Green Romanticism: Art, Nature, and Human Identity

How should humans relate to the natural world? Are we a part of “nature”? Should we love it, fear it, control it, or learn from it? How should we act and exist within our changing environment? These questions are urgent today, as we face the effects of climate change shaped by human history and actions. During the dawn of the Anthropocene, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Romantic artists and writers also explored these topics with new attention.

Their art responded to an era of rapid social and environmental change--of political revolution, industrialism, abolitionism, colonialism, and scientific discovery. To tackle these issues, the Romantics turned to nature for insight and inspiration. Planting the seeds of modern environmentalism, their works treat the natural world as a source of cultural, spiritual, and artistic value in and of itself.

For the Romantics, focusing on landscapes and seascapes--rather than traditional formal and epic subjects--was a deliberate choice. Writer Charlotte Smith was “a Worshipper at Nature’s shrine,” “Peasant Poet” John Clare used “a language that is ever green,” and S. T. Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” both fears and later celebrates the ocean’s diverse ecology--its “happy living things.” Similarly, Romantic visual art reimagined human and nonhuman relationships by depicting--and sometimes challenging--elevated “prospect views” of landscapes, and by transforming the artistic genres of the sublime and the pastoral, which portray nature as either a threatening, godlike power or an idealized, rustic retreat.

Curated by the students of English 254 and Environmental Studies 290, this exhibit showcases Romantic-era engravings by Gustave Doré and by various artists inspired by J. M. W. Turner and the naturalist Gilbert White. We invite you to explore the different perspectives of these works on the human and the natural, whether in Doré’s supernatural book illustrations, White’s scientific natural history, or later engravings and reproductions of Turner’s landscape etchings.

--Emma Adams, Finn Brandt, Sophia Hopp, Tamara Ketabgian

This exhibit is part of Beloit College's Sustainability Channel.