Slowing down to look closely at nature is an art. By examining the colors and shapes of birds or flowers, observing the effects of light at different moments, or noticing the ways a landscape can change over time, artists find inspiration in the natural world. This chapter introduces artists who are captivated by nature and study it closely. John Constable depicted his native English countryside with fresh attention to atmosphere. Martin Johnson Heade and John James Audubon traveled widely to document birds in their natural habitats. Claude Monet cultivated his private gardens as subjects to contemplate, painting them in changing seasons. Georgia O'Keeffe found beautiful abstractions in the details of a single flower. Andy Goldsworthy uses natural materials to ccreat sculptures that often become part of nature. As you study the different artists in this chapter, think about how artists help us see the natural world in new ways.
"I should paint my own places best." John Constable
1 Constable's Country
John Constable (1776–1837) was born in East Bergholt, a village nestled in the Stour River valley of Suffolk County in southeast England. He spent most of his career painting scenes of his native countryside. Dotted with cottages, farms. and mills, the rustic landscape along the river captured his imagination.
His father, a prosperous mill owner and coal merchant, encouraged him to join the family business, but Constable was interested in painting. After seven years, he was finally able to persuade his father to allow him to pursue a career in art. At the age of twenty-two Constable went to London and enrolled in the school of the Royal Academy, the leaading British art institution There he studied the landscapes of past masters — Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Claude Lorrain — but he soon decided that he should paint directly from nature.
Returning home to Suffolk each summer, Constable made drawings in the meadows he had known since childhood. Through the close observation of nature, he developed a fresh approach to landscape painting by capturing the effects of light, shadow, and atmosphere.
2 Wivenhoe Park
Major General Francis Rebow, a family friend, asked Constable to paint his country estate, Wivenhoe Park. Constable placed the house in the far center of the composition and featured the estate's park and pasture in the foreground. Look for a flock of birds flying above the elm trees, swans and ducks gliding across the pond, fishermen casting their net from a boat, and cows grazing or resting along the shady bank. On the far left, General Rebow's young daughter drives a donkey cart!
Painting mostly outside, Constable captured the radiance of a summer day with naturalistic details. Covering half the canvas with a bright sky, Constable carefully considered how the billowing clouds interact with the landscape: he painted the pattern of shadows cast by the clouds upon the estate, the play of light over the landscape, and the reflections of sky and trees in the water.
3 The Six-Footers
Working in his London studio from 1818 to 1825, Constable completed a series of scenes of everyday working life along the Stour River. He painted from his memories and earlier drawings, and he called the paintings "six-footers" because each canvas was approximately six by four feet in size.
The White Horse, his first six-footer, shows a barge transporting a horse across the river. Using poles, the men work hard to push the barge to the opposite bank where the horse's path continues. These grand paintings of rustic country scenes attracted positive attention at annual exhibitions and helped Constable achieve recognition as an artist.
Painting on such a large scale proved challenging, so Constable developed a unique approach to creating the six-footers. He first made full-scale sketches in oil on canvas that allowed him to try out his ideas and experiment with painting techniques. Since a six-footer took months to complete, Constable used his sketches as a way to plan the composition and determine how to arrange buildings, people, and animals in the landscape.
Compare the sketch of The White Horse to the finished painting. Where are the similarities? What are some differences? Constable often painted sketches with looser, more spontaneous brushstrokes and thicker paint, while his finished paintings have a smoother surface and include more details. Look for places where Constable made changes by adding, removing, or rearranging things.
"I do not consider myself at work [unless] I am before a six-foot canvas." John Constable
Unlike many of his contemporaries (including the British artist J. M.W. Turner), Constable never traveled outside of England. Throughout his life he remained inspired by the landscapes and places he knew and loved, recording both his direct observations of nature and his personal responses to it. Constable's paintings, however, did leave England. Some of his six-footers were exhibited in Paris, where their expressive brush-work and atmospheric effects influenced French artists Théodore Gericault and Eugène Delacroix and later, the young impressionists.
Constable believed artists should combine direct observation, personal experience, scientific understanding, and imagination to create landscape paintings. Fascinated by weather, he studied the new field of meteorology. He became aware of how cloud cover, the ever-changing sky, and atmospheric effects could influence the appearance of nature.
To retreat from the city, Constable took a house in Hampstead, where he could enjoy extensive views across the open countryside. There, in 1821 and 1822, he painted about a hundred oil sketches of clouds and skies. He recorded the sky during different conditions and carefully observed various cloud formations and their movements. Constable called these exercises "skying." On the reverse of the sketches, he often noted the date, time of day, and direction of the wind. These cloud studies later helped him to integrate dramatic skies into his large paintings.
Keep a cloud journal of your own
With an adult, go outside and find a comfortable place to sit and view the sky. Take a padd of paper and colored pencil or crayons.
Look up and watch the clouds for a while.
Describe the clouds, using these words to get started.
What shapes are the clouds? How much of the sky is covered with clouds? Do they look higgh or low? List all the color you see in the sky, from shades of blue and gray to yellow, pink, red, orange, purple, and white.
Record your observations with pictures and words
Make a drawing of the clouds in the sky. Write the date, time of day, and a brief report about the weather.
What would it be like to fly through the sky? Imagine what the earth looks like from up in the clouds.
Repeat this activity every day for a week, once a week or once a month for a year, or whenever you want to enjoy nature or discover a new cloud.
Martin Johnson Heade
1 An American Naturalist
American painter Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) specialized in landscapes, seascapes, and still lifes during his long career. Born the son of a farmer in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Heade began to paint in his late teens after he received art training from a neighbor. At age twenty-four, Heade launched a career as a portrait painter and spent the next fifteen years traveling around the United States and Europe in search of commissions. He was nearly forty years old when he began to paint the New England coastline and salt marshes, subjects whose light and atmosphere would preoccupy him for several years.
Heade began painting hummingbirds in 1862. He had long been fascinated by the tiny birds' quivering movements and jewel-like plumage. The next year, in 1863, he journeyed to Brazil on the first of three expeditions he made to South and Central America. At that time many artists and scientists undertook similar trips to study, draw, and document the exotic plants and animals of the lush tropical rain forests. Heade was particularly interested in the many types of hummingbirds in Brazil, as only the ruby-throated species was found in the northeastern United States. In Brazil, he began a series of small pictures called "The Gems of Brazil," which depicts the great variety of hummingbirds in landscape settings.
In the 1870s, after his final visit to the tropics, Heade lived in New York City. There, relying on his memory as well as on the nature studies he made during his travels, he began to paint another series of hummingbirds with orchids in their natural habitat. This group of works poetically combines Heade's interests in botany, birds, and landscape. Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds is a dazzling example of his inventive compositions.
"From early boyhood I have been almost a monomaniac on hummingbirds." Martin Johnson Heade
2 A Close-up View of Nature
Heade's painting offers an intimate glimpse into a corner of nature. Precisely rendered, the flowers and birds seem to come alive.
Look closely to find:
Three hummingbirds, a Sappho Comet (green with a yellow throat and brilliant red tail feathers) and two Brazilian Amethysts (green with pink throats)
A hummingbird nest
The Cattleya orchid, a bright pinkish-purple flower that is much sought after by orchid collectors and is found in the wild only in Brazil
Moss hanging from tree branches
The mist of the jungle atmosphere
Imagine you have traveled to this place
What sounds might you hear?
What might you smell?
Describe something that would feel smooth or rough.
How would you dress for this trip?
When a rainstorm comes, where might the birds go?
3 Hummmm ... Hummmm ...
Hummingbirds got their name because their wings vibrate so rapidly that they make a humming sound. Their wings can beat at a rate of up to two hundred times per second, and the birds can fly through the air at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour. Also, they are the only bird that can fly backward. The smallest of all birds, hummingbirds can weigh as little as two grams. (That's as light as a penny!) Since they have no sense of smell, hummingbirds find their food by sight. There are approximately 340 different kinds of hummingbirds, and they are often called "gems" or "jewels" because of their iridescent feathers.
Heade painted hummingbirds from life, unlike some artists who preferred to use stuffed birds for models. Imagine how difficult it was to study such glittering, flittering creatures!
"In the midst of the foliage [the hummingbird] appeared like a piece of lapis lazuli surrounded by emeralds ... Everywhere throughout Brazil this little winged gem ... abounds."
James C. Fletcher, Brazil and the Brazilians, 1857
The French American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) gave himself a challenge: to record all species of birds in North America. Using the observation skills of an artist and a scientist, Audubon traveled widely and made detailed watercolor, pastel, and graphite drawings of nearly five hundred types of birds. He vividly depicted each bird in its natural habitat, often showing it in motion — hunting, preening, fighting, or flying — and he portrayed each bird life-size. To make the flamingo, swan, and other large birds fit on the page, he presented them in bent positions. Audubon's lifetime of work culminated in The Birds of America (1827 – 1839), an important book that documents all types of birds with 435 hand-colored engravings.
Look out a window, wander around your yard, or take a walk in your neighborhood or local park. Find a place to sit and quietly observe the world around you. Use a pad of paper or notebook, colored pencils, and a camera to record your observations with words and pictures.
Study the birds you see and take field notes. Describe the colors and shapes of their feet, beaks, and feathers. Observe their behaviors. How do they fly, eat, and interact with one another and their surroundings? Note the sounds they make. Imagine how the world looks from a bird's perspective. Write the date and time of day on your field notes. Make a drawing of the birds or take a photograph.
Reflect: What did you learn from this experience? Did you see something that you've never noticed before? What else would you like to know?
Repeat this activity every day for a week, once a week or once a month for a year, or whenever you want to explore nature and learn about birds.
Images: Robert Havell after John James Audubon, hand-colored etching and aquatint on Whatman paper, Birds of America, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Walter B. James
"I know I am not a scholar, but meantime I am aware that no man living knows better than I do the habits of our birds ... With the assistance of my old journals and memorandum-books which were written on the spot, I can at least put down plain truths which might be useful and perhaps interesting." John James Audubon
1 Painter and Gardener
French artist Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) combined his love of nature and art by creating gardens wherever he lived. Although he spent much of his time in Paris and traveled extensively in France and abroad, Monet preferred the countryside and lived for more than fifty years along the Seine River. His interest in gardening grew over the years, from flowerbeds that brightened his first home at Argenteuil to his magnificent gardens at Giverny which became a pleasure for the eye, a soothing place to contemplate nature, and a source of inspiration.
Monet was especially fond of drawing and painting his own gardens. Over and over again, he showed the ways light, weather, season, and time of day visually changed them. By directly observing nature, Monet captured the momentary effects of light and atmosphere on canvas.
"My garden is slow work, pursued by love, and I do not deny that I am proud of it." Claude Monet
2 At Giverny
In 1883 Monet and his family moved to a former cider farm in Giverny, a small town about thirty-five miles northwest of Paris. He lived there for the rest of his life. At his new home, Monet created a spectacular garden that became the main source of inspiration for his later paintings. The garden was also a living work of art in its own right.
At Giverny, Monet converted part of the farmhouse into a studio, and he transformed the vegetable garden and the neglected two acres surrounding it into complex flowerbeds. He carefully planned out his garden to be beautiful and different as the seasons changed, planting a wide range of annuals, perennials, bulbs, and vines so there were blooms from early spring through late fall. With a painter's eye, Monet thoughtfully arranged plants according to color and height. He liked the flowerbeds to be dense and abundant, overflowing with plants, and he built arbors, trellises, and arches to carry the blossoming color up to the sky.
An enthusiastic and skilled gardener, Monet read horticultural publications, traded seeds, and collected books on gardening. Eventually, the grounds at Giverny became too much for Monet to manage alone, and he hired a team of gardeners. Strict about upkeep, Monet wrote detailed instructions as to when and where to plant seeds and how to prune the shrubs, and he inspected the garden daily.
In 1903 Monet added a trellis over the bridge and draped it with purple and white wisteria.
"My heart is always at Giverny." Claude Monet
3 A Water Garden
In 1892 Monet bought a piece of land across the road from his house for an ambitious project — to create a water garden. Diverting a small stream, he formed a pool and surrounded it with an artful arrangement of flowers, reeds, willow trees, and bushes. The surface of the pond was covered with waterlilies.
Monet was fascinated by water and the way reflections constantly change on its surface. He insisted that his gardeners keep the pond very clean — he even made them dust its surface — so reflections of clouds and sky, trees and shrubs, would appear clearly on the water. The water garden became the focus of Monet's art for the last twenty-five years of his career. He created more than 250 paintings of the waterlily pond.
4 The Japanese Footbridge
The water garden at Giverny was inspired in part by the distant country of Japan. Monet greatly admired Japanese paintings and prints, especially the landscapes of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige that he saw in shops in Paris. He amassed a collection of more than two hundred prints and decorated the walls of his home at Giverny with them. Monet planted Japanese peonies and bamboo around the curving banks of the waterlily pond to evoke the feeling of a Japanese garden. He built an arched, wooden footbridge based on the bridges he studied in Japanese prints.