Bountiful Nature Painting
This detailed and richly colored American oil painting (on canvas laid on wood) depicts flora and fauna in a lush forest understory complete with a small woodland pool. It is housed in a deep, embossed gilt frame that accentuates the quality of the artwork.
Although it is a large painting (21″ x 29″ sight size, 31″ x 39″ framed), it conveys an intimate view of nature, with just a small hint of a more expansive landscape illuminated beyond the trees in the top center of the painting.
The forest tableau gives an immediate impression of nature’s profusion, largely due to the number and variety of birds represented. There are 15 individual birds in the painting, representing 13 different species including a blue jay, a mockingbird, a hummingbird, a bobolink, a meadowlark, a chestnut-sided warbler, a pair of yellow warblers, and a pair of woodpeckers.
But close examination reveals many additional animals in the verdant scene, including three frogs, a turtle, three beetles, a spider, three butterflies, and a hive of bees.
Flora and fungi include violets, trumpet vines, ferns, jack-in-the-pulpit and a patch of inky cap mushrooms.
Although the painting depicts some ecological interactions (birds foraging for a spider and bees), some life history details (a bird near its nest with a clutch of eggs), and some appropriate habitat matches (the reptile and amphibians near the pool, the woodpeckers on a tree trunk), the painter was clearly more concerned with aesthetics than with scientific accuracy. The bird and plant species are recognizable, yet they are embellished archetypes rather than exact portraits.
This painting dates from circa 1870-1890. During those post-Civil War decades there was an upwelling of interest in natural history in the United States. It became widely popular to identify as well as collect plant, animal, rock and fossil specimens. Scores of scientific societies became established during that time, as did some of the great natural history museums that are still thriving today in cities such as New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Historians explain the burgeoning interest in natural history during the last quarter of the 19th century in part as a reaction to rapidly increasing urbanization coupled with wider access to writings extolling the aesthetic and spiritual values of wild nature (Barrow, 2000). This painting, then, reflects a larger societal fascination during that time period with the beauty and intrigue of the natural world.
The painting shares commonalities with several artistic traditions. The first is simply artists’ portrayal of nature’s beauty, and especially the beauty of birds. Painters across ages, continents and styles have often chosen birds as major and secondary subjects of their art.
This painting by the Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel (1626-1679) dates from the 17th century, but shares similarities with our 19th century painting. Both paintings group a variety of birds in a natural setting, yet they are in a much more dense concentration and decidedly odder combination of species (especially in the Van Kessel painting) than would actually be found together in nature.
The second visual art tradition that our painting evokes is three-dimensional rather than flat art – the Victorian tradition of taxidermy collections and cabinets. As the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1995) once noted, “The Victorians … tried to stuff every last specimen into their gloriously crowded cabinets in order to show the full range of global diversity.”
Our nature painting is similarly overstuffed with species, and like Victorian “cabinet naturalists,” its creator was more concerned with presenting a pleasing composition than with reflecting or promoting scientific understanding.
Lavish taxidermy displays were upper class pursuits in the late 19th century, including for the owners of Adirondack Great Camps. One can imagine this painting appealing to the sensibilities of those rusticators who filled their vacation homes with both natural artifacts and artistic representations of nature as antidotes to their urban lifestyles.
While intellectual frameworks can deepen art appreciation, a visceral reaction is what truly engages us with a particular piece of art. We are personally drawn to this painting because it evokes emotions very much like those we experience during quiet moments in wild settings – feeling simultaneously a sense of peace and the excitement of anticipation, knowing that fascinating things will reveal themselves if we wait patiently and look carefully as nature unfolds around us.
Barrow, Mark V. Jr. (2000). The specimen dealer: Entrepreneurial natural history in America’s gilded age. Journal of the History of Biology, 33(3), 493-534.
Gould, Stephen Jay. (1995). “Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive, O!” In Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History. New York: Harmony Books, 238-47.