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The Nature of Nature

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Order versus Idiosyncrasy

One of the fundamental shifts that occurred with the emergence of Renaissance thought out of the medieval period was the growing focus on the natural world, whether as the manifestation of a divine creator, or as the subject of scientific study.  This emergence is clearly reflected in the art of the period, though it is reflected very differently in the styles which developed in Italy and in the North.  The differences demonstrate a fundamental split in the understanding of nature that can be traced back into earlier centuries and continues through to our own time.  The two views can be labeled classicism and naturalism. The first sees everything in nature as revealing the underlying order in the world, while the second glories in the infinite variety and uniqueness nature manifests.

Claude Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape
Jacob Ruisdael, Landscape

The classicist sees everywhere in nature the evidence of an underlying order.  It is clearly shown in the immutable cycle of the seasons, the predictable journey of day into night, the prevalence of horizontals and verticals.  Claude Lorrain is an excellent example, especially since he developed the most imitated formula for landscape painters who followed. A Claude landscape typically features a dark, restricted foreground moving into an expansive bright distance. The style became a formula: brown foreground, green middle distance and blue background.

Just as for Plato, each living tree is an approximation of the perfect idea of a tree, so for the classicist every element in nature reveals its general type, and its place in a great rational order.  The variations found in individual things are less interesting than the powerful underlying order.

A different appreciation of nature developed in Northern Europe at this time, particularly in the landscape of Jacob Ruisdael. Leonardo da Vinci, looking at the work of Northern artists, would say that they have no understanding of what is important.  Instead of shedding the trivial particulars which clothe each individual thing in nature, they revel in that variety.  The naturalist would not deny the underlying patterns in nature but would find the true glory of nature in its infinite richness.  The 19th century naturalist John Constable expressed this view most powerfully:  “No two days are alike, nor yet any two hours…”

Ruisdael looks for the particular in everything: the unique line of the horizon as it rises and falls, the idiosyncratic twists of a particular tree, the transitory effect of light through broken clouds.  Even when these things become a formula, no longer observed freshly for each new work, it is a formula that places a value on the particular.  It is this attitude which will pave the way for the naturalistic landscape movement of the Nineteenth century.


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