Concepts of "Nature" in Art and Thought
from the Renaissance to the Romantic Period

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The most significant feature of Renaissance thought was an affirmation of the value of humanity. In the seventeenth century, however, Descartes shifted the emphasis to the individual; humanism was no longer an abstract principle. "I think, therefore I am" (Descartes, Discourse on Method, p. 24) is perhaps the most widely known philosophical statement, yet perhaps also one of the most misunderstood. The key word in this phrase is "I". The Discourse on Method demonstrates that an individual's own efforts may produce valid knowledge, and Descartes disputes Augustine's and Bonaventura's claims that one can obtain knowledge only through God's aid.

Descartes was confident of human reason's ability to obtain all knowledge: "there cannot be any proposition so abstruse that we cannot prove them, or so recondite that we cannot discover them." (p. 16). The purpose of reason is "to distinguish the true from the false." (p. 3). Descartes explicitly points out the subjective nature of knowledge obtained by his method" "Never has my intention been more than to try to reform my own ideas, and to rebuild them on foundations that would be wholly mind." (pp.2-13). Nonetheless, "there is only one true solution to a given problem, and whoever finds it knows all that anyone can know about it." (p. 17). True knowledge is universally valid despite its necessarily subjective origin.

For both Caravaggio and Descartes, the individual human is at the center of nature: although man is a natural object, man alone gives meaning and a focus to nature. But while Descartes is concerned with the reasoning faculty, Caravaggio is interested in the emotional life. His painting, Death of the Virgin, depicts the profound individualized grief of those present at the death of Mary. The gestures and poses of the mourners are convincing; the hands obscuring faces are even more evocative than grief directly shown in facial expressions. The mourners who are bowed seem physically pulled down towards the earth as a result of Mary's death; the figure in the foreground is almost contracted into a fetal position. In addition, the response of each figure is distinguished from the others, thus each is given an individual character.

The central issue for Caravaggio, like Descartes, is truth. Caravaggio uses a realistic style to convey the truth as he perceives it in contradistinction to the idealistic style of Renaissance painting. Most Renaissance paintings depict the death of Mary as a glorious event, with an ecstatic Mary rising to heaven while angels and humans look on in wonder. But Caravaggio shows the grim truth of death. Renaissance artists idealized the human figure, but Caravaggio used a dead prostitute as a model for Mary.

Thus, for Caravaggio, naturalism was contrasted with idealism. Rousseau, however, set nature in opposition to society. According to Rousseau, mankind in the state of nature was motivated by self-interest and compassion. Self-interest was necessary for individual survival and compassion promoted preservation of the species. The development of society, however, was harmful to the individual:

The horse, the cat, the bull, and even the donkey are usually larger, and always more robust, vigorous, strong and courageous in the wild than in captivity. ... It is the same with man himself: in becoming social and enslaved, he becomes weak, timorous, and servile, and his soft, effeminate way of life completes the enervation of his strength and his courage.

(Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, p. 7).

Hogarth also saw society as a corrupting influence, and Rousseau's literary descriptopn of man's decline is graphically depicted in Hogarth's series of engravings, A Harlot's Progress. A young, innocent woman, representing the state of nature, arrives in London and is immediately besieged by corrupting influences. Se becomes a "kept woman" and then a common prostitute, following the inevitable downwards course charted by Rousseau, until she disappears altogether in the final plate, surrounded by a coffin and depravity.

The Death of the Virgin conveys and immediate and strong emotional impact, but the meaning in Hogarth's engravings in conceptualized rather than felt. Human weakness is an educational tool for the presentation of moral lessons. The harlot is "victimized" once again by Hogarth when he uses her as the medium for his message. Yet Hogarth clearly feels compassion for the harlot. His contempt for the society which is responsible for her death is evident in the sixth engraving in the series in which the women fight over the dead harlot's possessions and the parson enjoys surreptitious pleasures. Hogarth shows the resuls of the absence of compassion in society, thus inspiring compassion in the viewer. Although Hogarth offered no solutions, his art indicates a compelling need for reform.

For Rousseau, the state of nature was an ideal that existed in the distant past which had been destroyed by the development of society. For Wordsworth, however, nature had an immediatey perceived diving power:

In nature and the language of the sense [lies]
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,>br> The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

Wordworth, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, ll. 108-111). For artists of the Romantic Period, inspiration was nature's most important power".

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a serene sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,>br> Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.

("Tintern Abbey, ll. 93-97).

Friedrich's The Cross in the Mountains makes explicit the connection between nature and the divine by setting Christ's crucifixion in a natural landscape. Yes, the juxtaposition of the two elements is not incongruous: the cross seems to be a "natural" part of the setting. Nature expresses its acceptance of this placement through the vine climbine the cross. Because Christ represents the union of man and divinity, Friedrich's painting shows the unity of mankind, the divine, and nature.

Furthermore, the "light of setting suns" referred to in Wordsworth's poem and visually depicted in Friedrich's painting seem to inspire Friedrich's recognition of the unity of an, the divine, and nature. According to Schelling:

Nature is nothing more to the artist than it is to the philosopher; it is merely the ideal world appearing under unchanging limitations, or it is merely the imperfect reflection of a world that exists not outside but within him.

(Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, p. 321). Thus, the effects of nature work in two directions: it inspires an exalted state of being in an individual, and in turn reflects that heightened state. The author adds another element to this equation: the work of art is a reflection of both the state of nature and the artist's internal being. Art becomes a bridge between the real and the ideal, and both sides of the bridge -- mind and nature -- consequently express both the real and ideal.

Friedrich's subtly evocative painting suggests ideas about nature and art through intuitive means: the painting resists rational analysis when one attempts to explain how such ideas are evoked. Schelling recognized that the power of thought is limited, and stated that art is a more effective vehicle for expressing ideas which cannot be communicated through language: "art is the sole true and eternal organon as well as document of philosophy, which sets forth in ever fresh forms what philosophy cannot express outwardly ..." (p. 321). Friedrich's painting is a direct communication with the viewer, just as the painting itself reflects the mind of the artist which is in turn reflected by and in nature.

We see a development in communication between artist and viewer in the three works of art under consideration. Death of the Virgin may be compared to an oration intended for a passive listender, and A Harlot's Progress opens a debate or a discussion. The Cross in the Mountains, however, transcends language altogether, and can only be compared to a Vulcan mind-meld!

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Written for Art and Ideas at University of Washington, March 1990. Grade: 4.0.

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Last revised: July 9, 2016.

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