Art and Environment

Ben Howell Davis

Copyright, Ben Howell Davis, 1999.


The following is a draft for the Children's Encyclopedia of the Environment , forthcoming from Marshall Cavendish, Publishers, New York, New York

It was 1879, and it was hot. William Holmes sat in the intense Arizona sun with only a rough drawing board and some pencils, his eyes narrow slits looking through a pair of dusty binoculars. He was sitting on Point Sublime at the Grand Canyon. Although photography had been invented forty years earlier and many photographers like Timothy O'Sullivan had already been to the Grand Canyon to take pictures, Holme's job was to draw a panorama of the Canyon, and draw it with scientific accuracy. How could an artist's drawing be more scientific than a photograph?

Holmes was an artist, an ethnographer, a geologist, a typographer, and a museum curator. The moment he was making his panorama of the Grand Canyon was the very moment when the drawing tools of the ancient past and the imaging tools of the future would merge and forever change the way we visually understand our world. Landscape, as we once understood it would become environmental art.

William Holmes was drawing information. He was recording, with scientific clarity, the geological details of the Grand Canyon. Photography could only make a general picture of the scene but because Holmes was a geologist, he could draw the scene and the smallest details. He could use an ancient art to render the latest scientific discovery, his eyes and hands could do what the photo technology of the time could not - cut through the haze and glare to reveal the history of the canyon.

William H. Holmes, Panorama from Point Sublime in Atlas to Clarence Dutton's Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, 1882, Sheet XVI, Washington, DC.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Desert Sands Near Sink of Carson, Nevada, Albumen, 1867, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.


The first artist to record the environment is a mystery. Seventeen thousand years ago in the caves at Lascaux in the south of France, Paleolithic Cro-Magnon hunter/artists left a prehistoric puzzle. If you try to sketch one of the drawings of animals from the cave walls you will quickly understand how sophisticated, how scientific, they actually are. What these ancient ancestors were doing was painting in order to know - to understand - the mystery of the world around them. Two farm boys at the end of the nineteenth century discovered the cave with its galleries of prehistoric animals, abstract symbols, handprints, and dots called "tectiforms."Some theories speculate that the drawings started with handprints and that the natural rock shapes in the caves gave the artists the ideas for the bodies of animals. Many feel the images were made to insure success in hunting by painting visions of game. The beauty of the forms confirms that, for whatever reason, the artists were completely focused on the "accuracy" of their images. Nature and art were fused.

The Great Black Aurochs, pg. 115, The Cave of Lascaux, The Final Photographs, Mario Ruspoli, Abrams, NY, 1986.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in China, landscape painting was perfected to such a degree that it is still respected as the most perfect form of art in China. Small figures in large landscapes presented the image of man in harmony with nature. It has been said, "Oriental art is not concerned with Nature, but with the nature of Nature."

The concept of "animation through the capturing of the vital spirit" was a discipline that required an artist to reveal the "flowerness" of a flower or the "cloudness" of a cloud. The painting could only come alive if every feature was imbued with a sense of energy. The painter, the landscape, and the painting must all resonate as one environment. For this reason the landscape was never presented from a single point of view. The viewpoint moves from the trees to the rocks to the tiny figures going to the temple. The painting is made up of different elements that are each described by unique brush strokes.

Fan K'uan, Travelers on a Mountain Path, c. 1000 Hanging Scroll, ink and colors on silk, Height 81 1/4", Chinese National Palace Museum, Taichung, Taiwan.

The Greeks combined a similar search for harmony with the idea that the delicate rendering of nature created a kind of realism that brought them closer to the spirit. The forceful, true-to-life imitation of nature becomes a way of coming as close to the mystery of life as possible.

Funerary Wreath, Gold with blue and green glass-paste inlay, 4 BC, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

The Roman writer and historian Pliny the Elder described landscape art in his Natural History, the earliest known book on art history. Here he writes about the painting of Studius, a first century BC artist,

who first introduced the most attractive fashion of painting walls with pictures of the country houses and porticoes and landscaped gardens, groves, woods, hills, fishponds, canals, rivers, coasts, and whatever anybody could desire, together with various sketches, of people going for a stroll or sailing a boat…and also people fishing and fowling or hunting or even gathering the vintage (grapes).

Roman Wall painting, first century AD, Rome, Villa Albani, photo Archivi Alinari.

In Islamic art, the ideal was to abstract the spirit, to create beautiful geometric images of the perfect balance of nature. Human and animal forms were forbidden in public Islamic art because it might encourage the worship of idols. In private art, however, living things did appear in two-dimensional forms as decorative elements that could reveal the scale or size of landscape.

Summer Landscape, from Album of the Conqueror (Sultan Mohammed II)

Mongol, mid 14th century. Topkapu Palace Museum, Istanbul.

At almost the same time in Northern Europe, book illustration was becoming the richest form of painting. In the Tres Riches Heures du Duc De Berry, a book of hours or calendar was commissioned by the brother of the King of France, the Duke of Berry. The artists were Paul de Limbourg and his two brothers Herman and Jean who created remarkable images of people in nature for the twelve months of the year. They brought together for the first time a number of elements - storytelling in pictures, the changing seasons of nature, brilliant color, landscapes, detailed animals, and the changing qualities of light that give each season a mood. The Limbourg brothers also combined what was considered scientific information in the fifteenth century -the zodiac, the phases of the moon (the lunar calendar), the hours of the day, and the days of the month into their visual representations of human beings in nature - all done in the small space of the book page.

The Limbourg Brothers, October, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc De Berry, 1413-16, Musee Conde, Chantilly, France.

In most early Renaissance painting, the environment is painted as a background detail. In Leonardo de Vinci's The Virgin in the Rocks (1508) we see traditional religious figures, the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, in a grotto or small cave where a spring brings forth refreshing water. The figures are placed in nature, not in a church. The invention of perspective is also seen in this painting. By making objects become smaller as they go into the distance, Renaissance painters created what we now take for granted as "natural space." Leonardo went further by applying scientific investigation of color to make a flat painting look like a window onto a larger vision of the world. In this painting he makes the distant mountains blue. His investigations had convinced him that

…you should represent the air as rather dense. You know that in such air the furthest things seen in in the case of mountains…appear blue. Therefore make the first building …of its own color: the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue. (Codex Urbinas, 78r-v)

Leonardo de Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, about 1508, National Gallery, Washington, DC.


Peter Breugel the Elder of the Netherlands (1529-69) was one of a small circle of humanists who believed that people were bound to the cycles of nature and that trying to live outside of that cycle was foolish. His paintings of peasants in nature were evidence

of that belief because peasants, unlike royalty, had no alternative to living with a deep understanding of the cycles of nature everyday. He made a series of paintings representing the seasons. The Return of the Hunters (1565) shows the earth in winter, January or February, covered in snow with the tired hunters and dogs coming home to their village. The landscape expands in front of them revealing village skaters on frozen ponds enjoying a brief moment of pleasure in an otherwise harsh winter. A crane glides silently in the sky. Bruegel has simultaneously revealed the breadth and dignity of the natural world, the inevitable bond that makes us part of natural cycles, and the peaceful acceptance of these facts that always returns us home.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Return of the Hunters, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Austria.

English artist Thomas Gainesbourgh (1727-88) painted the marriage portrait/landscape of Robert Andrewes and His Wife about 1728 and shows us another relationship of art and environment. Here, the couple is shown with their property, the Auburies - a farm near Sudbury, England. The natural world has become a possession. The bales of cut hay are ordered in a straight line leading to the carefully tended landscape of a wealthy manor. The bright sky blue of Mrs. Andrewes's dress contrasts the somber clouds that loom over a quiet, manicured environment. The title of the painting suggests that Robert Andrewes owns everything in the painting, even his wife whose name is not given. The two figures dominate the landscape. They appear almost like statues and their poses seem artificial and strained. The environment is represented as something that must be carefully ordered like a business.

Thomas Gainesborough, Robert Andrews and His Wife, c 1748-50, National Gallery, London. (Washington?)

Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844) by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1881) may be the first painting of a steam train. Turner, who painted intense color fields of swirling motion that give the feeling that nature is made up of mysterious forces always being transformed the way color is transformed by the changing light. In this painting, however, he works with the theme that man has conquered nature by scientifically observing its secrets in order to make a machine that mimics the power of a storm. The speeding train rushes at the viewer across a bridge over the Thames River in England through a swirling rainstorm, its lights blazing. Here a new kind of relationship to the environment has evolved. The train is "progress" in the industrial sense. The observance of nature produces scientific laws that can be employed to create great new inventions. The environment is a laboratory for science, and there are no limits to harnessing nature.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844), National Gallery, London.


By the mid-1860s great changes had taken place in science, communications, and global economics. The world had been explored and mapped to facilitate trade; new industrial technologies had changed the way tools and goods were produced; the natural world could now be admired as well as exploited as something separate from civilization. At this moment a group of painters in France began experimenting with a new form of art. They based their philosophy of art on how the world around them looked at any given moment - what impression light, color, and form made as they are activated by time. In natural daylight the appearance of an object changes as light changes throughout the day and into the night. The painting itself is one such object and the Impressionist painters sought to make the painting itself not only a representation of a scene or landscape, but to make the mixing of color in the painting something that light would forcefully react to.

Claude Monet's Wheatstacks, Snow Effects, Morning (1891) is a good example of how a landscape is viewed as an ever changing event rather than a static scene. The snow on the haystacks is not white. It is a mixture of all the colors - the hay, the sky, the light in the morning yet we see it as snow. What we are looking at in the painting is the "experience" of the environment as it is changed by light and time.

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks, Snow Effects, Morning, 1891, J. Paul Getty Museum.

Post-Impressionism was a name given to artists who worked with light and color like the Impressionists but added an understanding of the underlying structure of natural forms.

Among the Post-Impressionist painters, Vincent van Gogh is probably the best known - and for many very good reasons. What van Gogh seemed to be trying to achieve with his painting was a sincere directness - he wanted to touch the heart through the eyes. In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh described Irises (1889) as " a study after nature" which was a common phrase to describe an attempt to not so much make a painting, but to understand the magic of nature. van Gogh was very sensitive to the idea of "renewal" in nature. The way flowers always bloomed in the spring even though sometimes during the winter we almost lose all hope of seeing them again. The Irises is a visual equivalent of that idea of renewal and the underlying structure of nature. The irises rush up from the red earth on powerful green stems and leaves, exploding into iris blue - a color blue that is very difficult to imitate in paint. Set off by one lone white iris, the sincere, direct impression is full of the power and mystery of nature that exists in even the smallest garden.

Vincent van Gogh, Irises(1889) J. Paul Getty Museum.

Invented in 1839, photography by the 1900s had gone from being a way to document people and places to a medium that could rival painting. Giving up his commercial Los Angeles photography studio in 1923, Edward Weston began a long career of attempting to make clear, direct photographs of people, places, and the energy of nature. Point Lobos, on the California coast near San Francisco became a favorite place for Weston to live and work. Now a national park, Point Lobos, is one of the most spectacular environments in the world. Natural forms have been so gracefully created and positioned that it seems simple to just point a camera anywhere and get wonderful pictures. Weston felt that composition in photography was "simply the best way" of seeing something. His photograph of a dead pelican (1941) is an image that makes us understand the grace of flight, the power and motion of the ocean, the texture and feel of sand and feathers, and the poetic ability of photography to stop time. Weston adjusted his camera lens so that the image would be as sharp as possible, so sharp in fact that the camera is actually seeing more than our eyes can. In a sense, the picture tells us that death is a part of the natural cycle; that to look at it directly is a beautiful experience, but by using camera technology to look closer may be a magical experience.

Edward Weston, Pelican, Point Lobos, 1941, George Eastman House.

The twentieth century was a remarkable period of invention, environmental awareness, and art making. One artist who stands out was Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). Unlike most other artists who were influenced by European styles and fashions, O'Keeffe wanted to make art with a fresh, American vision. Early in her career, she was interested in the urban landscape of the eastern United States. Then, after discovering the light and space of New Mexico in 1917 where she eventually moved in the 1940s, her paintings began to change. The scale, color, and forms she found in New Mexico inspired a dynamic painting style that was based in nature but was abstract as well.

A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. Its is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint. Georgia O'Keeffe, Penguin Books, 1977/

Her paintings seem say to that nature may be unexplainable but that making art is a way of understanding it. For O'Keeffe, whose ideas came from the broad landscape of New Mexico as well as bits of bone or shell, plants and flowers, the merging of art and environment was an obvious thing. The paintings tell stories of vast geologic time while placing the emotional emphasis on our impressions of light and color. Her pictures make us realize that the landscape is both outside of us and inside of us at the same time.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Hills and Bones (1941), Philadelphia Museum of Art.

There are many contemporary artists that have gone far beyond painting and photography to explore the relationship of art and environment. Robert Smithson (1938-1973), an American sculptor, initiated "Environmental Art" by creating large scale sculptural works that were done in specific places. Spiral Jetty (1970), for instance, is a huge construction of rocks, salt crystals, earth and algae in the form of a spiral 1,500 feet long that juts out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970).

Walter de Maria created Lightning Field (1970) by planting hundreds of stainless steel poles in the desert of New Mexico that act as lightning rods attracting dazzling bolts of lightning during storms. The environment of earth and sky is dramatically bound together by fleeting but powerful lightning displays combining art, science, and engineering.

Walter de Maria, The Lightning Field, Dia Art Foundation, 1980.

Contemporary artist James Turrell, known for his use of light and space in sculptural environments, has been at work since 1985 on a project in Arizona that actually uses an extinct volcano called Roden Crater as the basis for a sculptural observatory. The finished project will allow visitors in 2001 to experience the alignments of stars and planets as well as have a unique view of the surrounding sky and landscape by carefully sculpting the rim of the volcano to give the illusion that the sky is a dome.

Roden Crater, Arizona, James Turrell, Segura Publishing Company, Tempe, Arizona

Robert Irwin began his career as an abstract painter but became better known for his sculptural work as part of a California movement known as "Light and Space". His most recent work is the Central Garden of the Getty Center in Los Angeles (1996). Irwin calls the work "a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to become art" because it will take almost seven years for the plants and trees to come to full growth, thus revealing the final form of the garden. Irwin feels a garden is a kind of commitment. In order to appreciate it fully you must return time and again to see what has changed. Descending into the garden down a zigzagging walkway under a canopy of London plane trees, visitors are taken out of everyday life by twists and turns. They must cross over a stream, whose rushing sound has been orchestrated by placing boulders at strategic points so that the sound is never the same twice. As they pass by exotic flowers and plants they gradually come under the spell of the color and rthymn of the garden. The stream plunges over a waterfall at the bottom of the garden into a huge bowl-like space that holds a mirror pond. In the pond is a maze of red, purple, and pink azaleas. The tranquility of the garden is the result of the effort of taking the path, of making the commitment to understanding the environment. What Robert Irwin tells us in the Central Garden of the Getty Center is that art and the environment are forever connected. Art is a way of understanding the world just as precisely as science. Science relies on words and numbers, art on color and form.

Together, art and science reveal the environment as a place that can be understood, but will always hold new mysteries. From cave painting to environmental art, artists remind us that our knowledge about the world is understood through our senses and emotions as well as our minds.

Robert Irwin, The Central Garden, Getty Center, Los Angeles, California.