Seeing Nature

Feb 16 – May 23

Seattle Art Museum

Seeing Nature features 39 historically significant European and American landscape paintings from the past 400 years. These diverse works offer a unique opportunity for visitors to see the natural world through the eyes of great artists.

The exhibition begins with Jan Brueghel the Younger’s allegorical series of the five senses. These exquisite, highly detailed paintings provide a platform for visitors to explore the exhibition by considering their own experience with the world through sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste. The next section of the exhibition demonstrates the power of landscape to locate the viewer in time and place—to record, explore, and understand the natural and man-made world. Artists began to interpret the specifics of a picturesque city, a parcel of land, or dramatic natural phenomena. This collection features a stunning group of evocative Venetian scenes by Canaletto, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and J.M.W. Turner, among others. The exhibition also features a rare landscape masterpiece by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest of 1903.

The final section of the exhibition explores the paintings of European and American artists working in the complexity of the 20th century. In highly individualized ways, artists as diverse as Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, and Ed Ruscha bring fresh perspectives to traditional landscape subjects.


Admiring Nature

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.

Shaping Nature

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.

Composing Nature

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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