Our planet is a wondrous natural spaceship in the vast, eternal universe. From ancient times its fundamental elements have been identified as fire — referred light from the burning sun — earth, air, and water, the tangible elements that we experience directly. These are what draw us to out-of-doors experiences: hiking through the woods, climbing up a mountain, sailing on the seas, gliding through the sky, marveling at sunrise and sunset, and a thousand other activities that afford us pleasure in our surroundings.
Paintings of nature can never compete with real nature, but they can serve to heighten our perception and appreciation of the world if we learn to look deeper into an artist’s intentions via their art. By learning how to “see” nature through the eyes of a painter, we can sharpen our own powers of observation and open new avenues of contemplation and joy when experiencing our planet directly.
The best artists paint what is important to them, selecting subject matter that “matters” and imbuing their work with personal values. We can discern these values by observing not only their choice of subject but also their compositional design, color palette, and brushstrokes, all of which reveal their reverence for nature and the passion they feel about it. This is what elevates good landscapes above “pretty pictures,” which merely copy nature without any personal, emotional investment. By painting nature with ardor, these high-art painters make those scenes that they love “stand still” in permanent form for their own pleasure first, and then to communicate that pleasure to those of us who view their art and appreciate their vision and skill.
Although en plein air — in open air — landscape painting began with the English Romantics, e.g. Constable and Turner, who were interested in capturing the authentic momentary effects of nature by spontaneous sketching, the genre reached its height of European expression by 19th century French painters such as Corot, Monet, Renoir, and dozens more. These famous-in-their-own-time and now house-hold-name artists sought to record their impressions of nature by painting in the defused light that resulted from placing their easels under a white umbrella; hence, the term “French Impressionists.” At the same time, technology offered oil paint in portable tubes, which allowed artists to carry their pigments into nature without harming them out in the elements. Optics regarding how the human eye perceives objects was also a subject of the day, enthusing many artists to explore color and light values in new and fascinating ways.
Landscape painting rose to the summit of full realistic, romantic, and dramatic expression with the American painters of the Hudson River School late in the 19th century, so if we want to explore paintings that can inspire awe of nature’s wonders and simultaneously instruct us how to “see” them in real life, these are the artists to study. Plein air as a genre was brought back to America by a few artists such as Alvan Fisher, who studied in France, but the practice grew exponentially when other American painters smitten by the idea picked it up and celebrated the singular beauty, grandeur, and mystery of our huge and bountiful country. Beginning with Hudson river scenes (Ergo: “Hudson River School” painters) and the pounding Atlantic ocean on up to Niagara Falls in the east, some of them, e.g. Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Church, moved on to the monumental venues of our great western locales and even to the Caribbean to commemorate nature’s wonders.
Photography can expressively re-present what exists in nature, but only the vision of the artist can rearrange, harmonize, and create a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts. Through painters’ eyes we can begin to grasp the majesty of distant mountains, the spectacular colors of sunrise and sunset, the power of oceanic waves, the passing clouds in the sky, the history of canyons, and the delicate needles of a pine tree. We can do all of this and more because they have made nature pause on canvas, thus giving us the time to explore the glories of our planet in minute detail. Did we ever before really notice that there are so many different shades of green on one tree? Or such subtlety of blues in the sea? Or the varieties of white in the clouds? Did we ever before contemplate the transience of living flowers and foliage or the (seeming) permanence of boulders and cliffs?
Hudson River School paintings can alert us to discern a profusion of nuances in real nature that we would likely miss with an untrained eye. They can let us zoom in and focus on one tiny aspect or stand back and experience whole vistas at our own pace. By balancing both the macro and micro in nature, they impart to us an appreciation for infinite distances and scale on the one hand and loving botanical detail on the other. These great artistic giants offer all of us their painter’s eyes to augment the power of our own perception and allow us to appreciate real nature in a manner never possible without their revelations. By studying their work, we can grow intellectually by heightening our powers of observation, emotionally by examining what aspects of nature appeal most to us in a painting, and spiritually by making accessible a deeper appreciation of the world around us and our place in it.
Before your next venture into the plein air, think of taking the time to venture into a few of these great works of art to refresh your own sight.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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