‘Nature and culture in harmony’

“It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; – and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, first published 1813)

My title ‘nature and culture in harmony’ comes from the 1996 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle Mr Gardiner says it in the carriage as they are on their way to visit Pemberley House. However, I don’t think it appears in the book, but is likely to be an adaptation of the quote above.

This phrase came to mind because last week I started another MOOC – a free online course (see my post on my earlier MOOC). This one is called Environmental Humanities and is run by the University of New South Wales, Australia. I was also on holiday last week so I was a bit distracted, but today I did an interesting exercise for it. We had to find six objects that range from ‘natural’ to ‘cultural’ or are on a continuum with mixtures of both. I went out my back door – yes it could do with weeding!


And found these six objects.

6 objects.JPG

The three on the left are at the ‘natural’ end being a stone (collected somewhere in New Zealand – not last week); a seed pod and leaves from a kowhai tree (NZ native in the Sophora species) and a paua shell – natural, but often used in making jewellery and souvenirs. The three on the right are more ‘cultural’ in that some human intervention has occurred in making them: a glass bottle, a clay pot, and a ‘stoneware’ crafted object. The exercise was more interesting once I read some of the other learners contributions – from the UK, Paris, Portugal, Norway, Australia, New Zealand… and other places.

Naturally – as it is intended to do – this got me thinking about ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.  My holiday was in the South Island of New Zealand – at the top of the island, in particular Nelson, Motueka, Kaiteriteri and Golden Bay. Here is a selection of photos that mostly show ‘nature’ but sometimes with some human intervention.


I also thought about some of the research I did during my art history degree. My essay on French picturesque gardens of the 18th century covered some of the attitudes towards ‘nature’ as they developed during that century. Below is another essay I wrote (or I should say, it is really a draft rather than a polished essay) which covers ideas of ‘wilderness’ in the mid to later 19th century in the ‘colonies’ (the term is used in a broad sense here – with America being an ‘ex-colony’). I apologise for the lack of references.

Wilderness theme” – Colonial Art, Victoria University Art History course

The idea of wilderness as a place to visit, and paint, only developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, ‘wilderness’ was a place to be feared, or ‘tamed’ by settlement and development. It was only once the land had been subdued that ‘wilderness’ came to be appreciated, mainly by urban-dwellers looking for rest and recreation. Artists, too, were tourists, but as well as catering to a tourist market, their paintings could help create more interest in the ‘wilderness’. The other important influence on visits to, and depictions of, wilderness was the development of various branches of science in the nineteenth century, especially geology. Wilderness areas were places to observe God’s creation and the vast forces of nature at work. ‘Wilderness’ is therefore a cultural construct, and one whose meaning changes over time.

In 1831 Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville visiting America observed that in Europe people talk of the American wilds, but Americans didn’t think of them as they were too busy settling the land. However, it was only the following year that artist George Catlin made his first trip west to depict the ‘disappearing Indians’. He is often seen as the first person who suggested the idea of preserving wilderness areas. He saw them as ‘Indian wilderness’ as did many Americans of this time. His idea was to preserve regions from development so that they might inspire future generations of artists and travellers as they became ‘further isolated from pristine wildness and beauty’.

But by the second half of the 19th century wilderness enthusiasts viewed wilderness as an uninhabited Eden that should be set aside for the pleasure of visitors. The white American discovery of the Yosemite valley in 1851 (following acquisition of large areas of land after the Mexican war) revealed perfect ‘natural monuments’. The mountains, waterfalls, etc were imbued with national patriotic pride and seen as a local equivalent to Europe’s Alps and ancient ruins. The Yosemite Park Act of 1864 gave the protection and management of 15 square miles to the State of California. Albert Bierstadt became the most famous painter of Yosemite scenes after his first visit there in 1863. His ‘A storm in the Rocky Mts, Mt Rosalie’ 1866 included Indians hunting but they are very insignificant amongst the towering mountains. The storm clouds and dramatic lighting gives the painting an almost Biblical aspect. His ‘Sunset in the Yosemite Valley’ 1869 is equally dramatic with its towering mountains, low cloud and brilliant lighting and colour effects. Mountains were powerful symbols of force and wonder, providing awe-inspiring sights.

At about the same time in Australia Eugene von Guerard and Nicholas Chevalier were also painting mountain scenes. Australians liked to show they had scenery to rival England and Europe – to dispel the earlier view of the Australian landscape as boring. Both artists were also influenced by the popular interest in science. In 1847 John Ruskin advocated that artists should be familiar with geology, botany and meteorology. Alexander von Humboldt was an important populariser of geology; although his trip to South America was in the early 19th century, his book, ‘Kosmos’ (Cosmos in English) was only published around the middle of the century. In volume two he wrote about human views of nature and about landscape painting. This book was a direct influence on American artist Frederic Church in taking two trips to South America. But such ideas also influenced Dusseldorf trained artists, Albert Bierstadt and Eugene von Guerard. Bierstadt’s towering mountains, water and turbulent clouds provided evidence of nature at work, as did Church’s ‘Cotopaxi’ 1862 which showed the volcano erupting.

Eugene Von Guerard accompanied a scientific expedition to survey magnetic fields. His paintingNortheast view from top of Mt Kosciusko’, 1863, includes five figures – two admire the scenery, two engage in scientific measurements and one is climbing. He advertised his 1866-68 lithographs of Australian scenes with the promise that the artist, geologist and tourist would all be satisfied. Nicholas Chevalier’s ‘Mt Arapiles and the Mitre Rock’, also dates from 1863, and he also accompanied scientific expeditions. Nevertheless, some of von Guerard’s and Chevalier’s works are depictions of both people’s properties and natural wilderness.

Both Chevalier and Von Guerard made visits to New Zealand. Chevalier’s first trip was subsidised by Canterbury / Otago provincial governments who hoped to use his images as promotion for their provinces.   His paintings of wild scenery included ‘Mountain crags above Otira Road’ 1868; and ‘Crossing the Teremakau River’ 1876 which evokes visions of a primordial forest. Charles Blomfield also catered to a tourist market with his many paintings of the pink and white terraces, Rotomahana. Like Bierstadt and von Guerard, he sometimes uses the compositional device of reflections in water to increase the sense of scale and grandeur.

In 1876 Eugene von Guerard took a steamship from Melbourne directly to Milford Sound, in itself detracting from the notion of pristine wilderness. But his two major paintings resulting from the trip minimise human presence. ‘Milford Sound employs a low viewpoint to increase the sense of grandeur; along with ‘Lake Wakatipu’ these two paintings were exhibited first in Melbourne 1877 and then went to a number of international exhibitions.

C. Piguenit was another Australian artist who depicted wilderness areas. He had been a draughtsman for the Lands Department in Tasmania. His paintings often included misty clouds around lakes and mountains – for example: ‘A mountain top, Tasmania’ c1886 and ‘Mt Olympus, Lake St Clair, Tasmania’, 1875, which also includes water in the foreground for reflections. [PDF catalogue of Piguenit’s works.]

John Gully was considered “New Zealand’s Turner” and was another artist whose reputation was built on studies of less populated areas, such as ‘A West Coast Road 1870s. ‘In the Southern Alps’ 1881, included a lone horseman on a track amongst grandeur of mountains. He also exemplifies the interest in geology as he painted a series of works based on Julius von Haast’s geological drawings for a talk Haast gave in London. Haast’s drawings were more topographical than Gully’s versions, which were more in keeping with the ‘romantic’ aesthetic. John Buchanan’s ‘Milford Sound’ (1863) was also a more topographical rendering and was exhibited among the geology specimens at the Dunedin Exhibition in 1865.

The world’s first national park was created with the Yellowstone National Park Act in 1872 – two million acres were protected from ‘settlement, occupancy or sale’. Thomas Moran accompanied the first government-sponsored expedition to Yellowstone and his drawings and watercolours helped convince Congress to pass the Yellowstone National Park Act. He specialised in paintings of the west, especially Yellowstone National Park – so much so that he came to sign his paintings TYM (Thomas Yellowstone Moran). Moran’s oil painting of ‘Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’ 1872 was purchased by Congress and was the first landscape painting to hang in the Capitol, along with other ‘heroes’ of the nation. Two years later Congress also purchased another national ‘monument’ with Moran’s ‘Chasm of the Colorado’ (the Grand Canyon). His third western triptych ‘Mountain of the Holy Cross’ 1875 has snow forming a cross shape, with clear overtones of religious awe.

Wilderness preservation in America went hand in hand with Indian dispossession of land. By this time reservations were seen as the appropriate place for Indians to live rather than ‘wilderness’. With the increasing opening up of the west (the transcontinental railroad was connected in 1869), and pressure for land, wars with Indians became more frequent and they were viewed as ‘savages’ again. The Indians were seen as impediments to settlement, progress, but also to American tourists who wanted to appreciate empty grand spaces. You would never know from these paintings that the population of the American west (across the Mississippi river) increased from two million to 20 million in the second half of the 19th century. Similarly with depictions of ‘wilderness’ in New Zealand and Australia, which generally minimised or removed signs of human presence.

The American railroad magnates were often interested in depictions of the ‘wilderness’ – showing a shrewd economic sense of the potential of tourism (by train, of course). Bierstadt’s ‘View of Donner Lake, California’, was commissioned by a railroad owner – the message might be the wilderness retains its beauty despite the triumph of technology. Steamships might be considered the New Zealand equivalent, as they made access to the ‘remote’ areas of Fiordland easier for both New Zealanders and Australians.

In conclusion, the irony of ‘wilderness’ depictions is that it was only once the wilderness had been tamed that it can be appreciated by urban tourists looking for natural beauties and national monuments. Artists minimised signs of human presence although they were often catering to the tourist market as well as helping to create more interest in the wilderness.


One thought on “‘Nature and culture in harmony’

  1. Great post, Viv, and excellent photographs. Your essay mostly relates to 19th-century US landscape artists, but your own photos effectively bridge to the NZ condition and its complexities. I liked the small-scale intimacy of your culture-nature choices at your own back door, in contrast to all those grand vistas …


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