Art and Nature

Where should we look for inspiration? Art or nature? 

(Above left: by Giovanni Boldini, 1842–1931), above right: by Adolph Menzel, 1815-1905) 

By “Nature,” of course, I don’t just mean the wild woods, but the real world around us. It’s an age-old question, one that passes through my mind sometimes when I’m making a long pilgrimage to a museum to study paintings of a favorite artist. Such journeys take me past scenes of foggy streets or quiet streams that beckon me to paint them. Hurrying to enter the gallery, I ignore the inspiration of reality in favor of the product of another artist’s hand. 

The appeal of Art is strong. Those who have gone before provide a stimulus, a high example. Facing nature can be bewildering. On its own, reality is overwhelming and infinite. Seeing what others have painted provides a way through the maze of appearances. The example of great art provides new ways to interpret Nature. Nature has already been translated, made comprehensible, achievable. The greatest artists of the past have blazed trails into the wilderness that we can use as a guide for our own personal exploration, just as the mountain climber is lifted up by knowing which routes have been scaled before, by whom, and with what equipment.

What if we turn only to Art for inspiration? Those who base their work only on other Art find that their productions quickly becomes sterile, mannered and derivative. Even the most able artist risks falling back on safe habits, familiar methods, and trite motifs.

Sometimes while looking at a painting by an artist I admire, I can imagine his or her voice whispering to me: “Don’t bother looking at my paintings. Go outside, where I got my inspiration, and find your own art there!” Other times I find myself filling folders on my computer with more and more digital images, and I feel like the diner who keeps eating out of habit, savoring the taste less with each bite.

One might object that the two quantities are fundamentally dissimilar and can't be compared. Art is an artificial creation of the human mind, and Nature is unknowable except through human culture. In fact it can be argued that we can't really approach Nature as artists without the guidance of some template of previous tradition. So it's not really a question of Art or Nature, but cultivating the habit of alternating the appreciation of one with the other.

"Art and Nature" by Francisco de Medrano, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The study of Nature—informed by feeling, memory, and imagination—has been the stimulus for many great movements in art history. And it is the source of the art that I love most. In his poem "Art and Nature," Spanish poet Francisco de Medrano (1570-1607) expresses how art is like a cloistered garden compared to the limitless divine creation, a message that inspired me so much that I wrote it out with a dip pen above.
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