The Romantic landscape image: science, faith, and the representation of nature – part 3

Romantic science as truth

Part 1 explored Romanticism as the search for divine truth in the form of human creativity. The representation of the sublime in landscape painting, shown in Part 2, was one way of expressing this human creativity. In this post, science is shown as an alternative path to truth during the age of Romanticism.

In contemporary society, we often separate science, religion, and art as uncomplimentary fields of study. Conventional notions of science as objective, clear, and rigid is often seen as incompatible with the subjectivity, vagueness, and fluidity of (idealized, non-commercial and non-politicized) art and faith. Science is rarely considered “romantic.” During the age of Romanticism, science was sentimental and subjective, and was both inseparable and at tension with religious faith. For pantheistic or panentheistic Romantic scientists, science was viewed as a mission for truth – the truth behind God’s design of nature. Despite the pervasive social doctrine of faith in divine nature, individuals increasingly explored the ideas of an atheistic scientific world. This position offended both believers of traditional faith and the growing faith in nature. These scientists became the archetype of the stereotypical scientist who declared mysticism as ignorance and that all knowledge was within the grasp of human discovery. English surgeon William Lawrence, who was seen as a radical at his time, declared that science “must avoid ‘clouds of fears and hopes, desires and aversions.’ It must ‘discern objects clearly’ and shun ‘intellectual mist.’ It must dispel myth and dissipate ‘absurd fables.’”1

Frankenstein: the soul and the morality of science

Lawrence’s opposition to his senior colleague John Abernethy’s life force theory created what was known as the Vitalism Debate, also referred to as Britain’s first scientific controversy.2 The controversial question behind the dispute was one that still exists today: the existence of the soul. Abernethy’s theory suggested the existence of magnetism-like souls in organisms. Interestingly, Lawrence who was against the theory, and was also Percy Shelley’s physician, fits the description of Mary Shelley’s fictional character Victor Frankenstein. However, it was also likely that German physiologist Johann Wilhelm Ritter played a part in the inspiration of the character.3 At the time, Ritter had just invented a dry-cell voltaic battery to experiment on the galvanic properties of animals. Combining the fervor and debate between material science and imperceptible science, and the Romantic concerns for society and morality, Shelley’s famous story presents a critical doubt concerning humanity. Frankenstein questions whether a soul exist, and if there is one, whether it can be created. Essentially, it presents the horror looming behind the physical potentials and moral limitations to human knowledge and scientific manipulation.

Frontispiece for 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Theodore Von Holst (Source: Wikipedia, from Tate Britain)

Representation of the scientific truth of nature

The predicament between objectivity and faith encircled scientific and artistic representations. For some, however, objectivity and faith were two-sides of the same coin. John Ruskin believed that the Old Masters of classical landscape paintings failed in attaining truth because of their neglect to properly observe and render those truths of nature.4 This failure was equivalent to disrespecting nature and consequently God. Thus, the mechanical vision and impartiality of the scientific process was seen as appropriate in both understanding and representing nature. For Romantic artists, it was a form of respect for the laws of nature. The approach to represent nature truthfully came in the form of naturalism. The style, which was not uniform in presentation, relied on practical views and experimentation on varying techniques of observation and representation. Even artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner, who were not characteristically naturalistic, abided to the imperative for careful observation of material nature. In fact, Friedrich worked as a topographic draftsman,5 and Turner worked as an architectural draftsman6 before establishing their careers in landscape painting.

John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlass, 1853 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Caspar David Friedrich, Willow Trunk with Young Shoots, c.1800 (Source: Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

A range of themes from the natural world was reflected in the paintings of Romantic artists, including the mysteries of plant life, the Earth’s geology, the processes of the Earth’s atmosphere, and nature beyond Earth. New perspectives in science offered alternative narratives of nature’s origins beyond the pantheistic perspective of God’s design. As the ambitions of scientific knowledge increased, the relevance of divine narratives diminished. Scientific approaches could also analyze the intangible and the ephemeral. The limits of size and distance were also not a problem, since the mysteries of nature could be revealed in either a small and familiar leaf or the large and unattainable celestial bodies of moons and planets. While Romantic science was viewed as “a gift of God or Providence to mankind…to reveal the wonders of His design,”7 it also revealed the expanding capacities of human control over nature. The balance between the two were sought after in the Romantic landscape. Examples will be presented in the next post.

1. Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 313.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, 328.
4. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, ed. by David Barrie (New York: Knopf, 1987).
5. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 142.
6. “Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851),” The Met’s Heibrunn Timeline of Art History, 2016.
7. Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 450.


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