A visit to Claude Monet’s Lilies and Van Gogh’s wheat fields: reflections on our eternal bond with Nature

An intimate connection with art and the environment will make societies more ethical and conscious and help us remember the importance of valuing the environment

By Swasti Pachauri
Published: Sunday 30 July 2023
Van Gogh Immersive Experience at Van Gogh Expo, Washington DC. Photo: Swasti Pachauri

The world over, the news of events related to climate change, global warming, and environmental degradation is increasingly dominating the public discourse. In an environment where urban flash floods, heat waves, drought, and forest fires are becoming natural recurrences, what can we learn from modern art? Through traditional art and architecture methods hailing from the erstwhile days of ancient civilizations, one has drawn linkages between modern architecture and sustainability. However, how can we become more environmentally conscious by remembering modern art painters, especially art movements?

Can the elements of nature in art bring us closer to the realities of the environment, and make us more humane towards its plight, even while firmly stationed on the treadmill of individualistic pursuits, characteristic of our times? Last week, a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York took me deep into the weeds of these questions.

As an educator, I have taught modern art in sections of my courses, especially when teaching Sustainable Development, Design Thinking, and Innovation. Picasso’s analytical cubism, for instance, has found direct applications in modern-day 3-dimensional printing or additive manufacturing. But what are the present-day implications of modern art drawn and inspired by nature? Why were impressionists, particularly Claude Monet (1840-1926), so fascinated with scenes from nature or with practicing art outdoors, famously termed “en plein air”? Or post-impressionists like the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh particularly captured scenes from nature at the premises of his asylum at Saint Remy in France, painting irises and other captivating scenes from nature. The reasons for what motivated and inspired these artists to paint nature and scenic landscapes may have been intimate and, of course, vary, but they undeniably found some source of strength, solace, and inspiration from the natural beauty around them.

It is worth noting that impressionism, as an essential art movement in the 1860s-70s, is still evolving and contributing to present-day discourses in critical thinking and critical thought. The movement originated from the criticism of impressionist art, in general, when French painter and art critic Louis Leroy criticised an 1872 painting by Claude Monet titled “Impression, Sunrise” (soleil levant), calling it a mere impression of a sunrise and not the “actual” sunrise.

Impressionist art, as the name suggests, drifted away from realism and instead believed in rejecting normative forms of art and only suggesting reality at the edges of the artist’s imagination, often aided by colorful strokes of the brush. It flourished in 18th-century Paris as a group of like-minded people organised a separate society for critical thinkers and artists, calling themselves “anonymous society of painters, sculptors, and printmakers,” highlighting the importance of organic learning, asking questions, and enabling one’s critical faculties. It focused on the spontaneity of art, that of the brush and mind, instead of crafting careful imagery sans imagination.

Claude Monet's water lilies, Museum of Modern Art, New York

For instance, a patient glance at Monet’s water lilies (1914-26), one of his most pioneering works of art, leaves one in awe at the mere expanse and scale of the canvas that emerges as serene poetry at MoMA. “I would like to paint the way a bird sings,” he once said. Some say he produced water lilies right after his cataract surgery. The sheer scale of the water lilies project — a series of over 250 canvas paintings — and the use of colour, light, and soft brush strokes make one stop and ponder. What was his motivation and inspiration behind painting this work of wonder? Monet was both a painter and a horticulturist, and his carefully and diligently curated gardens at Giverny, France, particularly his water gardens, inspired him to paint some of his greatest works of art.

It is essential to note that European artists were deeply influenced by Japonism or how Japanese art, mainly woodblock prints (the Ukiyo-e), inspired European art. The easy availability of colours also made diversity in art and experimentation possible, facilitated by opening the hitherto closed Japanese economy to world trade in the 1850s. It is no coincidence that today, some of the most popular techniques of urban forestry addressing climate change include the Miyawaki urban forestry.

Similarly, post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh was so connected to nature that his famous paintings Sunflowers (1888), Olive Trees (1888-89), Irises (1889), Wheat Fields with Cypresses (1889), Almond Blossoms (1890) vividly capture how he understood nature. He once said, “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” Van Gogh demonstrated his interpretation of the spectacular skies and landscapes with The Starry Night (1889), with his rendition of the stars from the window of his asylum in Saint Remy.

Last week, a visit to “The Van Gogh Immersive Experience,” a traveling exhibition in Washington, DC, brought me up close to Van Gogh’s art world. It brings out, quite strikingly, his fascination with nature and the inspiration he derived from it. His series of “vases,” mainly sunflowers, roses, and irises, demonstrate this and remain seminal in the public imagination, further cementing his belief “sketching is like planting seeds to grow paintings.” In The Sunflowers, remarkably, he illustrates the different phases of a sunflower with much finesse using multiple shades of yellow in some paintings. One of his last known works is Tree Roots, rooted very much in nature too. It was painted in 1890.

Some of these works of art have also found resonance with climate change activists, art historians, and environmental artists; for instance, recently, research suggests that artists like Monet pre-empted the realities of climate change and weather events in paintings like the London’s Chairing Cross Bridge series (1901) owing to the changing haze or smog dominating the landscape depicted in the paintings. Some of these artworks have also become essential media for climate change protestors, with paintings witnessing the wrath of climate change activists — van Gogh’s Sunflowers coming under attack (London, 2022, against fossil fuels), and, also a Monet painting (Stockholm, 2023) to spread awareness about climate change.

These works of art thus illustrate the inseparability of art from nature and, consequently, the environment and are a reminder of why slow living and making time to smell the flowers is necessary in a fast-paced world where societies have become individualistic. An intimate connection with art and the environment will make societies more ethical and conscious and help us remember the importance of valuing the environment. In an Artificial Intelligence-driven world, it is even more essential to gravitate towards nature and her fruits, literature, music, art, and popular culture inspired by nature, drawing from what Monet once said, “the richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.” 

Swasti Pachauri is an assistant professor at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi and specialises in gender and rural livelihoods

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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