner life. And, as in medieval times, to believe otherwise remains dangerous, at any rate if you are a professional scientist. Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (that the Earth is a giant organism) caused an uproar and he, rather regrettably, watered down his thesis in subsequent publications and interviews. And the editor of Nature  went so far as to hail  Dr. Sheldrake’s (to laymen) innocuous little book, A New Science of Life, as “the best candidate for burning we have seen for many a year” (!!!) 

            The most ancient ‘theory of everything’ is animism, and it has proved to be an extremely tenacious theory since it is not completely dead yet even in this most rationalistic and technological of all eras. Despite centuries of Christian, and more recently, scientific disapproval, we remain, most of us, animists at heart. And with good reason. It is ‘only natural’ to believe that if a plant or animal does something, there is something ‘animating’ it and moreover something that is not entirely physical. Piaget, the child psychologist, claimed that all children are ‘natural animists’ though whether this is still true today in the computer age I am not so sure.

            Moreover, we readily believe — or many of us do at any rate — that there is ultimately only one force doing the animating, what the Polynesians called mana, the Amerindians wakanda, the ancient Chinese ch’i , the Romantics Anima Mundi (World-Soul) and the twentieth century French philosopher, Bergson, élan vital (‘vital impulse’). 

            Coomaraswamy, as a representative of what is undoubtedly the most animistic of all the major world religions, Hinduism, was well placed to note the  absence of such a belief in Western art, painting especially.

            My recollection of the art works of the Italian Renaissance is that the  most we ever get of Nature is a neat Florentine garden or a backdrop of distant hills across a dusty plain. The whole attention of the painter is focussed on people, on urban life, or on religious scenes which usually have an underlying  didactic aim — paintings put on display in Churches as altarpieces or painted directly on ceilings were in effect books for Christendom’s illiterate. The painters themselves, of course, had little choice since they worked on command and, clearly, their aristocratic and clerical patrons were not interested in botany and lepidoptery. However, one would expect at least sketches of plants and insects in artists’ notebooks, but, with the exception of Leonardo, an insatiable observer and admirer of the natural world who specifically hailed Nature as “my true teacher”, there seems to have been surprisingly little.

            Wanting to test this general impression, I decided to look at the first history book of Western painting that came to hand, From Giotto to Cézanne, by Michael Levey. There are 549 plates starting with the late thirteenth century. Of the first 145 plates, only four have a natural backdrop which is of any significance at all, and the most conspicuous one is precisely the charming St Francis preaching to the birds (attributed to Giotto). We have to wait for Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538) to come across the first painting where nature, in this case, the forest, dwarfs the human figures and their actions, so much so that at first sight you do not even notice Saint George slaying the dragon in the dark undergrowth. Danube Landscape by the same painter is, according to Levey, “perhaps the first picture [in Western art] simply of scenery”. There is a little more nature in Giorgione and Titian but out of the first 300 plates I would say there are scarcely twenty-five where natural objects and landscape are both important to the conception of the painting and realistic. When we do get ‘Nature’ it seems to be all rocks, scrub and the occasional spindly tree — Italy cannot have been quite so bare as this everywhere. And there are no paintings of rivers either.

            Dutch painters were, as far as I know, the first to consider ordinary fruits and flowers of interest in themselves, as opposed to being a detail in an interior scene. Thus the new genre of the ‘still life’. But still is the word : the fruit look too perfect, as if made of wax which conceivably some of them actually were. A little later on, though, there are some vivid and lifelike Dutch paintings of natural scenes, waterfalls and rivers in particular. The first plate where a landscape has real personality, in this case a sullen, brooding one, is Ruisdael’s Extensive Landscape (a ludicrous title). And the painting would have been even more effective to my mind if it had not had a church steeple (a human artefact) in the distance  — I covered it over with my thumb to see the difference. Ruisdael’s landscapes are the first I know of in Western painting to present Nature as essentially changing and dynamic, not frozen and static as Italian  painters made her. Another plate by the unknown (to me) Nicolaes Berchem is a highly realistic representation of a storm brewing. As far as I know, no earlier painter considered a storm in itself worthy of being the subject of a painting. There is Giorgione’s Tempest, a powerful and evocative painting but, despite tht title, the subject is certainly not Nature’s might and savagery. The fashionably dressed youth  who stands to one side as a sort of sentinel and the half-naked woman suckling a child are completely detached from the dark brooding  background as if they belong to a different  plane of reality — perhaps the impression Giorgione wanted to give. But Berchem’s ploughmen, who are small figures even though they hold the foreground, look puny and helpless against the menacing sky and the trees really look as if they are being blown about by a real wind.      

            In French seventeenth century painting landscape for the first time consistently takes up much more space than human figures who are often reduced to tiny shapes whose actual features we cannot recognize as in Claude Lorraine. But the figures are still there to give ‘human interest’, and there is usually a title with a classical reference to direct your imagination to a far off Graeco-Roman never-never-land. There is an enchanting but completely unnatural calm in the paintings of Poussin and Claude Lorraine : one feels that the waves are not wet  and one cannot imagine the foliage of  the trees being battered by the wind or indeed being anything other than how they are depicted to the end of time. Wonderful though many of these paintings are, they are essentially outdoor ‘still lives’ and it would not be unfair to describe them  as escapist: nothing wrong with that in itself, since doubtless most people then as now needed to escape, but one obtains no enlightenment as to what the ‘nature of Nature’ is in such works.

            With the Romantics we finally have Nature elevated to a divine principle,  especially in the writings of poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge :


                                     “And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts ; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

(…) A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.”


                                    Wordsworth, Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey


            This is the Romantic answer to Coomaraswamy’s query about the ‘nature’ of Nature, and it is paralleled in the writings of other Nature mystics in this era such as Richard Jeffereys.  

            But one finds much less than one might expect of  the Romantic Anima Mundi in the works of the great painters of the time. Blake was not an observer of Nature, preferring to explore the inner world, the ‘unconscious’ as we would put it, while Turner eventually got more interested in purely abstract effects of light and colour than what caused them —“Nature has largely retired, defeated” as Levey puts it most aptly. The painter who most completely conveys the Wordsworthian vision of the countryside is Samuel Palmer. His paintings have a mystical quality but it is not an otherworldly mysticism. Plants, hills, houses, human beings, are as it were all of a piece, all expressions of a vital force whose origin lies elsewhere but which is not separated from the physical world by artificial barriers. He perfectly exemplifies the Chinese principle that is supposed to be the key to all successful landscape painting “ch’i  yuen”, which one might translate as “rhythmic vitality”, or perhaps “elective affinity” [between painter and landscape].    

            Before going any further it might be as well to pause and say something about what I understand by ‘Nature’, and list a few obvious features. I don’t intend to try to define Nature : I think we understand pretty well what the concept implies. It is to be opposed to what is man-made, also to what is invisible, completely beyond the reach of the senses, transcendent. More prosaically, when we speak of ‘nature’, at least in the West, we think of trees and hills rather than rocks or stars in the sky.

            So what features are typical of nature and which I would expect a painter to capture and communicate if he wants to do a ‘nature painting’ ?  First of all, Nature exhibits patterns, has a certain regularity, but the patterns are never exact. Think of  the ripples on a beach or the way branches project from the trunk of a tree. Secondly, natural objects change : without change there is no growth and without growth no life. Except when a plant or tree is blown about by a strong wind, we do not actually see them move, but we are aware that they are capable of movement. This is an extremely important point if we want to produce a life-like drawing or painting. Many flowers open and close according to the daylight, trees change more slowly according to the seasons, rocks and hills change slowest of all but they are not static for all time — think of continental drift.

            Thirdly, organic nature is powerful, it contains a force that drives the sap upwards against gravity, that makes eggs burst open, occasionally overwhelms whole countries. But this force is not directly in evidence, it is hidden, latent. No one disputes it is there (except perhaps some physicists) but it cannot be seen or shown directly. A drawing or painting of a plant is only ‘lifelike’ if it gives this impression of latent force, which is precisely why the careful and beautifully coloured drawings in old botanical books are not convincing : their function is to show the shape and form of plants but not their ‘living’ quality.

            It follows from all this that a landscape painting which has been very much worked on, especially if it is painted in oils, is unlikely to give an impression of vitality. (A portrait is different, for reasons that are not too clear.) A painting or other representation which is executed rapidly in a manner that doesn’t allow retouching, is much more likely to succeed — always supposing the artist has some talent, of course. This is exactly what we find. Even with the best intentions, the artists of the Romantic period do not invariably succeed : Constable, the most highly regarded English painter of landscapes apart from Turner, has always struck me as being too heavy, too ponderous. But if we turn to Constable’s casual sketches, the more casual the better, and especially his water colours, we find the most exquisite paintings which look more like Corot or Monet (though better than the latter) than the Constable we know.

            Constable understood that Nature was not static — “Remember light and shade never stand still” — and his output would have probably been more impressive than it actually was, had he possessed private means like Turner and not been obliged to paint what his customers wanted. He did not go in the direction of subjectivism like so many other Romantics — “Imagination can never produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities”. The imagination in effect diverts attention inwards away from what is actually there, and what is there is amply sufficient. If we wish to penetrate to, and convey, the ‘nature of Nature’ we should focus exclusively on what is in front of us, though at the same time peering through it as it were.   

            Similarly, Delacroix’ Moroccan Sketchbook contains all sorts of casual water colours which are full of life and charm. I only know this, incidentally, because I happened to pick up for £5 a second-hand book  “Sketchbooks of the Romantics”, one of  the most wonderful art books I have ever come across. The author quotes Diderot, the French Encyclopaedist, writing in the Salon Review in 1765

A sketch is generally more spirited than a picture. It is the artist’s work when he is full of inspiration and ardour, when reflection has toned down nothing; it is the artist’s soul expressing itself freely.”


            This, of course, does not mean that anyone at all can do a good sketch : one might, with some exaggeration, reverse the accepted wisdom and say that painting large scale ambitious oil paintings is a good preparation for turning out the brilliant offhand drawing or sketch. This is the point of Whistler’s celebrated riposte to the barrister who asked him how he had the gall to demand such a large sum for a painting which, on his own admission, took him half an hour to execute — “No, for the experience of a lifetime”. 

            Part of the trouble — if trouble it is — lies with the principal medium in Western painting, oil. Since you can go over and over an oil painting ad infinitum, the tendency has always been to overwork paintings, to try to produce a ‘masterpiece’. With water colours, you have to seize the moment and if you want to give an impression of vitality,  this is an advantage. For portraits, group scenes, allegories, religious paintings, portraits, fantasies and so on, essentially everything that is timeless or static, oil is doubtless far superior but if  you are above all interested in capturing the mood of the moment as I am, you are better off with pen and ink, charcoal, water colours, pastels and suchlike media. And if the painting doesn’t work, tear it up and start again, don’t try to improve it.  

            The term ‘impression’ was originally derogatory, implying that the painting was ‘unfinished’, not a proper work of art. Precisely for this reason the best Impressionist works do have vitality and fluency, but they capture only the surface shimmer of nature — all that interested the artists. In Van Gogh we have the opposite, someone who was obsessed by the latent potency in nature, an ‘animist’ painter if ever there was one. The posthumous vast success of van Gogh can really only be attributed to him being so out on his own in his vision and aims, it certainly has no relation to his skill which is hopelessly inadequate compared to his aspirations. He is like a giant with limbs the size of matchsticks. For once there is too much life-force rather than too little, his landscapes seem always to be on the verge of exploding like gigantic firework displays. But this is in fact not at all typical of Nature, is not the ‘nature’ of Nature : the structures and organisms we encounter in the natural world, though very occasionally they do blow up into tycoons and tsunamis, are stable structures, otherwise, for mechanical reasons, they wouldn’t be there at all. Van Gogh’s ‘nature’  is unstable, chronically so, like his temperament.

            The twentieth century has turned away from Nature in painting more decisively than any other century. Abstract art dominates the first half of the century, and if there is one thing Nature is not, it is abstract. Even dead stretches of Nature, rocks, tundra, the desert, are never truly abstract : there is always the feeling that they can suddenly spring into life, as indeed they occasionally do when there are landslides and earthquakes. Alternatively, we have the chaotic paintings of ‘action painters’ like Jackson Pollock : once again, if there is one thing Nature is not, it is disorganized. The final insult to Nature, and for that matter to human beings, is making people  into ‘live paintings’ as is currently being done by a winner of the grotesquely named ‘Turner’ prize.

            All this, of course, parallels the demise of Nature in official biology itself. Instead of the creative, inventive force beloved of nineteenth century artists and scientists alike, we now have an empty abstraction and what little ‘life’ biologists allow to the natural world is wholly distasteful — no artists or poet  is ever going to be inspired by Dawkins’ theory of selfish genes. The principle of functionalism rules even in cases where there is manifestly very little obvious utilitarian advantage involved, if any. I discovered recently, to my surprise, that the novelist Nabokov (the author of Lolita) was at one time Curator of Harvard’s Museum of Zoology and published  several articles in learned journals about butterflies. He denied that the wonderful mimicry of many insects could be solely explained by appealing to the ‘struggle for existence’ since the “mimetic subtlety, exuberance and luxury [is] far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art” (quoted Philip Ball, Shapes, p. 191). But such statements only got Nabokov into trouble with the establishment.


            What of the East?  Although there may well be something in this East/West divide theory — there has even been an article in the New Scientist recently which takes seriously the idea that Easterners, or the Chinese at any rate, do seem to have a somewhat different mindset to Westerners — the same sort of problems that I have mentioned did crop up in the history of Chinese painting, despite what Coomaraswamy writes. For much of the first thousand years of Chinese imperial civilization a very mannered style of courtly painting was in vogue, and this was anything but nature orientated — indeed landscape painting was regarded as inferior. But during the Sung and Yüan (Mongol) dynasties, especially the later, many talented painters spurned the Court ambiance and ‘went back to Nature’, exchanging the rationalism of the official Confucian creed for nature-orientated Taoism and mystical forms of Buddhism.

            The Tao cannot be painted since it is the source and end of everything. What can, however, be painted is the Tao manifesting itself  “yuen ch’i”, and it is precisely this that the Chinese landscape painter of a certain epoch attempted to paint, with considerable success. The Tao manifests itself in the object under consideration, mountain, kitten, bamboo stalk, but it also manifests itself in the act of painting. The challenge is to get the two manifestations exactly in harmony — an excruciatingly difficult but seemingly worthwhile task. When this happens, “there appears no trace of human effort, hands spontaneously produce natural form” (Ching Hao, Note on Brushwork  tr. S. Sakanishi). 

            Since the Tao is not a person, there can be no question of the marvels of Nature being some sort of self glorification on the part of the Creator. From the Taoist point of view, the creative act, whether it be found in nature or in art, is inherently gratuitous, purposeless, and requires no justification.

            The above considerations are not modern philosophic justifications of ancient artistic practice : the Chinese landscape painters of this era really did see painting, likewise calligraphy which was not really distinct from painting, as an attempt to capture the elusive mystery of the universe.  “Brushstrokes were not merely a depiction of an object’s external appearance, but were an abstraction of its essential vitality” (Dawson, The Chinese Experience).  

            Even more exciting, though also more treacherous, was the message of Ch’an Buddhism, more commonly known under the Japanese term Zen. For, according to Ch’an Buddhism the nature of the entire universe “was contained in each single fruit or bamboo stem” (Josef Hejzlar, Chinese Watercolours). Whatever the merits of this rather fantastical, holographic take on reality, there can be no doubt that, as Hejzlar says, “What a liberating conception this was for a painter!” 

            One consequence of this Zen attitude to art was the marked ‘unfinished’ state of so many Chinese scrolls — they really are ‘sketches’, but not sketches intended to lead on to something else. This makeshift aspect can be offputting at first but it is really a mark of the Zen artist’s intuitive understanding of Nature’s processes. Nothing in the natural world is finished and complete : there are always subtle interactions between natural objects and the environment and even whole species and solar systems come and go. In the West, largely because of the legacy of Platonism, we tend to see Nature as striving helplessly towards the perfection of timeless ideal forms — or, in the modern era, as striving towards the bloodless perfection of mathematical formulae. If we are to anthropomorphise Nature, a better analogy would be that of an inventor trying out endless arrangements of parts or a talented amateur painter who tosses off drawings on the spur of the moment ‘for the fun of it’ (even if his drawing is still constrained by physical principles relating to his own movements and  that of the pencil).  

            One doubts very much whether the Italian Renaissance painters would really have spent so much time and energy painting  crucifixions and emaciated saints starving in the wilderness if they had not been paid handsomely to do so. Michelangelo was lucky in being given a commission (the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) which allowed his sensual temperament some considerable leeway.  The very idea of a painter who totally rejects nature is a contradiction in terms : Islam was more consistent in banning representations of the natural world altogether as a form of blasphemy. The dominant world-view of all three of the great Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam offers relatively little purchase for strictly painterly conceptions. The two great periods of Western painting are the Romantic era and the Renaissance — in the latter, despite what I have said about the penury of Nature paintings, we do witness an enthusiastic rediscovery and a very unchristian glorification of the human body and  the pleasures of the flesh provided they have a certain refinement. But it is not surprising that it was above all in sculpture and architecture rather than painting that the Renaissance excelled. 

                                                                                    Sebastian Hayes




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