'Extreme Nature!' at The Clark Art Institute

Documenting nature's extremes at The Clark


WILLIAMSTOWN — Not so long ago, as recently the 19th century, science and art overlapped, sharing the same spaces and practitioners.

The two disciplines flourished together; growing, feeding off of and influencing each other.

"There was a period where art and science were not distinct. In fact, the term scientist was not created until the 1830s. Before that, we had natural philosophers," said Kristie Couser, curatorial assistant for works on paper at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, during a recent tour of "Extreme Nature!"

"Extreme Nature!," which opens on Saturday, Nov. 10, at The Clark, explores how artists in the 19th century responded to the rise of popular science and an increase in the public's interest in both nature and natural disasters.

During the 19th century, scientific journals, such as Scientific American, which was founded in 1845, introduced subscribers from outside the scientific community to nature's beauty and destructive potential.

"A handful of the artists included in this show appear in the pages of Scientific American, in one way or another," Couser said.

One of those artists was Aaron Draper Shattuck, a member of the Hudson River and White Mountain schools, whose work "Monument Mountain" appears in the show.

In the piece, a graphite sketch of the mountain's rocky cliffs, includes annotations describing the colors — "bright, golden green" sweet ferns and moldy "russet and bright brown" growths on the rocks.

"This area has always been a draw for nature tourism," said guest curator Michael Hartman, a 2018 graduate of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art, which is run jointly by the museum. "At one point, artists felt they had to record every single rock, every single piece of lichen in a place."

Not only was Shattuck a subscriber of Scientific American, he was also an advertiser in its pages.

"He eventually became a scientist himself and advertised his inventions in it," Hartman said. "One of the inventions he advertised was one for an improvement to canvases. The fact that he advertised his inventions in the magazine tells us that other artists were reading it."

An issue of Scientific American, on display as part of the show, includes an article on the lunar surface and photos of an artist's rendering of what the surface was supposed to look like.

It was magazines such as Scientific American and National Geographic, he said, that were publishing photographs and artwork of places that up until then, had not be accessible by much of the general public.

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"Artists were responding to images of the arctic or to images of Yosemite, which had been photographed for the first time," Hartman said. "They were responding to science and fulfilling an audience desire for nature's extremes."

William Bradford's photograph, "Between the Iceberg and Field Ice, taken in 1869, was one of the first to bring images of icebergs to the masses.

"Bradford, who was a painter, who said he undertook the expedition for the art," Hartman said. "Scientists and governments were investing in trips to the arctic. They were looking for faster trade routes through the arctic. Sometimes, artists went on expeditions to provide images for the public to see."

Bradford, whose photos were taken just 30 years after the invention of photography, created numerous paintings from the photos.

"When we look at these images, we see this desire to document what is happening and then the desire to see what is happening," he said. "There's this underlying theme throughout the show of a broad interest in science and how our own human intervention can mitigate disasters; how we can be more prepared."

Inspired by the Currier & Ives lithograph, "The Great Boston Fire, Nov. 9 and 10, 1872," which appeared in "Harper's Weekly," Hartman, began examining why the image and others like it from the time period, could be "so beautiful, but morbid."

"If you look at the viewpoint, we can almost imagine ourselves floating in the water and with the people in the boats next to us, watching this fire burn all night," he said. "I started looking at that image and began looking at images of other natural disasters. I uncovered this growth in scientific knowledge and a growth in the interest in it, not just marketed to scientists, but to anyone with scientific interest."

The invention of the hot air balloon, he said, contributed to both modern meteorology and an increase in the public's interest in scientific topics such as electricity.

"In 'Three Trees," by William Baillie, we see him rework a print by Rembrandt van Rijn, darkening the sky so it looks more stormy. He adds this lightening bolt, that wasn't in the original, which illuminates how an interest in the atmosphere really picks up a this time," Hartman said.

Likewise, the 1803 release of English meteorologist Luke Howard's classification of clouds as cumulus, stratus and cirrus directly influenced how skies were painted by artists.

"It's quite remarkable," he said. "Earlier skies were nonspecific, a blue color and some clouds. But after the release of the classification, it becomes clear artists are really paying attention and really trying to make their skies true to life ... This was a time period when so many things we take for granted, like the cause of a meteor shower, were being discovered and classified."

Other works, such as John Martin's "The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Paradise Lost, Book 1, Line 44," show how artists subtlety included scientific advances into their work.

"'The Fall of the Rebel Angels,' clearly has Christian undertones, but Martin was also a geologist, who was studying paleontology. When we look at this image closely, we can see the different strata of the rock and we can see how he's incorporating his own geological interests into this print for Milton's 'Paradise Lost,'" he said.

The show, which runs through Feb., 3, 2019, is made up of rarely viewed works on paper, photographs and books that are drawn primarily from The Clark's permanent and library collections, with additional material on loan from the Troob Family Foundation, WCMA and Williams College's Chapin Library.


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