The Romantic landscape image: science, faith, and the representation of nature – part 1

In last week’s post, I wrote about the emergence of Romanticism in Europe as a modern condition against rationality and mechanical progress. The Romantics yearned for authenticity and truth through subjective emotions. Nature, with its mystery and integrity, was the pathway to finding the truth that the Romantics sought. The curiosity for nature was prevalent in all aspects of life, including art, science, and religion. In  present day, the need for categorization has separated art, science, and religion as three incongruent fields of study. In the age of Romanticism, there was an interdependent bond between the three. I argue that this bond was found in landscapes. Perhaps Romanticism was the last time that science, art, and religion were held together so tightly in Western history, but landscapes still hold the remnants of this tripartite relationship to life. In the following weeks, I will be looking more specifically at Romantic landscape paintings as examples of how science, faith, and the representation of nature in art changed the way we now see landscapes.

Truth as the divine connection between nature and God

The first scientific revolution in the 17th century, most notably marked by Sir Isaac Newton’s work on celestial mechanics and optics, rendered a world that could be resolved through deductive reasoning and objective rationality. At the end of the 18th century, science took a turn for the organic. The limitations of knowledge become apparent. Imperceptible phenomena, such as electricity and electromagnetism, were discovered. Limitations became opportunity and inspiration. Romantic science, based on social and personal excitement for the world’s wonders marked the second scientific revolution.1  Nature was the subject of discovery. But instead of pure objective curiosity, the Romantics sought for an intrinsic quality in nature that was between the living and the machine. They were looking for a “nature of authority.” They wanted to know nature’s purpose, because consequently, that could lead them to humanity’s purpose.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768, National Gallery of London

Prior to Romanticism, nature was symbolized as a female figure in contrast to an almighty male God. Nature was also portrayed as a creature that represented humanity’s hidden desires and inclinations.2 For the Romantics, nature was both divinity and humanity. Nature channeled the divine to humanity through creativity, in particular, through the “genius.” For many, the genius was found in artistic pursuits. For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the genius was also found in the exploration of science.3 The creative genius channeled nature’s authority into scientific endeavors to reveal more laws of nature. Additionally, for Goethe, the understanding of nature was intrinsic and archetypal to humanity, similar to how morality is understood through God. Thus, “God, nature, and intellect are one.”4 Products of human creativity or intellect, including art and scientific discovery, were considered indirect products of a divine source.

Truth as expression in art

If Romantic science was the seeking of truth and divinity through God’s creation in nature, Romantic art was the representation of the truth of God’s creation through personal expression. The Romantic artist had to be creative and subjective in order to deliver the divine message. There is little consistency among the styles of Romantic art but the constant feature is that the works embody the spirit of Romanticism: the search for a meaning between internal nature (humanity) and external nature which holds the world together. What the artist had to personally offer was extremely important. Humanity, spirituality, and freedom were associated themes in the purpose of art.

Immanuel Kant, whose philosophies prompted the Romantic Movement, began the inquiry into art’s purpose through the relationships among nature, self, and the divine. Art historian William Vaughan suggests that Kant and his Romantic followers found in the contemplation of nature the existence of a subjective “moral law” that is associated with the divine.5 Nature’s qualities are within us and the contemplation of nature could lead to self-discovery. Landscape, the representation of nature, was a way to explore the self. Vaughan states, “the landscape painters who explored the relationship between man’s understanding and the world around were all concerned with those thresholds of awareness at which the imagination becomes most excited, whether these were of scale, space, distinctness or motion.”6 As Romanticism matured, a stronger notion of a relationship between humanity and divinity that was expressed through art was established. Victorian art critic John Ruskin defined great art as the beauty generated when nature was accepted as is.7 It is also the awakening of unlimited thought, or in Hegel’s terms, the human “spirit.” Through beautiful art, humanity is aware of our freedom to sense, perceive, and imagine.8 For Hegel, the divine in nature is unconscious; the divine in the human spirit is conscious, free, and esteemed. Specifically, Romantic “art transcend[ed] itself”9 to a point where the inner world (idea) could not be merely represented in the outer world (form), and instead took on ideal forms. Consequently, Romantic art relied on the ideal or subjective feelings that were often fleeting and ungraspable.

Monk by the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1810, Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin

The sublime: representation of God in nature through landscapes

The subjective feeling found in many Romantic paintings is the ephemeral and overwhelming notion of the sublime. The sublime’s relationship to landscape in Western history is influenced by the development of Christian theology, which was affected by the Romantic notion that God, nature, and humanity were synonymous. As the idea of a singular divine authority became increasingly challenged by scientific discoveries of the cosmos, Romanticism put forth two alternative variations of faith: pantheism, in that God is nature; and panentheism, in that nature is both part of and somehow still separate from God. Romantic landscape paintings varied from pantheism to panentheism, but nonetheless, carried a divine essence. God was expressed through a heightened awareness through the sublime.

The shifting of the imaging of Christian faith from prescribed icons to a divine nature encouraged the sublime to be represented in landscape paintings. The secularization of landscapes was made possible because of the influence of Protestant aesthetics, particularly the theologies of Martin Luther (1483-1586) and John Calvin (1509-1564). While Lutheran theology allowed the memorialization of religious figures but warned against idolatry and the worshiping of images, Calvinism viewed all religious art as potentially idolatrous.10 Historical heroes began to replace religious icons, and nature became the new subject for religious narrative. Landscape as a subject matter also gained some respect (as it was previously considered a lower art form) in the 17th century. Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) were the most influential landscape painters at the time. While Rosa preferred moodier landscapes, Claude was representative of idyllic, and mytho-religious symbolic scenes. The artists influenced two important aspects of the picturesque landscape: the fantasy of old ruins and wilderness (Rosa), and the soft dreaminess of natural landscapes (Claude).

Sunrise, by Claude Lorrain, 1647, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Landscape with Tobit and the Angel, by Salvator Rosa, c. 1670, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg

The sublime came in varying forms, but the philosophical concern behind the need to represent the sublime was always a question of humanity’s relationship with nature. My next post will cover the differences between Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant’s interpretation of the sublime. I will also look at the mysticism of Northern European sublime landscape and the spiritual quality of the Hudson River School.

1. Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, (New York: Vintage Books, 2008).
2. Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid, 90.
5. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
6. Ibid, 135.
7. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, ed. by David Barrie, (New York: Knopf, 1987).
8. G.W.F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, ed. by M. J. Inwood, trans. by Bernard Bosanquet, (London: Penguin Books, 2004).
9. Ibid, 87.
10. Gene Edward Veith, Painters of Faith: The Spiritual Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America, (Washington, DC: Regnery Pub, 2001).


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