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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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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.
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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.
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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

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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.

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.

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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.

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John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlass, 1853 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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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.

The Romantic landscape image: science, faith, and the representation of nature – part 2

In part 1, I explored the essence of Romanticism as the search for truth through nature as a divine source in the form of human creativity. According to Hegel1, in Romantic art, the representation of the idea transcends beyond physical form and takes on ideal forms that are fleeting and ungraspable. The notion of the sublime is such a feeling. The sublime can be explained in different ways, typically originating from the theories of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Sublime as fear and repulsion to the powers of nature

Burke’s theories of the beautiful and the sublime were based on the polar emotions of love and hate.2 The beautiful included classical features such as lightness, smoothness, balance, and harmony. The sublime was the opposite: darkness, uncontrollability, and mystery. For the Romantics, both the beautiful and the sublime came from a divine source, or by God’s design. Fear and repulsion, characteristics of Burke’s sublime, were evoked when humanity is matched against divinity, expressed in the form of dominating nature. Landscapes that represent nature’s relentlessness, such as shipwrecks in stormy seas and massive waterfalls portray this version of the sublime.

Sublime as the celebration of human rationality over nature

As a response to Burke’s writings, Kant focused on the ideas of the beautiful and the sublime as processes in the human mind. His versions of the beautiful and the sublime celebrated humanity’s power of rationality over nature.3 The sublime is a complicated dynamic relationship between nature (the external reality and God) and humans, with two possible characteristics:

  1. Mathematical – an element’s immeasurability due to its greatness that overwhelms our imaginations. However, it is our judgement of size that determines what is sublime. We reason over the immeasurable and unimaginable.
  2. Dynamic – one’s realization of the physical limitations of external nature over one’s internal self. We engage in reasoning over the fact that humanity’s inner nature does not need to submit to the powers of external nature.

In both cases, rationality triumphs. The Kantian sublime is a combination of pleasure, when reason surpasses nature, and displeasure, when imagination and physicality in turn becomes defeated by nature.

Caspar David Friedrich and the Northern European Sublime

The sublime in Romantic paintings were more than straightforward instances of Burke or Kant’s philosophies. Rather, they portrayed the abstracted notion of the tension between the powers of nature (and God) and the capacity of humans to comprehend and ponder over these powers. The Romantic artist who was most iconic of this was German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

Friedrich represented the sublime as the unresolved mystery between humanity and divine nature. Romantic Germany was already inclined to mystical approaches of interpretation as 19th century Germany was going through a nationalistic endeavor of medieval revival. German Romantics believed that there was a uniqueness to the German soul that was best expressed in literature and the arts.4 Friedrich’s paintings place human life in contrast to expansive nature, making them “inhospitable, ancient, and timeless, and in them mankind looks almost like an alien creature.”5 There is a tension between mysterious nature and relatable mortality. Friedrich took traditional notions of ritual, pilgrimage, and church, and relocated them to ordinary encounters with nature. He personalized the experience of divinity in a secular world to a greater environment. Koerner’s comparison between Friedrich and Schlegel aptly describes the Romantics’ aspirations: “If Schlegel desired that his writings be Bibles, Friedrich fashions the Romantic painter’s corollary aspiration: that his canvases be altars.”6 However, Friedrich was not considered an influential Romantic artist until the 20th century as he was reclusive and his paintings ignited religious controversy for relocating the divine from the church to landscapes. Perhaps it is because his paintings portray so well humanity’s vulnerability against nature that they relate to the modern soul, bringing about a renewed interest.7

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Caspar David Friedrich, Cross in the Mountains, 1808, Dresden New Masters Gallery. Friedrich’s most controversial painting.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Kunsthalle, Hamburg. This painting is often used as the icon of Romanticism and the sublime. Ironically, I think it’s a weak representative of Friedrich’s sense of the sublime.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Woman Before the Setting Sun, c. 1818, Museum Folkwang, Essen. Iconic of the solitary figure standing symmetrically before a vast landscape (she also looks like she’s channeling some mystical powers).
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Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809-1810, National Gallery, Berlin. In my opinion, probably the most sublime of Friedrich’s paintings. The painting inverts illuminated nature with dark mystery as the lone monk stands diminutively in comparison to the expansive sea.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape, 1811, Staatliches Museum Shwerin. This comes after Landscape with Oaks and Hunter (1811). Here, the hunter is struggling and desolate in nature after being in harmony with nature in the summer.8
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Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape with Church, 1811, Dortmund Museum of Arts and Cultural History. The hunter from Winter Landscape (above) is finally at rest in his pilgrimage as he’s found God (obvious symbolism of fir, church, and cross).9
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Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1808-1810. Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.
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Caspar David Friedrich, The Cemetery Entrance, 1825, New Masters Gallery Dresden.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, c. 1818, Museum Oskar Reinhart.
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Caspar David Friedrich, The Chasseur in the Forest, 1814, Private Collection. One of my favourite Friedrich paintings. Kind of spooky and full of vulnerability, reminiscent of a Brothers Grimm folktale.

The other German Romantic painter who captured the mystical sublime of nature was Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810). While Friedrich’s paintings are contemplative and structured, Runge’s paintings feel like an over-sharpening of a moment in time. His painted elements, including plants and children seem to contain a supernatural character. His paintings are evocative, fusing together naturalism and symbolism.10 In comparison, English Romantics were more reserved. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is perhaps the only comparable Romantic landscape painter to Friedrich and Runge. Despite Turner’s love of depicting the Romantic notion of “storm and stress,” his rash blending of strokes and the tendency for softer radiant tones displaced the mysticism of the German sublime with a more Burkean overtone: the mystery of nature is unquestioned and accepted in its overwhelming physical powers.

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Philipp Otto Runge, The Hulsenbeck Children, c. 1806, Kunsthalle Hamburg.
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Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1809, Deutshe Kunsthalie, Hamburg.
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J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842, Tate London.

Hudson River School and Luminism – the North American sublime

Around the same time, North American painters in the Hudson River School were establishing their own definition of the sublime landscape. Nature was both serene and powerful, revealing a midpoint between Burke’s beautiful and sublime. The paintings are also contemplative, relating to Kant’s interpretations. Most importantly, nature for the Hudson River School was a gift and message from God: as nature is a creation of God and humans have the power of self-reasoning, and consequently morality, in the face of nature and God, humans have the moral responsibility for the good. Although the Hudson River School was influenced by European aesthetics, the theological and political context of North America was quite important.11 For the influential Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, nature was a “type” of Godly work. Calvinist Horace Bushnell expanded this idea by claiming that nature was a language of God that was expressed physically but could never be fully comprehended by the human mind. Ruskin’s strong Protestant aesthetics further emphasized this theological approach to nature, and his writings were very influential in later 19th century America.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of the Empire: Destruction, 1836, New York Historical Society. The 4th painting in The Course of the Empire series, showing humanity’s destruction of nature (preceded by The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, followed by Desolation).
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Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
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Frederic Edwin Church, To the Memory of Cole, 1848, Private Collection.
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Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861, Dallas Museum of Art.

The works by the artists in the Hudson Rivers School ranged from religious allegory to evocative landscapes. The common themes among them was the superiority of divine nature and humanity’s moral responsibility. Thomas Cole, representative of the Hudson River School, rejected human-centeredness by direct criticism in his allegorical paintings, while other artists portrayed similar opinions by diminishing human presence against the backdrop of an infinite and haunting nature. Light is symbolic of the sublime: radiant light peeking through distant clouds at dawn or twilight represented the enigmatic yet authoritative future of being saved by God. Wide vistas embodied both divine boundlessness and the celebrated American dream of freedom. The overall message delivered is that faith, worshiped through nature, is the ultimate morality. When the Hudson River School started to decline due to shifting worldviews towards individualism and secularization in the latter half of the 19th century, the representation of light also changed from a distant heavenly source to a unifying glow that emanated from the landscape itself. This shift in style, to Luminism, replaced the panentheistic faith of a more-than-material-God with divinity as pantheistic nature, a sublime that is more immersive and participatory. Nature and divinity, artist and viewer are united through the painted landscape:

The viewer, following the painter, enters the picture and follows its lead toward an illusionary, disembodied, spiritual oneness with divine infinity. Paradoxically, this ultrasubjectivity, this pouring of the subject into the object, is intended to lead to pure objectivity, a pure unity with nature.12

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John Frederick Kensett, Lake George, 1860-1869, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
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Samuel Colman, Storm King on the Hudson, 1866, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

1. G.W.F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, ed. by M. J. Inwood, trans. by Bernard Bosanquet, (London: Penguin Books, 2004).
2. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. by David Womersley, (London: Penguin Books, 1998).
3. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. by James Creed Meredith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).
4. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
5. Ernst W. Veen, “A Dream Comes True,” in Caspar David Friedrich & the German Romantic Landscape, (Aldershot, U.K: Lund Humphries, 2008), 11.
6. Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, 2nd ed., (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), 34.
7. Henk van Os, “Casper David Friedrich and His Contemporaries,” in Caspar David Friedrich & the German Romantic Landscape, (Aldershot, U.K: Lund Humphries, 2008), 14-39.
8. Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, 2nd ed., (London: Reaktion Books, 2009).
9. Ibid.
10. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
11. Gene Edward Veith, Painters of Faith: The Spiritual Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America, (Washington, DC: Regnery Pub, 2001).
12. Petra Halkes, Aspiring to the Landscape: On Painting and the Subject of Nature, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 51.

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.

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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.

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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).

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Sunrise, by Claude Lorrain, 1647, Metropolitan Museum of Art
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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).

Romanticism and Nostalgia: The Modern Condition

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…
—William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

To call someone romantic in the present day could mean in the positive sense that someone is expressive, loving, and affectionate, but it could also mean in the derogatory sense as someone unrealistic, irrational, or over-sentimental. Although the contemporary understanding of romance is related to love, the word “romance” itself has gone through different associations in Western history. The origin of “romance” comes from the medieval languages that derived from Latin, including French, Spanish, and Italian. Stories of chivalry, adventure, love, knights and damsels in distress appeared in these romantic languages. Notions of passion, fantasy, and beautiful settings became associated with romance.

After taking a back seat to rationality, Romanticism made a fierce return in the late 18th century through the arts as a reaction against the mechanical and regimented monotony of the Enlightenment. Romanticism was a movement to renew the wonders of human life by bringing back sentimental passions, individuality, and subjective freedom. In parallel with the artistic and intellectual impulse to break free was the social and political instability of the French Revolution. Concepts of death, destruction, and the transience of power became pertinent. Metaphorically, the Romantics saw themselves as heroes, just like the medieval knights, braving through the repressions of society. German Romantics, including Friedrich and William Schlegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), Friedrich Schelling, Johan Fichte, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and also Georg F.W. Hegel were not homogeneous in their philosophies, but had a common interest: understanding humanity’s inner and external nature, and the spiritual relationship between the two. According to Friedrich Schlegel, Romanticism is found in “whatever shows us a sentimental subject in fantastic form … Everything that speaks to our sentiment – not our sensual, but our spiritual sentiment.”1

Earlier Romanticism in German literature was characterized by extreme individualism and dramatic feelings in the movement of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress). In England, Romanticism found itself in the sentiment for the materiality of the natural world. In comparison to the German’s mysticism of nature, English Romanticism of nature was personal and familiar. From the poems of William Wordsworth to the paintings of John Constable, nature was something very close to home.

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The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, National Gallery of London.

Nostalgia: The Romantic Paradox

In the crux of Romanticism is a fundamental paradox: the desire for individualism and a connectedness to a world that is both material and metaphysical. This is a modern desire. The Romantic is in search of truth, authenticity, and personal identification with place in the world, but he/she can never be fully satisfied because of subjectivity:

in turning to personal experience one forgoes the security of an established belief system with which to make sense of the world and exposes oneself to whatever comes. It means becoming a perpetual outsider. The gain for the individual is the experience itself and the continual surprise of existence. The Romantic is a constant beginner in life, always learning, never content to be instructed by others.2

Consequently, the Romantic may search for connectedness in another realm: the imagination, the past, or a utopian future. While romanticism is understood as an approach to view the world, nostalgia is a state of romanticism in response to a particular (yet not necessarily defined) place and time. Nostalgia is often immersed in melancholic emotions that range from a sense of reflectivity to a sense of mourning. Mourning is a reaffirmation of modernity for Bruce Braun: “To be modern is to mourn; we preform ourselves as modern by mourning.”3 Being aware of the world, we are constantly trying to catch up with what we deem as modernity’s destruction.

Imperialist nostalgia and tourism

Renato Rosaldo describes imperialist nostalgia as the hypocritical, self-inflicted mourning created by cultural dominance. This is present in colonialism and the modern worship of nature:

A person kills somebody, and then mourns the victim. In more attenuated form, somebody deliberately alters a form of life, and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to the intervention. At one more remove, people destroy their environment, and then they worship nature.4

Whether I want to think positively, or I’m just in denial, I still find the above statement too hard to swallow. Imperialist nostalgia may be fitting as a cultural phenomenon, but can we really condemn every modern individual to this offense? Nonetheless, imperialist nostalgia may have been the driver of modern mass-popularized tourism. Caren Kaplan suggests that imperial nostalgia has been narrated and represented by the colonizer (i.e. the victor) as the search for the “pure” and “simple” “elsewhere,” whether in another historical period or through other cultures.5 Travel is the modern activity to remedy this sense of displacement.

Displaced nostalgia and landscape images

Physical travel isn’t the only way that a nostalgic past is displaced. S.W. Naguib describes displaced nostalgia as the yearning of a place that one has never experienced, and that it is generated from the familiarity and the attachment to the exposure of repetitive idealized landscapes.6 These landscapes are dream-like and a-temporal, giving off a particular ambience. Postcards, travel brochures, calendar images, photo-collections (and now Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr images), perpetually reinforce the nostalgia evoked through landscape images. Perhaps even more effective than landscape paintings, landscape photographs make a greater impression in our implicit memories. Photographs have the type of authority to imply a truth: details are captured within the picture frame like evidence, not just evidence captured by the photographer, but evidence that we assume to have seen ourselves. Accompanying this evidence of truth, are the emotions of longing and admiration.

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Beach “postcard” landscape. Source: Picture Postcard, by Thomas, Flickr (CC-BY-ND 2.0)

Are you a landscape romantic?

Although there are many ways to perceive landscapes, I personally believe that one must be a romantic to be passionate about landscapes. At the same time, it means being stuck in the paradox of modernity (this is why I sometimes feel like I’m stuck on a never-ending hamster wheel). Is there a way to get unstuck without foregoing the belief in landscapes…


1. Hubert Schrade, German Romantic Painting, (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1977), 7.
2. Neil Evernden, The Natural Alien: Humankind and the Environment, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 31.
3. Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Forest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 137.
4. Caren Kaplan, “‘This Question of Moving’: Modernist Exile / Postmodern Tourism,” in Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 34.
5. Ibid, 27-64.
6. Saphinaz-Amal Williksen Naguib, “Egypt in View: Postcards of Nostalgia,” in Reveries of Home: Nostalgia, Authenticity and the Performance, eds. Solrun Williksen and Nigel Rapport, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 109-123.

Place and memory

Academically, a lot of effort has been put into distinguishing the difference between space and place. Architects (and landscape architects) intuitively know place. The ultimate goal of the architect is not to build buildings, but to make places. While function and visual appeal are the predominate drivers of contemporary design, there still remains an almost mythical poeticalness to the concept of timeless place-making. The most influential notion of place in Western architectural theory is the ancient Roman concept of the genius loci. The “genius” is the guardian spirit that protects every being in the world from its birth to its death and gives it essence and life energy.1 Every place has a genius; the genius is the essence of place, distinguishing it from space or site. Finding the genius, or creating one, is the trick of architectural design. Spirit of place is a notion found in other cultures, for example, spirits of the land in indigenous cultures, the kami in Shinto religion, guardian deities in Hinduism and Chinese folk religion.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine, Shinto shrine in Kyoto known for its thousands of torii gates. Source: Infinity, by Juan Salmoral (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Defining place

Previously in What does it mean to be human? I presented Evernden’s idea that humans are natural aliens in search of place. A part of our existential being as humans is to feel placelessness. But place is vague. How can we search for place when we don’t even know what we are looking for? Here are some attempts from scholars to define place:

Yi-Fu Tuan: Space and place are interdependent terms that are distinguished by experience. Space allows movement; place is the pause.2

Michel de Certeau: Space is a “practiced place;” place carries a set of “proper” rules in accordance to a stable order of relationships.3

Edward Casey: Places are inhabited in present time or retrospectively. Alternatively, sites are where things are prospectively built. Thus, time is a function of place. Memories make places.4

Embodied memory

Memories are retrieved to form knowledge of a past, but to differentiate between knowledge and remembering, we retrieve the memories, feelings, and/or thoughts from a particular time.5 In the process of remembering, we are re-experiencing. Memory is also often perceived as relative to a concept of time that is linear, occurring between the past and the present. Casey points out that memories are always formed from a body memory, emplaced from a situated perspective point. Memories are always experienced by being embodied in a place and time, whether it is from reality or from the imagination. Certain places are linked with particular memories. Sometimes a place will recall certain memories, while certain memories seek out places. Departure from place evokes nostalgia, while the arrival or return to place conjures anticipation.

Anticipatory memory and implicit memory

Memory is thought of as “looking back” but the positive anticipation of a place is “looking forward to.” This sounds like a paradox, but Paul Duro provides an idea of a forward-looking memory: anticipatory memory.6 At the same time, he describes it as a “pre-emptive nostalgia.” It is a type of memory that defeats linear time. Ideas and affections of a place are formed by ambiguous and involuntary remembering of conscious memories from “research” or unconscious associations of memories of the same place or similar places. Anticipatory memory is not merely a social or historical narrative for the visitor, such as the anticipation to experience “wilderness” for a city dweller. It is embodied in place and transcends between collective and individual memories. These memories are subject to fragmentation, distortion, and idealization. They can also be disturbed, re-affirmed, or reconstructed.

The disturbance of anticipatory memory is based on Robert Eisner’s “double nature of place” in which there are two renditions of place for each person.7 There is the real one, and also its timeless and idealized version. The dichotomy between the two places creates interference in the actual experience. Sometimes there is the need to preserve this idealized landscape. The example that Duro writes about is Martin Heidegger’s trip to Greece in the travel journal Sojourns. Heidegger is doubtful of the possibility of reconciling his expectations, i.e. his “ancient memories” of Greece, with the actual experience, that he avoids getting off the ship at many of the port stops. His encounter with Greece is compared by Duro as a pilgrimage – the search for a kind of truth (similar to my pilgrimage for poignant landscapes). To have a meaningful experience of place, accordance between the anticipated and the real must be made. Duro concludes, “Experience is only validated when it is seen through the lens of prior representation.”8

Another involuntary memory is implicit memory, defined as the phenomenon when perception, thoughts, and feelings are influenced by unconscious memories of past experiences.9 According to Daniel Schacter, implicit memories cannot be recalled, nor are we aware of its processes. While implicit memories are mainly formed by imagery and our social context, particularly through the media, it is more than pre-emptive priming, because our personalities are influenced by these memories. The way we behave and perceive things are affected by our lifetimes of implicit memories. False recollections can occur within the memory retrieval process, mixing in actual occurrences with what was merely imagined. From the subconscious memories that we develop, we begin to feel attached to certain places, even if we have not (yet) experienced them as if they’ve already moved our lives in reality. We believe that these timeless places are authentic to us; we want to validate them. And that is the basis of nostalgia.


1. Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), 18.
2. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).
3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1984).
4. Edward Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
5. Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, (New York: Basic Books, 1996).
6. Paul Duro, “‘A Disturbance of Memory’: Travel, Recollection, and the Experience of Place,” in Rhetoric, Remembrance, and Visual Form: Sighting Memory, eds. by Anne Teresa Demo and Bradford Vivian, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 49-66.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid, 55.
9. Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

Special post: cherry blossoms galore!

It’s cherry blossom season again in Toronto, and that means the annual pilgrimage to fight the crowds for some cherry blossom photography. I’m pretty satisfied with my photos this year, and since I didn’t want to look cherry-blossom-crazed on Instagram by posting so many of these photos, I decided to post them here instead (because nature’s beauty still needs to be shared!) I also made 1920×1080 desktop wallpapers for some of them – check for the download link. Bonus: forsythias and maple flowers.

DSC_0113 copy Continue reading “Special post: cherry blossoms galore!”