Contradictions of Nature in the Picturesque Movement of Art and Landscape

Often times the landscape industry and gardening in general is heralded as being stewards to nature.  Their efforts increase habitat and diversify biology within a given reach.  The best part of these apparent benefits is that it is seen as a practice in style too.  There are modern gardens, Italianate Gardens, Modernist Gardens; all types.  The one movement that has solidified itself within our daily lives is without a doubt the Picturesque style of garden design to which Thomas Whately writes in Observations On Modern Gardening.  Though the Picturesque style is intimately tied to nature, the way it is depicted has infiltrated modern society’s views of nature negatively.

Picturesque artists’ choices were “absolutely unrestrained; he is at liberty to exclude all objects which may hurt the composition; he has the power of combining those which he admits the most agreable manner; he can even determine the season of the year, and the hour of the day” (Page 294).  This incredible power of the artist translated into the garden scene where one could absolutely dominate the way the light fell, the pathways one chose, visible vistas, even the way the trees grew.  Overall, landscape painters power over the perception of nature translated into the gardener’s domination over nature.  The way in which the natural world was perceived changed as a consequence.  Image

For instance, in most, if not all, Picturesque representations utilize nature only as a foil to human activities.  If this is so, nature is therefore the place that people do not go.  It is the darkness of the trees and the wilderness that people do not belong.


Furthermore, the idealized representations of the artists may conclude that humanity within nature is uncivilized, as displayed above where outside of the natural scenery, bustling commerce drives a globalized market of interconnected individuals and hitherto societies.

These principles ultimately laid the foundation for gardening, in particular the ubiquitous English Landscape Garden that “Capability” Brown pursued.  Hedges, lawns, allees, fences became the constructs of division between nature and man.Picturesque_garden_2

Where there is a Picturesque garden, there will almost always be a material division between nature and man.  So even though there may be a wide variety of flora within gardens (this is certainly not always the case) they do not inherently extend nature into society’s occurrences as commonly portrayed by the landscape industry.

Finally, gardening cannot become a parallel for natural activity.  If anyone has gardening experience they will know there is an immense amount of effort to keep nature out of the outdoors and is almost the complete antithesis of nature, the purest form of nature’s manipulation.  I would like to see a change in discourse within the gardening community accepting that fact.

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One Response to Contradictions of Nature in the Picturesque Movement of Art and Landscape

  1. jnmllr says:

    It seems to me that, once it became possible to speak of composing landscape elements, that is to construct gardens, according to aesthetic principles, in other words, like a picture, humans and nature achieve a new level of complexity and contradiction. If it is a material with which to compose “landscapes” (already implying a visual form, an observer and a scene), nature exists as something available for human manipulation, hence separate, discrete, and in essence different than the human; a disposable element instead of an encompassing environment.

    This condition underpins our discourse about nature in a way that is difficult to avoid. We continually make pictures of the natural world — our legacy of the picturesque — even if it is no longer a question of how we might compose it into meaningful and effective forms, it hits our eyes, from images made by contemporary artists (viz. Richard Misrach & Edward Burtynsky) to satellite photo surveys, with the question: what is the meaning and effect of the forms into which we have composed it?

    I do think we need to focus on your pertinent question, of which the landscape garden serves as prime evidence or symptom: the material division between nature and man.

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