The Intrinsic Value of Nature

The Vision Seeker

William Robinson Leigh

U.S., 1866-1955

The Vision Seeker, 1912

Oil on canvasboard

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma

The piece above is one that was able to grasp my attention from the moment I saw it. There just seems to be such simplicity about it, yet through this simplicity a type of wonder that it inspires in its viewers. Upon first seeing this painting I was drawn towards the person, seemingly deep in thought. The colors of his or her shawl standing in stark contrast to the brightness of what is in the background. Then from here my eyes were pulled along the horizon, along the eyeline of the person into the colorful sky illuminated by a sun peaking over the distant edge of the water. I was able to view the painting first and was then curious of the title, which fittingly enough reads The Vision Seeker by William Robinson Leigh.

Considering both the title and the simple path he guides our eyes along, the aim of this artist seems clear. He depicts a person immersed in the beauty of the natural world in an effort to draw a type of inspiration or vision from it. As a student in a class analyzing the anthropocene, I believe that this is an excellent depiction of an argument that has come up multiple times throughout our semester: the intrinsic value of nature vs. the instrumental value of nature. Upon thinking about this this painting I pondered this argument, trying to shed some light on the stance that perhaps the person in the paining might have, and I couldn’t help but ask myself a thought provoking question. Could it be possible that the intrinsic value that this person wholeheartedly places on nature be a means by which they find an instrumental value in it, i.e. discovering inspiration or a vision? And while it is unlikely that this was the primary thought of the artist upon creating this piece, I think what he was trying to portray was the intrinsic beauty and value in nature that many of us regard as precious regardless of the instrumental gain we can reap from it.

Sunlit Murk

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Earnest Martins Hennings

U.S. 1886-1956

Sunlit Foothills, 1947

Oil on canvas

The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma

The difference between the gallery that held this painting, which was filled with similar depictions of the southwestern US, and the gallery that proceeded it was striking. The predominately European art of the main gallery seemed always to frame nature with human constructions. The southwestern landscapes of the following gallery were the reverse, dwarfing humans (often Native Americans) with their natural surroundings. This mass generalization based on a cursory gallery walk is by no means a universal trend, but it was the impression with which I approached this painting by American painter Earnest Martin Hennings.

This landscape attracted me because of its dramatic use of light. The dark, full curve of the center horse first drew my eye, and from there I was taken to the light of the center shrub, the dark mountain, and finally to the bright clearing on the top of the leftmost mountain. The canvas is divided into three distinct horizontal sections, both by use of alternating shadow and generous sunlight and by line. The bottom third lies in shadow from a source unknown to the viewer, but which would be precisely where the viewer is standing. It was dominated by parallel, calm lines, which sloped and intersected each other to create a well-worn path that passively directed the eye up. The top third was similarly ordered, with dark grey short vertical lines clearly directing down from the darkened sky.

The middle third was a chaos of color and light, shaping the hedges and sloping hills with a maze of intersecting ellipticals. Green dominated this section, only varying with proximity to the light source, so that the white skeletal branches were in sharp contrast. They, along with the splash of white that is the third horseman, pointed clearly towards the last thing my eye came to rest upon. The focal point of this painting, or at least what all paths seemed to lead to, was a part of the foothills only partially viewable by the observer. It is where the three horsemen are looking to, where the line of the path ends, and where the tree branches point. It seems to be a clearing on the foothills, perhaps a village, that knowledge is the artist’s alone.

What I interpreted as most telling of Henning’s message is the perspective he chose to depict this scene through. The viewer gets neither a clear view ahead to where the path leads, nor even a position to see what casts the shadow. The people in the painting are dynamic, yet unhurried, seeming to have a clear sense of direction. Why, then, is the viewer left in such murk? Perhaps Henning impoverishes the viewer of orientation in the hope that they will recognize the use of and strive for this more utopian unity with nature, wherein destiny is not determined by nature or the humans that journey through it, but codiscovered.

Conservation: A Two Way Street

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Eanger Irving Couse

U.S., 1866-1936

The Medicine Maker, n.d.

Oil on canvas

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma

When I first glance at The Medicine Maker by Eanger Irving Couse, my focus is drawn to the leaves in the man’s hands. I believe this effect is not by accident of the artist as evidenced by the man’s steady gaze fixed on his task. A general triangle shape appears to encapsulate the Native American man and the leaves in his hands, creating a balance within the composition. This balance centered on the man and his work is emphasized by the horizontal contrast between the golden underbrush in the foreground and the subdued red and brown brush in the background, which intersect the subject. The illusion of depth is created by the background details becoming less defined near the man, causing him to pop forward in the image, bringing the observer closer to wondering about the motivations and intricacies behind his task.

The subject’s intimate use of the land and the tonal earth colors used to paint him within the setting in this piece make me see him as connected to nature. As I look at him gathering material from the earth for an intended use, I am reminded of the ways in which the relationship between humans and their environment has changed over time. Before technology expanded, this kind of activity may have been common, yet over time the knowledge or even the need for this relationship have subsequently diminished. Medicine may still be created from natural sources, but not in our backyard, and not with our own hands. No longer is nature looked upon as a source for various necessities such as food, water, and medicine, because we now get those at the grocery store, the faucet, and the pharmacy – places much removed from a first order conception of nature. I think it might do some good to occasionally be reminded that not only do we have the ability to conserve nature, but also that ultimately nature has the ability to conserve people, and that is all the more reason to be mindful of its use.

Landscape with cattle

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Jan Frans Van Bredael Flanders

1686-1750

“Landscape with Cattle”  c. 1700

Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma 

Landscape with cattle by Jan Frans Van Bredael Flanders was painted near the year 1700.  The painting is a large painting, an Oil on canvas with a sense of raw naturalism that is lacking from modern work.

The painting is deep and vivid, challenging your mind and forcing you to look into the distance to relate more closely to the artist’s intentions.  It is a dark and gloomy foreground which prompts the viewer to search for “truths” upon which to identify.  The focal point of the image causes a nagging question about the intensity of nature and the relationship that man had with the animals. 

In this painting it is apparent the work was intended to portray a scene of daily work, a life of cattle herding and the rigors of being a shepherd.  The view of nature causes you to think about the underlying intention of the painting, what is the overall intention of the artist?  What does he want you to see and feel?

The dirt trail is worn heavily, likely from being a central trade route or other heavily traveled causeway.  The background is full of human activity, emphasizing man’s prominence in developing land, intervening in natural processes, and dominion over the animals.  The bridge in the background, gives you a sense of realism in knowing that the image must have been intended to represent travelers, passing through town, just outside the large village. 

The background is grey dark ominous clouds.  Appearing as if rain is coming and will shortly be requiring the herd to pack up and move on in order to find dry land and new grazing grounds.  The hilltop crest is adorned by a magnificent castle, which almost attempts to conceal itself against the stormy sky.  The hillside is marked by distinctive paths, one leading into the castle village and one leading out.  It is shown in the image that shepherds are on both side, as if to represent that some are tending to their animals during the day but re turning to the village by night.  However the other side of the painting shows another group preparing to pack out of town, moving on in search of new grazing lands, water, and a place to call home for tomorrow. 

 

Back to Nature

Camille Pissarro

France, 1830-1903

Nude with Swans, c. 1895

Gouache on paper 
8 1/2 x 6 1/2 in.

Aaron M. and Clara Weitzenhoffer Bequest, 2000

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, The University of Oklahoma, Norman.

 

Camille Pissarro’s Nude with Swans stood out to me as an interesting statement on human presence in the environment. This particular painting is from a genre of art known as Impressionism, and its composition contains many characteristics of the Impressionist form. The emergence of Impressionism in the 19th century came as a result of many painters’ rejections of the highly detailed technical paintings of the time. The motives of Impressionist painters were to utilize texture and light composition in a painting to create the appearance of movement and three-dimensional space (Characteristics of Impressionism). Another interesting fact about Impressionism is that before the 1840’s, trips to paint in the outdoors were not practical due to the lack of portability of oil paints. With the invention of collapsible metal paint tubes came the growing trend of artists to paint outdoors to better capture natural landscapes from the first brush stroke to the last (Characteristics of Impressionism). This is one interesting way in which the expanding technology of the time gave artists more opportunity to directly engage with, and represent natural environments and landscapes that were previously sketched and then adapted to a painting in the studio. In this way, the actual act of composing an Impressionist piece can be seen as an attempt by humanity to re-engage with nature.

At first glance, Nude with Swans may appear as a blurred representation of a natural scene, but upon further inspection one can begin to understand how the impressionist style generates movement through the careful placement of broken brushstrokes. The main point of focus in the paining appears to be the bright distant light in the background –beyond the stream and trees that conceal it. The second focal point is the naked woman, standing closely to a bed of swans. What struck me as particularly interesting about Pissarro’s depiction of the woman is that her features are not strongly detailed. Similarly, the other aspects of the environment that she is standing in overshadow her overall presence. The way that Pissarro incorporates soft textures, calm colors, and brush strokes to generate movement gives a very fluid and natural aesthetic picture of the scene.

The painting overall gives me an impression of unity between mankind and nature. Pissarro achieves this through the use of texture as well as careful object placement. I note the close proximity of the woman to the swans, as it appears that they are not threatened by the naked woman’s seemingly out-of-place appearance in the scene. This suggestion by Pissarro, in my opinion, is his attempt to capture the unity between humans and the ‘natural’ environment. The swans do not feel threatened by the woman because her presence is just as natural as theirs. The woman is standing holding what appears to be a white garment with another red cluster of fabric tossed at her feet. This appears to me as Pissarro stating that human beings try too hard to distance themselves from the rest of the natural world. Here, by this stream, a woman is liberating herself and going back to nature, so to speak. I think that the woman’s subtle, unnoticed presence in the woodland, and her longing glance into the bright distance is Pissarro’s expression of mankind’s longing for understanding of their place in the environment. Pissarro’s naked woman came to this ‘natural’ place to strip herself of humanity’s symbols of protection from the environment in the form of clothes, so that she can gain a closer relationship with the very nature that she is a part of. I think that Pissarro wanted to leave the viewer of his art with the impression that humans can exist in harmony with nature, instead of viewing themselves as separate from it.

Works Cited:

“Characteristics of Impressionism.” Characteristics of Impressionism. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2014. <http://www.flogris.org/learning/foxchase/html/about_impressionism.php>

Sandstone Stories

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Louis Benton Akin: Colorado River, Grand Canyon (1908)

Fred Jone’s Jr. Museum of Art 

           In 1908, Louis Benton Akin painted a beautiful landscape of the Colorado River cutting through the Grand Canyon. The work of art comes to life through his use of vibrant colors and sharp lines, allowing those who gaze upon it to feel as if they are looking at a modern day photograph of the famous National Park. Akin’s use of sharp, vertical lines on the sandstone rocks are made evident both in the shadowed and sunlit portions of his painting. Such lines depict a lively texture, and for those who have spent time in a sandstone environment, offer a sense of familiarity as to what a compelling and distinctive landform a stratified canyon is. His juxtaposition of a blue-hued and shadowed canyon floor against the reds and browns of sunlight-drenched sandstone is captivating.

            At the time of the painting, the Grand Canyon had not yet been declared a National Monument. It was simply a place known for its majestic beauty and colorful sandstone features. Before the Grand Canyon was proclaimed a National Park in 1932, the protection of the canyon was at stake due to the development of hotels and tourism facilities by private entrepreneurs hoping to cut a profit, influencing Roosevelt to designate parts of it as a National Monument in 1908. Towards the end of the 19th century, it became an increasingly popular tourist destination, however “few dared to attempt the treacherous descent into the 5,000-foot-deep canyon and explore the miles of maze-like twists and turns (History).” That said, Akin must have been one of very few during this time period to climb from safety at the top and down into the mysterious depths of a massive gorge. From the painting, one can determine that he chose a workstation that was as secluded as possible.

            After analyzing the painting and researching the National Park’s history, I am led to believe that Akin recognized how the beautiful canyon would soon transform from a mysterious, awe inspiring, and considerably uncharted territory to a booming tourist destination. His use of blue and green hues and lush greenery create a calm and almost quiet-like sensation, representing the beautiful unknown that is the canyon’s Colorado River. The top portion of the painting instills an eagerness to explore with the lively brown and red sandstone fading into the distance. From a viewer’s perspective, it seems as if Akin is gazing up towards a far away summit where tourists could be peering out across the massive canyon without even taking notice of his existence, ensuring his total solitude.  One cannot say with assurance whether her made this daring trek to the depths of the canyon to simply create a beautiful piece of art, or rather to gaze in solitude at what would soon be overflowing with humankind. When taking into consideration the time period, location, and color scheme used, I sense that Akin felt connected to the Grand Canyon and wanted to portray how remote and awe-inspiring of a place it was. What he most likely considered to be “pristine nature” would soon turn into one of the most popular tourist spots in North America. By painting the landscape, he was able to capture the Grand Canyon’s untouched beauty before it became a vacation destination.

 

 

Works Cited

 

“Grand Canyon National Monument Is Created.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web.

Nature as Enemy

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Jans Frans van Bredael – “Landscape with Cattle”

1686-1750

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

The University of Oklahoma

Jans Frans van Bredael was a painter in the Netherlands in the early 18th century.  There’s not much information on the web about this particular painter, but the painting I chose, “Landscape with Cattle,” really struck me as a comment on man’s evolving relationship with nature. 

The painting depicts shepherds or field workers handling cattle and sheep in the foreground.  The humans in the picture are either working or tired from their labor.  The person in the bottom left is shown milking a cow while another man sleeps and the other props himself with a cane to rest.

 

The natural elements of the painting are dark and treacherous.  There is very little green and even the water seems black and murky suggesting that nature is a dangerous place.  The focal point seems to be the center of the painting, where the water is lighter, focusing on the propped up man who is either looking above at the castle/fortress or at the cow in front of him. 

 

I interpret this as a longing to be up in the castle, away from the toil on the ground.  The lines of the foreground, bridge, and mountains create a triangle with the castle at the top, alluding to a reverence or superiority for the life concealed in its walls.  This, to me, seems like a comment on the changing view with the natural world as a place for animals and laborers, not sophisticated humans.  People are seeing a new, better life to be had indoors, assuming this is to be a place of leisure or luxury.

 

The next place my eye is drawn to is the decaying, overgrown building on the right side of the painting.  What was one supposed to be as grand as the castle at the top of the painting is now neglected and reclaimed by nature.  This could possibly be a comment on man’s ability to reshape the landscape countered by nature’s power to dominate it over time.  It is a glimpse of the idea that nature is an enemy to be dominated and this domination creates a better experience from the humans that are able to reap the benefits.