The romantic landscape image: science, faith, and the representation of nature – part 4

Science in the Romantic era was about the search for truth, the uncovering of the mysteries of life, the questioning of morality, human authority, and faith. Nature was the source for this pursuit. While scientists deliberated over issues of the existence of a soul, nature’s teleology and evolution, the creation of the earth and the universe, artists also turned to these subject matters for inspiration.

Plant Ontology (nature as God’s design)

Romantic theories of archetypes and morphology were strong precursors to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Schelling’s Romantische Naturphilosophie connected mind and nature. In his theory, external nature was a product of the mind, but the mind was also a creation of nature. Therefore internal and external nature originated from an absolute ego that existed prior to consciousness.1 The absolute originated from the essence of an archetype, the dynamic force that organisms evolved from. For Goethe, the archetype was not determinate of an organism’s final stage of succession; new properties could appear suggesting the possibility of new organisms.2 Schelling and Goethe’s theories suggested that organisms could have unique self-motivated essences: in other words, a soul. Botanical artwork portrayed this soul-like quality, sometimes in personified, energy-filled, and surreal ways.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Evening, c. 1805. Brooklyn Museum (Source: The Morgan Library and Museum). Runge was interested in the mystical ontology of plants and believed that they originated from a divine source. As one of the prints from his series Times of Day, this print uses precise and detailed motifs of flowers, children, and religious symbolism to give insight in his beliefs in nature and faith.
Cactus Grandiflorus, Night-Blowing Cereus, DGC 1998, Temple of Flora
Philip Reinagle and Abraham Pether, The Night-Blowing Cereus, 1800 (Source: Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas). One of the prints from Robert John Thornton’s The Temple of Flora (1798-1807). The moon cactus, a native of Jamaica and Cuba that only grows in greenhouses in England,3 is shown at a river side setting. The bright yellow petals radiate behind an illuminated core, symbolic of the sun’s rays, are contrasted with its night-blooming qualities, the full moon and the midnight Gothic setting.
Peter Henderson, The Quadrangular Passion Flower, 1802 (Source: AnOther Magazine). Another print from The Temple of Flora. The flowers are rendered as specimens with clear anatomies but they are placed in front of a ribbed column, giving the colourful flower a wall-paper like background and whimsical feel.
Caspar David Friedrich, The Village Landscape in Morning Light (Lone Tree), 1822, National Gallery, Berlin (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The single tree stands in the center of the painting like many of Friedrich’s other paintings with lone figures. Its rootedness is contrasted with its dying crown, showing a melancholic situation.
Johan Christian Dahl, Birch Tree in Storm, 1849, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The tree withstands the powers of greater nature, a circumstance shared by humans.
John Constable, Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, c.1821, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Source: Wikimedia Commons). A detailed and detached rendering, reminiscent of formal portraits.

Geology (alternative narrations of earth’s creation)

Prior to the 18th century, conventional belief had the Earth originating according to the Christian narrative of the Great Flood. With the development of scientific and mining methods for geological studies, debates increased over the Earth’s origins. Nature tourism developed from the Grand Tour through scientific expeditions. Often accompanied by artists, these daring sights were captured in paintings and illustrations. The evolution of how Fingal’s Cave, a geological feature in the Isle of Staffa, had changed in representation from a “natural cathedral” to a cave of material and spatial qualities, show the shift in the perception of the Earth’s geology. Geologists argued over the cave’s origin as neptunist (rocks formed by mineralization in water) or vulcanist (rocks formed by volcanic processes), but nevertheless a creation from God. James Hutton, a supporter of the vulcanist theory, proposed a controversial theory: rather than religious narratives, the striatal layers of the rocks themselves held the answers to the Earth’s formation.4

Thomas Pennant, Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides; MDCLXXII, 1774 (Source: Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology). Early prints of Joseph Banks expeditions of the cave show it represented as a rigid construction that is both orderly and overwhelming, similar to a cathedral.5
View from the Island of Staffa null by William Daniell 1769-1837
William Daniell, View of the Island of Staffa, date unknown, Tate Britain (Source: Tate Gallery). Later prints show the cave in different perspectives, sometimes in a picturesque manner.
J.M.W. Turner, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, 1832, Yale Center for British Art (Source: Wikimedia Commons). Turner’s painting is the extreme of showing the cave in a subjective manner. The cave is barely visible behind the wind, mists, and waves.
Fingal's Cave, Staffa, engraved by Edward Goodall 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
J.M.W. Turner (engraving by Edward Goodall), Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, 1834, Tate Britain (Source: Tate Gallery). Turner’s engraving from the interior looking out combines the atmosphere of subjectivity and the precision of scientific observation.
Fingal’s Cave, Island of Staffa, Scotland, c.1890-1905 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Atmosphere (nature’s process as objective analytic phenomena)

The Romantics were also interested in ephemerality. Fog, mist, and changing cloud formations were common subjects in paintings. The transience of the atmosphere combined with the rigour of scientific observation encouraged artists to observe and represent nature more systematically through approaches in naturalism. For British Romantic landscape painter John Constable, clouds and rainbows were important for nature studies. Constable produced numerous cloud studies but he was not interested in the taxonomy of cloud patterns. He was interested in the transience of the sky at specific moments in time, space, and weather conditions.6 Constable also studied the rainbow, a traditional symbol of Christian faith, through studies of prisms and optics. However, although objective in his approach, Constable still considered the concept of nature as a Godly creation; painting nature accurately meant representing God’s creation truthfully.7

John Constable, Study of Clouds 28 July 1822, 1822, National Gallery of Australia (Source: National Gallery of Australia).
Caspar David Friedrich: Landschaft mit Regenbogen.
Caspar David Friedrich, Mountain Landscape with Rainbow, c. 1810, Museum Folkwang, Essen (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The rainbow here is a symbolic radiant arc across the expansive dark sky, symbolising the Christian promise of eternal afterlife.8
J.M.W. Turner, Rainbow over Loch Awe, c. 1831, Private Collection (Source: Joseph Mallord William Turner – The Complete Works). The rainbow here is suggestive of a symbolic halo, illuminating off the surface in an unnaturally tight radial arc.
Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (Source: Wikimedia Commons). Here, the rainbow is precise and calculated, almost too perfect for mortal life on earth.
John Constable, Landscape with Double Rainbow, 1812, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Source: WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopaedia). The rainbow “as is,” the blending of colours and transient light.
John Constable, Sky Study with Rainbow, 1827, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Beyond earth (a conquerable cosmos)

A scientific approach to rendering the sky was common for naturalistic painters like Constable, but the night sky added mysteries to the world. The night sky was sentimental to the Romantics. In most cultures, the sky was the heavenly home of celestial figures and held stories of cosmic origins. Alternatives to these narratives increased as new astronomic discoveries surfaced prior to and during the Romantic period. The laws of gravity and motion in the 1st scientific revolution set the foundation for a new scientific narrative, while the development of spectroscopy and astrophotography allowed the mysteries of the sky to be analysed and represented after the 2nd scientific revolution. Representations of the moon range from interpretations of sacred symbolism, romantic and nostalgic ambiance, and domestication through human scientific knowledge.

Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1821, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The aurora is displayed as a mystical light, fierce and overwhelming above the explorer’s ship.
Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, c. 1821, National Gallery, Berlin (Source: Wikimedia Commons). According to Spencer-Longhurst, the figures awaiting the rising moon and returning ships is suggestive of “the consolation offered by Christ in the face of death.”9
J.M.W. Turner, Keelman Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C. (Source: Wikimedia Commons). There is perhaps an element of social commentary here, as the moonlight and industrial smoke becomes indistinguishable.10
Johan Christian Dahl, Mother and Child by the Sea, 1840, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. (Source: My Daily Art Display). The moon here is atmospheric, giving an ambiance of intimate repose.
Johan Christian Dahl, Dresden by Moonlight, 1839, Dresden New Masters Gallery (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The moonlight sets a contrasting romantic tone to a modern city harbour.
Johan Christian Dahl, Study of Clouds at Full Moon, 1822. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Source: The Athenaeum). Approximately 300 open-air studies were created by Dahl during his lifetime.11 Many were dedicated to the changes in the moon.
John Russell, The Face of the Moon, 1793-1797, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (Source: Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries). A realistic study of the moon in its gibbous phase, chosen to capture the most interesting details of the moon’s topography with contrasts of light and shade.12
The Moon
John William Draper, Full Moon, 1840 (Source: Time Magazine). By mid-19th century, daguerreotype and early photography made it easier to capture snapshots of the moon.

1. Robert Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 133, 145.
2. Ibid, 416, 452.
3. Charlotte Klonk, Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 42.
4. Ibid, 76-77.
5. Ibid, 74.
6. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 203.
7. Jonathan Wordsworth, Michael Jaye, and Robert Woof, William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 67-68.
8. Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, (London: Reakton Books, 2009), 132.
9. Paul Spencer-Longhurst, Moonrise over Europe: J.C. Dahl and Romantic Landscape, (London: Philip Wilson), 30.
10. Ibid, 50.
11. Ibid, 76.
12. Ibid, 84.


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