The Nature of Nature: Enlightenment Ideas about the Landscape

by Bruce Coats, Professor of Art History, Scripps College


This course will explore changing attitudes toward nature developed during the 18th century in Europe by surveying representations of nature in the visual arts (paintings, gardens, architecture and furniture), in the performing arts (music, dance and theater) and in texts (essays, poetry and novels). Concepts of reason, liberty and society as formed by the natural world or reflected in nature will be examined, especially in England and France during the Enlightenment.

In the late 17th century, European concepts of nature were still informed by church teachings and by political systems of strict hierarchies, as typified by the reign of Louis XIV and his gardens and palaces at Versailles. Throughout the 18th century new secular ideas about nature, based on scientific discoveries, geographic explorations, agricultural experiments, political developments, and philosophical speculations, resulted in radically varied views about Nature and in extraordinary representations of the natural world in the visual and performing arts. Country estates, such as Stowe in Buckinghamshire, were designed to reflect these political and social changes, in the statuary and pavilions placed around the garden and in the freedom to roam without pathways or an imposed agenda. People were expected to enjoy nature (Edmund Burke), to learn from nature (Jean Jacques Rousseau) and to respond to nature through reason and emotion (Immanuel Kant). By the early 19th century, nature was seen by some as a source for personal spiritual understanding, outside religious institutions, and as a resource for social improvement in new towns, public parks, and landscaped cemeteries. Such varied attitudes toward the nature of nature reveal much about the Enlightenment in Europe.

Required textbook:

  1. M. Andrew, Landscape and Western Art (LWA)
  2. D. Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Lecture/discussion sessions:

This seminar will survey the varied ways in which Nature and the landscape were viewed in Europe during the 17th -19th centuries, with particular attention to how developments in secularism affected traditional iconographic interpretations of natural elements and influenced the creation of gardens and the depiction of landscape scenes.

I Introduction and Changing Definitions of nature

II Divine Realms

  • LWA 1-51; Geneva Bible

III Biblical and mythological representations of the natural world

IV Moorish and medieval monastery gardens – visit to Margaret Fowler Garden

V Imperial RealmsFormal gardens in Italy and France as symbols of Music, theater and visual arts in the iconographic p

  • LWA 53-75 Medici and Bourbon politics rograms at Versailles

VI Fantasy RealmsRococo architecture and the paintings of Watteau Discussion of Defoe’s novel

  • Robinson Crusoe

VII Botanical Realms Rousseau’s essay Botany

  • Exercises in botanical classifications and illustrations

VIII Linnaeus and Botanic Gardens in Padua, Leyden, Paris Versailles and Oxford

IX Botanical Gardens and Menageries

  • LWA 77-175

X Political Realms Stowe and the early English landscape garden

  • Pope’s Letter to Lord B.

XI Seasonal Realms

  • Vivaldi’s poems & music Representing the changes in weather, seasons, and social hierarchies

XII Agricultural Revolutions: Plows, fertilizers, native plants, and exotic imports

  • handout: Landscape Painting and the Agricultural Revolution

XII Creating the Picturesque Landscape in paintings and gardens: freedom of thought and of movement

  • handout: Landscape and Ideology April:

XIV Man in Nature and the Sublime Landscape

  • handout: Rousseau’s Julie, La Nouvelle Heloise and Emile

XV The Sublime Realm: Ermenonville, Desert de Retz and Monceau

  • handout : Burke on Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful

XVI Poetic Realms and Picturesque Places

  • handout: Wordsworth’s poems Mapping our realm: seeing campus sites as “sublime” or “beautiful”

XVII Personalized Realms: self expression in Constable and Turner

  • handout: Landscape and Ideology:
  • LWA 176The Spiritual Realm: Kant, Blake and Friedrich
  • handout: Kant’s Critique of Judgement

XIX Analysis of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony “The Pastoral”

XX Conclusion: Knowledge, Culture and Representation of Nature

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