Aesthetic Meaning

The Modern View of Nature

by Peter Kellow

John Constable, View of Highgate from Hampstead Heath, 1830s, The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia

It is easy to see why we might think to equate beauty in art with beauty in nature, why we might imagine they are essentially the same thing and give us essentially the same experience. After all, when we enjoy a painting of a landscape and then enjoy looking at an actual landscape, it might seem natural to believe that the pleasure we derive from these is given to us for much the same reasons. This is the view more or less adopted by Roger Scruton in his recent book Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2009). He writes: “It is difficult to believe that our attitude to natural beauty is founded completely differently from our attitude to art, when the two are so intimately connected.”

However, the founder of modern aesthetics, Immanuel Kant, took a different view. In his Critique of Judgment (1790), he was careful to make the distinction: “A natural beauty is a beautiful thing; artistic beauty is a beautiful presentation of a thing.” I wish to side with Kant and show that our sense of beauty in nature is quite different from our appreciation of beauty in art. And to appreciate why this is so, we should also see clearly that aesthetic meaning belongs exclusively to the modern age. In fact, our view of the beauty of nature is also entirely a product of the modern age, for it is intimately bound up with our modern aesthetic sensibility.

It may be tempting to believe that the kind of beauty and magnificence we now see in nature was evident to humans of all ages, past and present, historical and prehistorical, but there is nothing in the art or literature of pre-modern times to bear this out. The modern view of nature is above all a Romantic view, and it is not difficult to pinpoint the moment when this was invented. We see it first in the Romantic poets, notably, as far as the English language is concerned, in the poems of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Their Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798, was instantly popular and recognised as a milestone because, for practically the first time, it vividly expressed a new way of viewing nature. That view of nature was to become essential to defining the modern world. Listen to these words, from Wordsworth's “Lines Written in Early Spring”:

I heard a thousand blended notes, 

While in a grove I sate reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.


To her fair works did nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it griev'd my heart to think

What man has made of man.

Through primrose-tufts, in that sweet bower,

The periwinkle trail'd its wreathes;

And 'tis my faith that every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes.

What is so sensational about this is the new relationship of humans to nature that it expresses. Before this, nature was admired, and sometimes feared, but here for the first time humans could identify with her. Not only that, nature could become a teacher and educate us into a deeper sense of the truth of existence. But this was not the scientific view of the new sciences of natural history and biology. Nature now reflected something inner to men and women, so that they could feel at one with her. People were quick to pick up on this as something approaching a new religion, whereby the power and goodness of God were replaced by the same, or similar, qualities to be found in nature. A few years later, in 1836, in the essay Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson, this sliding between God and nature became even more explicit:

In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.

Never had nature seemed so intimate and benign and a bridge to transcendence. But nature had not changed, only the human attitude to it.

The Lyrical Ballads are a part of the fabric of the modern world, but we can see parallel developments beyond poetry in many fields, notably in art. Consider View of Highgate (1834) by Constable and Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750) by Gainsborough. Their dates fall either side of the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, and there is a correspondingly complete contrast in the way that nature is portrayed. But in the case of the Constable, “portrayed” might seem hardly the word. In the same way, Wordsworth and Emerson are not exactly “portraying” nature in the excerpts above. Their sense of engagement with, and obligation to, nature takes us into far deeper contact than mere representation would suggest. Constable, like his contemporary Wordsworth, finds a revealing, didactic, confessional aspect of nature. Nature, as revealed by his landscape, becomes a point of contact with a discovery of a profound new reality. Nature becomes a reassurance and an anchor for our feelings. It enters into our lives as arbiter and guide.

The landscape in the Gainsborough, by contrast, can be described simply, if somewhat superficially, as a backdrop. The extensive parklands depicted are like furniture. They are accoutrements of the lives of the primary focus of the painting, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. The landscape is not there for itself, as in the Constable. It is incidental. It may be beautiful, as no doubt Mr. and Mrs. Andrews believed it to be, but it has no strong place in articulating anything in the culture to which they belong. The eighteenth-century view of nature is quite different from the nineteenth-century view. Each lies on a different side of the watershed represented by the onset of the modern age.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, c. 1748–49, National Gallery, London

But let us go further in penetrating the pre-modern, classical view of nature. What does the evidence of art, literature and architecture tell us? If we step back from the time of Gainsborough to the Renaissance and the centuries that followed it, the view of nature depicted is not very different from his. In Renaissance paintings of religious themes, there is sometimes a landscape in the background, but the focus is on the subject. There may indeed be symbolic references in the view of nature beyond, but these do not change the fact that nowhere do we see the desire to penetrate and extract the peculiar essence of nature, as we saw in Constable and Wordsworth. It remains incidental.

Later on, in the paintings of Nicholas Poussin, the importance of nature in the subject matter is brought much more to the fore, but we should reflect on the kind of nature he depicts. Most important, it is not a specific place that he is concerned with. We would have to look long and hard to find a trace of that genius loci that was so essential to later artists and poets of nature. In Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion (1648), Poussin depicts an idealized, mythical landscape. But this is not a merely a dramatic staging with no locus in the culture. The artist is picking up on an interpretation of nature that preceded him by 2,000 years and continued its hold on the imagination up to the time of Gainsborough—this interpretation we call “arcadia.”

What do we mean by arcadia? Arcadia is, above all, a cultivated, civilized and inhabited landscape. Blessed are those that dwell in arcadia. It gives an experience of nature but strictly under human terms. It is far from the “wilderness” referred to in the Bible or the terrible forests of the north. It carries its own sense of myth and invites poets, painters and architects to articulate this myth. It refers also, enticingly, to a real place­—a landlocked state in the ancient Greek Peloponnese created by minor cities forming a league to ensure, as it turned out, a fragile peace. Although this is well known, what is often forgotten is that the capital of ancient Arcadia also carries a name that has come down to us today with an almost equal resonance—Megalopolis. Here is the clue to understanding the real meaning of the generic arcadia.

If you want to see today the nearest thing to what we have in the way of a real arcadia, then a good place to go is to the region of the Veneto in northeastern Italy. There the great Venetian architect Andreas Palladio built a series of exquisite Greek-style villas. These were not just playgrounds for the rich (with the notable exception of the Villa Rotunda, just outside Vicenza) but centers for working estates that embodied the arcadian ideal of a “cultivated, civilized and inhabited landscape.” To the city of Venice, this area was its “terra firma.” Moreover, this Venetian arcadia would have made no sense without its being ruled by the one of the richest and most powerful city states of the time. Every arcadia, it seems, needs its megalopolis.

The arcadian vision of the Veneto was not original. Its precedents go back to ancient times, for Italy under the control of Rome fostered the arcadian dream. Here the megalopolis was the eternal city itself, and the desire to escape its noise, crowds, commerce and intrigue was expressed, for instance, in the romantic poetry of Virgil and Horace. Horace wrote in his Epodes (30 BC):

Happy is he who far from business cares,

Even as the oldest race of men,

Tills with his own oxen his patrimonial fields,

Freed from every debt. …

How sweet it is to lie under the ancient ilex tree,

Or on the matted grass,

While the stream flows on between high banks,

And the woodland birds sing,

And springs with leaping waters plash,

Inviting to soft sleep!

“Soft sleep” sounds remote indeed from the intense devotional experiences of Wordsworth or Emerson. Gentle dreams of arcadia had no place in their modern vision of nature.

Isaac Levitan, Vladimirka Road, 1892, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

The realized arcadias of Italy, both Roman and Venetian, were later recreated in the country estates of northern Europe, especially England, such as those depicted by Gainsborough, complete with Palladian-style Greek houses for the owners. Later still, the arcadian vision was transferred powerfully to the colonies. The plantation system of the Southern States of America conformed to the arcadian principle of a cultivated, civilized and inhabited landscape, elegant splendor existing alongside working fields. Everyone, owners and laborers, lived and worked in the country, with neighbouring large cities forming a mutual dependence, culturally, economically and politically.

Gothic nave, York Minister Cathedral, York, EnglandArcadia describes the classical view of nature, but Western civilization is not just about classicism. It also derives from the Christian tradition, which has its roots in quite a different place. In the Christian Bible, nature enters into the narrative chiefly as the “wilderness.” In some contemporary translations, the wilderness is given as the “desert,” but this is incorrect. The word wilderness in the New Testament was used to refer to the semi-cultivated, semi-natural landscape, the semi-desert ofPalestine and its vicinity. Due to the hot, dry climate and the relative lack of population, this landscape could indeed induce a sense of remoteness and isolation. It could offer something to the human soul, but it would be wrong to think of it as offering absolutely no accommodation to the human body. Although by no means the same thing, the “wilderness” may have been a little closer to “arcadia” than a desert. And what is clear is that, like arcadia, the wilderness only meant something if it related to a city. In this case, that city was Jerusalem.

In the Christian text, the word wilderness stands roughly for nature as it could be experienced in the area where its narrative happened. It is the place where you can get in touch with God. True holy men, like John the Baptist, would choose the wilderness, not the temple, for this purpose. The temple was adulterated by commerce and politics, but nature and the wilderness were pure. This was where God became accessible. It was also where evil could exercise its power, and so the centrality of faith in God could be tested and reaffirmed as the individual battled against the ever-present evil. Matthew tells us: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” Nature is seen as, at once, both hostile and holy. This idea of nature and the wilderness as a place to get in touch with God goes right through the Christian Bible, back to Moses, whose privileged access to God was available only in a particular upland mountain. Nowhere in the Bible do we encounter anything approaching the Emersonian faith in the bounteousness and beauty of nature. The closest we get is in Eden, but there the narrative has a different order of metaphor, which we need not examine here.

Historically, the sense of nature depicted in the events described in the Bible continued to powerfully inform the European attitude to nature virtually up to modern times, through the development of monasticism.

The early Christian monks came out of the hotbed of radical Christian thought in Alexandria in the second and third centuries. Saint Anthony has come down to us as a leading figure in this movement, thanks to a biography by his Alexandrian contemporary, Athanasius. We are told how Anthony gave away his material goods and retreated to the uninhabited Egyptian desert, well outside of the comforts of the “khora,” the cultivated area around the Nile. As with Jesus’ trials in the wilderness, the devil was present as well as God. Marilyn Dunn writes: “the desert was … the backdrop to … Anthony’s titanic struggles against the demons who had regularly assaulted him since he had embarked on a life of asceticism. Anthony’s constant prayer and asceticism—he ate and drank very little—led to a spiritual transformation mirrored in the unaltered state of his body after nearly twenty years in a deserted fortress. … For Anthony, the life of an ascetic … was a constant struggle for self-knowledge, self-purification and through these, the return of the soul to unity with God” (The Emergence of Monasticism, Blackwell, 2000).

But, even with a charismatic figure like Anthony, the eremitic way of life was unlikely to create a great tide of historical influence. For that to happen, Christian monasticism in Egypt developed, even in the lifetime of Anthony, communities of monks that, while still remote, joined together to build monasteries. As a community, they could maintain the ascetic life and a more or less continuous, prayerful contact with god. The founder of this way of life was Pachomius, and it became known as cenobite monasticism.

As far as the theme here of the human relationship to nature is concerned, the long history of cenobite monasticism reminds us that the Biblical representation of nature as wilderness continued as a powerful element in the culture. In northern Europe, there were no deserts to support monastic existence, but there were plenty of remote places in, for instance, Ireland, where the monastic tradition could take root and develop.

Closer to settlements, there were endless forests, and these, too, yielded, by virtue of their wildness, a sense of awe, mystery and menace, where only God could be at ease. Forests, and the imprinted cultural memory of them, became intrinsic to God’s architecture in the great gothic cathedrals. These were peopled, in their art and sculpture, by all manner of mythical beasts and goblins that supposedly dwelt in the ancient forest. So it was that nature remained beyond the orbit of the intimacy of human society. The awesome power of God might indeed still be accessed there, but only at the risk of confrontation with devilish demons. In the representation of the forest in the cathedrals, it could, however, become the home of a more accessible God and a realization in stone of exalted spirituality.

Lastly, let us take up the story of how the art of the modern age developed its view of nature, beyond the revolutions of Wordsworth, Constable and others. There are different strands to this story, but I would pick out the “regionalist” movements of the late nineteenth century, that embraced, to a greater or lesser extent, all the arts, and this included significant painters, generally working in a more realist vein. These occurred notably in, to take just a few European examples, Catalonia in Spain, Brittany in France, Sweden, Hungary and Cornwall in England. Perhaps less familiar is the late nineteenth-century school of Russian painting. Regionalist art gave an additional impetus to the Romantic view, grounding the art of nature meaningfully in a locality. The need for a cultural center to make nature meaningful, as was the case with both arcadia and the wilderness, is no longer necessary.

The revolution marked by the publication of Lyrical Ballads continues to distinguish the contemporary art of nature. Our view of nature, as I hope I have demonstrated, is original to the modern age. Furthermore, the role that nature plays in our lives is totally distinguishable from artistic endeavor. Paraphrasing Kant, the beauty of nature may be the content of art, but the beauty of nature and the beauty of art are not the same thing.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2012, Volume 29, Number 4