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.
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
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
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.
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.↩