Here comes the time when, vibrating on its stem, every flower fumes like a censer.

(Charles Baudelaire)

Our relationship with nature and the idea of nature changes like the light over a tree-lined lake: it varies according to preconceptions, temperament, life cycle stage, and social class.

Among visual artists of today, it arises curiosity, awe, and inspiration. It hasn’t always been the case. Obsessed as they were with the true representation of the beautiful human body, ancient Greeks tended to ignore the natural background (anyone who has visited Greece would consider that a great loss). Under the strong influence of the classics, the French Royal Academy established the hierarchy of genres in the 17th century. In this classification, landscape is positioned the second-lowest on the scale, just above still life (and according to some theorists also painting of animals). A background to a historic or portrait painting was an elevated role to which the humble landscape could only aspire.

Over time, art as mimesis became less important, particularly in the representation of nature. The reality of a mountain, a tree, a waterfall is perceived as superior to its imitation on canvas. Unless, of course, in the process of becoming art, the tree grows into a symbol, or decoration, or both.

As God expressly forbade from making any likeness of anything in Heaven or on Earth (Exodus 20:4), artists found it difficult to respect this command to the letter, while remaining dedicated to Christianity. Avoiding imitation of reality, the trees, and the flowers can be offered as symbols of divinity.

Décor, place, space

Early Eastern artists were interested in the patterns and balance in nature, which they strived to reproduce following the rigorous rules of Shan Shui. The large paintings of mountains and waterfalls, executed with brushes and ink, do not represent the colours and shapes the artist has seen, but his thoughts and feelings in the presence of nature. Three basic components, the path (never straight), the threshold and the heart – align this genre to philosophy and poetry as much as visual art.

Meanwhile, it took Western art a few hundred years to recognise landscape as a genre. Mythological, biblical and historical scenes were often played against an outdoor background with natural features. Trees and people, lakes and birds offer painters valuable lessons in perspective and proportion.

In medieval manuscript illuminations, natural objects bear little likeness to their actual appearance. Like church decorations, plants and birds are reduced to their symbolic essence, they represent ideas – marking a significant step in the history of visual art. The reference to nature in a purely symbolic manner adds a new level of intensity to design.

In the 17th century, secular art increased in importance and paintings began to have commercial value. Specialist dealers emerged and the art market encouraged individual painters’ specialisation. In the Netherlands, some painted only landscapes (like Jacob van Ruisdael) others (like Jan Davidsz de Heem) only elaborate flower pieces.

Spring, Winter

With their rounded shapes, symmetry, and extensive colour ranges, flowers are not just masterpieces of design but also symbols of many emotions, from divine quality of purity and devotion to more human ones of tenderness and passion. Growing and dying, like all that is alive, flowers follow the cycle of seasons and had come to represent them.

On canvas, nothing suggests Spring more than the blossom of trees and scattered girls, like in Apple Blossoms by Pre-Raphaelite Sir John Everett Millais (1858). Pissarro and Monet enjoyed the promise of fruit aplenty in the rich blossom of orchards in spring, while Van Gogh’s branches of Almond Blossom (1890) against a pale blue sky are a symbol of life renewal.

With its limited palette, winter features brilliantly in works such as Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow (1565), Isaac Levitan’s March (1895) and Monet’s The Magpie (1868) who reveal the many shades of snow. Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich was also fascinated by snow and ice. His landscapes feature barren trees, morning mists and Gothic ruins, frozen seashores; occasionally a solitary figure in the foreground is gazing into the distant abyss. It is maybe the winter landscape, more than the verdant ones, that shows artists painting their own emotions, rather than nature.

From the sublime to the exotic

At once daunting and frightening, ravines, storms, avalanches, sunsets are exhilarating to contemplate. This duality is not unlike divinity, and the awareness of self in the face of the magnitude and vast energy of nature is not that different from the expression of the relation to the Absolute.

Until the revolutionary fashion of taking the easel and paints outdoors, it was perfectly acceptable for artists to create visions of, say, the Attic landscape, without ever being there. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain imagined a world of calm and generous light, framed by classical architecture.

In the 18th century, the English adoration of the country life, symbol of power and privilege, was evident in the work of celebrated painters. Thomas Gainsborough’s clouds and trees, background to his elegant portraits, were rendered as realistically as the folds of Mrs. Robert Andrews skirt.

The pursuit of absolute beauty, with its obedience to classical rules during the Renaissance led to a reaction against said beauty and rules. That in turn enabled the birth of Realism and Naturalism. This revolutionary idea – representing things as they are – became a major trend in the 19th century. John Constable pioneered the plein air approach to painting, embraced in the 1860s and 1870s by the Impressionists. But soon artists lost interest in painting facts and turned back to symbols.

The explosion of colour in Gauguin’s Tahitian mountains, painted during his first escape to the island, tells of his delight in the exotic vegetation and simple life, away from ‘artificial’ Europe. Dora Carrington’s vision of the Andalucian landscape emphasises exoticism, with orange and yellow dunes, and cacti, more like an arid African desert. Henri Rousseau escaped to the jungle in his lush landscapes – although he never travelled outside France.

The images created by our brain are just as fascinating a source of inspiration as reality and nature. Landscape surrealists (Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy) captured the elusive imagery of the subconscious. Recognisable elements – a coastline, trees, clocks – feature alongside abstract forms and archetypal symbols to create a dreamlike landscape.

There are no landscapes. There is not even a horizon. There is only, physically speaking, our immense suspicion that surrounds everything.

(André Breton)