The late 18th and early 19th century was defined by a new movement in art and literature that swept across Europe and into North America. The artists in this movement were intrigued by the power that they saw in nature, and they wanted to know the implications that nature had for the human spirit. This movement is called Romanticism. And though artists like Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Cole, and Francisco Goya thrived on the idea of nature being essential to the human experience, such ideas were in existence before Romanticism; and they have lasted long since.
Works in this genre are often defined by warm, earthy colors and balanced compositions that emphasize natural aspects of the landscape over ones that are constructed by man. Because of this, it is appropriate to say that there is a certain level of divine spirituality found in nature in these works, an idea that is furthered by the romantic poets. The centerpiece of this exhibit, Camille Corot’s The Banks of the Seine at Conflans, exemplifies all of these traits. The human figures take up little space in the composition and are obscured by the brush and the shadows from the trees; they very much exist as a product of nature. These figures are also dependent on nature, as they can be seen cutting wood and fishing in the river. The other works in this exhibit have been carefully chosen for the way in which they, like The Banks of the Seine at Conflans, show the interaction of man and nature.
This exhibition should act as a visual journey of the relationship between man and nature over time. Despite changes in culture, time, and medium, all of these pieces succeed in making a statement on the effects of nature on mankind.
Camille Corot, The Banks of the Seine at Conflans, 1865-70, oil on canvas, 21.70.4
In this painting, Corot depicts a tranquil scene on the banks of the Seine river, with four figures interacting with nature under a canopy of trees. Corot’s use of composition, coloring, and painterly style is effective in portraying the importance of the human spirit and the romantic ideas of nature. Corot also engages with the viewer by including a dirt path that divides the center of the piece. This allows us to become a part of the scene, and asks us to question our own relationship with the natural world.
Claude Monet, The Green Wave, 1866-67, oil on canvas, 29.100.111
Monet achieves a similar theme in his painting The Green Wave by portraying the will of man as being completely dependent on the will of nature. The rolling composition of the waves affects the sail boats, forcing them to travel in an unpredictable way. The very nature of a sail boat, relying on the wind to be able to move, implies that nature dictates the actions of man. Monet also uses color and light to emphasize the power of the waves, dark blues where the water is deepest, and light blues/white where the wave is crashing.
Frans Post, A Brazilian Landscape, 1650, oil on wood, 1981.318
This painting by Frans Post, created before the romantic era, depicts a group of Brazilian laborers resting among a South American landscape. Post was a Dutch painter who was inspired to paint this piece after travelling to Brazil during the years of 1637-1644. This is evident in the composition of the painting: a majority of the painting is dedicated to the sky, which is an important part of the Dutch tradition. Post was also diligent in accurately portraying native flora and fauna, which was very much a result of a fascination with the exotic during his time. Because of this, the native people are seen as another part of this mystical exotic landscape; existing within nature instead of interacting with it.
John Frederick Kensett, Hudson River Scene, 1857, oil on canvas, 07.162
The American contemporaries of the European romantics were largely concentrated in the Hudson River School of Art, who were intrigued by the new found beauty of the new world. Kensett, who was a part of this group, displays a similar idea of man’s relationship with nature as is the case with the other pieces in this exhibition. However, he achieves this through the adaptation of a new environment and a new culture. Figures can be seen sitting and reading at the crest of a grandiose forest, sail boats can be seen navigating the river, mountainside cabins are visible with smoke billowing from the chimneys, and a train can barely be seen travelling along the opposite side of the valley. These are all dominant icons of American life and they are all encompassed by a majestic wilderness of evergreen trees and looming mountains. Kensett succeeds in saying that perhaps man is more in tune with nature in America than he ever has been before.
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, oil on canvas, displayed at Kunsthalle Hamburg
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog embodies everything that the romantics believe in. Thought to be a self-portrait of Friedrich himself, the viewer is invited to see the world through the eyes of the figure; over looking an ethereal landscape of rocks and mountains. This painting captures the idea of the ‘sublime’; the idea that man gets a glimpse of his own potential through the awe-inspiring grandeur found in the natural world. The relationship between man and nature is apparent in this piece, one can’t exist without the other.
Jeff Wall, The Storyteller, 1986, Silver dye bleach transparency in lightbox, 2006.91
This piece by Jeff Wall may appear different than the other pieces in this exhibition, but it features many of the same characteristics that we’ve already examined. We see an urban landscape with an overpass on the right and an overgrown embankment dominating the majority of the composition to the left. The figures seen in this photograph have been staged by Wall and make reference to previous works in art history; most notably the trio in the bottom left, who seem to be mimicking Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass. By doing this, Wall attempts to suggest that the figures in this photograph are very much the product of a modern existence, and yet, they are still affected by their natural surroundings.