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Nature As Art's Greatest Model

“Art takes nature as its model.” - Aristotle

Nature As Art's Greatest Model | "Goshawk, Stanley Hawk (No. 29)" by John James Audubon (1830)

Forty thousand years ago, after Homo sapiens moved out of Africa and spread across the eastern hemisphere, visual reproductions of common plants and animals formed the foundation of the world’s first figurative art. Nature not only served as inspiration, it was also used to make the necessary tools to produce art; dyes made out of cow urine and pomegranates were boiled into fabric as far back as the Iron Age. Nature, it seems, has been a formidable influence on art since the dawn of human history.

While writers, religious leaders, philosophers, architects, and scientists have been molded by their study of nature, its influence is most deeply reflected in the work of painters and sculptors. In the early days of the 19th century ornithologist, naturalist and artist, John James Audubon, documented species of birds with paintings far too detailed and colorful to be confined to scientific journals. Meanwhile, Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and others wrestled the natural beauty of the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains onto their canvases with romantic passion; together, they formed the Hudson River School.

Nature As Art's Greatest Model | "Water Lilies" by Claude Monet (1919)

At the turn of the 20th century, however, artists began to explore the emotional side of their relationship with art. When Claude Monet painted the water lilies in his garden he captured what nature presented to his emotions, not his eyes. Similarly, Edward Hopper understood that he could memorialize an ephemeral moment of transcendent beauty by capturing sunlight filtered through a forest canopy, dancing on the surface of the ocean, or tracing a shadow on a lover’s cheek. And, Georgia O’Keefe famously “sought to capture the emotion and power of objects through abstracting the natural world.”

Nature As Art's Greatest Model | "Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)" by Jackson Pollock (1950)

Even as artists began to embrace modern and contemporary art, many struggled to separate their work from nature. Take Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist drip paintings, which many have argued are inescapable tributes to it. That’s because nature has always served as a unique source of inspiration for artists, allowing them to combine the deeply personal with the universally recognizable. And, perhaps it’s the main reason nature seems to be something artists unwittingly weave into their arts.

Note* All images are sourced via The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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