Nature impresses us. Its color, complexity, and vastness are inspiring. Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran, who were moved by majestic views, saw in the landscape a language for sharing heartfelt emotions and addressing the profound questions of life. There are many ways to admire nature. The Impressionists responded not just to their physical surroundings but also to the qualities of light and atmosphere that colored them. In his painting of Vesuvius erupting, Pierre-Jacques Volaire offered another perspective from which to celebrate the spectacle of nature: with a fearful respect for its uncontrollable power.
Picture Rome, where monuments to classical civilization dot the landscape, reminding us of humanity’s long history intervening in nature. Heading north, feats of architecture join natural beauty to create unmatched views in Venice, a city memorialized by many great painters, none more successful than Canaletto. He and fellow artists encouraged tourism by flattering Venice’s built environment, re-positioning structures or shifting the viewpoint within a work to enhance the visual impact. How artists portray changes to nature can affect the way we think of those alterations. Here on US soil, artists have considered specifically American interventions. Thomas Hart Benton painted farmers at work to engage in agriculture politics, and later, Ed Ruscha explored a modern western landscape, where business defined the terrain.
Comparing his art to music, painter Paul Signac imagined himself as a composer, his dotted brushstrokes like the notes on a score. Artists across time have communicated in nature’s visual language, creatively altering and arranging it to share a personal vision. They might represent a place by evoking an idea or mood, as J.M.W. Turner did, pouring emotion into his paintings of land and sea. Paul Cézanne sought out the structure in nature, and Gustav Klimt brought out its decorative patterns. Others, like Yves Tanguy, have traveled the landscape of the mind, producing an imaginative art form inspired by, but not quite like, the nature we see.
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