Art and the Natural World

January 30, 2008 - June 20, 2011

This permanent collection installation explores some of the ways in which Early Modern (1400-1750) Europeans thought about their place in the world. Nature in its noble and humble aspects fascinated artists and viewers alike. That fascination and the developing market economy encouraged artists to specialize in particular subjects (genres) that emphasized the natural world, such as landscape or portraiture. While also evident in Catholic countries, this change was especially pronounced in Northern Europe, where the Catholic Church was no longer the principal patron of the arts.

The Classical Past

A revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman art, literature, and philosophy affected the way Europeans pictured humans and nature. Scholars collected Classical art, enabling artists to study ancient styles and techniques: Rubens’ Imperial Couple (above), for example, adopts the dignified format of Roman cameos. Classical texts like Ovid’s Metamorphoses furnished stories of gods interacting with mortals. Inspired by Classical ideals, artists composed images of a balanced and rational world.

Nature and Science

New developments in science offered innovative strategies for observing nature. Optical devices like Galileo’s telescope, Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, and the camera obscura invigorated artists’ curiosity about visible phenomena. Landscapes with their carefully studied effects of light and atmosphere are examples of that interest.

Image Credit: Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577 – 1640; A Roman Imperial Couple, c. 1615; oil on panel, 27 11/16 x 22 5/8 in. (70.3 x 57.5 cm); Ackland Fund, 59.8.3