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Perceptions of Nature in European Art History

Our natural world has played an important and ever-changing role in art over the years, often reflecting the social landscape of the era. Today, we’re taking a look at how nature was perceived and depicted in three different periods of European art history to discover some of the creative and social movements which have led us to our current understanding of nature, art, and the intersection of the two.

Italian Renaissance portrayals of nature often personified nature as various sacred women such as the Virgin Mary, Diana of Ephesus, and the goddess Venus. Painters like Brunelleschi and Michelangelo depicted the earth as a rival rather than a muse, staging competitions against it; this came from the gendering of art and culture as masculine and craft and nature as feminine.

Later, Impressionism brought new value to our surroundings. By leaving behind the clarity of form used to distinguish important elements of a painting from lesser ones, artists like Monet and Renoir made nature into a focus and a celebration. They painted “on the spot” to show subtle changes in light, atmosphere, and movement, and depicted humans who were immersed in their surroundings instead of standing out from them.

"I follow Nature without being able to grasp her; I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers." - Claude Monet

Today, technology allows artists to explore nature through photography, digital drawing, and interactive installations, with modern depictions of nature focusing more often on environmentalism and the climate. Naziha Mestaoui used interactive installations to give nature a living and changing role in her art. Her “One Beat One Tree” project invited people to plant a seed of light which grew in sync with their heartbeat into a unique, glowing tree. Every time a tree was planted in the installation, a real one was planted as part of a reforestation project to help to bring back biodiversity, restore farming and forest landscapes, and provide a friendly environment for beehives. In this way, Mestaoui used art as a way of taking practical action for the climate.

With conversations about digital art today often centring around the environmental harm caused by cryptoart and NFTs, it is a relief to recognise that despite the prevalence issues in the digital art world, many artists are using their innovation to create positive change.

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