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DRPS : Course Catalogue : Edinburgh College of Art : History of Art

Undergraduate Course: Representing Nature in Early Modern Northern Europe (HIAR10176)

Course Outline
SchoolEdinburgh College of Art CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 3 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis course examines the connections between the visual image and understandings of nature in northern Europe in the period c.1550'-c.1750. It does so via a series of case studies, drawn primarily from the Netherlands, Britain and Germany, which focus on representations of plants, insects, gems, 'curiosities', geological and meteorological phenomena (e.g. earthquakes, floods) and non-human environments (e.g. the sea, the forest). The visual material examined will include works in artistic genres such as landscape and still life painting, but also scientific (e.g. botanical and medical) sources in a variety of media. The course is structured as a series of two-hour seminars, of which at least one will be a gallery or museum visit.
Course description In the period c.1550-c.1750, ideas about nature were changing. The rise of new forms of empirical investigation, advances in techniques for studying and recording natural phenomena, and the strengthening of emotional attitudes towards certain natural environments (e.g. the German forest as a national symbol) were all developments which complicated existing philosophical and theological conceptions of nature and its role in human affairs. Paintings, prints and book illustrations, as well as objects fashioned directly from natural materials such as carved gemstones, played a key role in the production and circulation of these new attitudes and forms of knowledge.

Due in part to their mastery of artistic techniques that enabled the production of highly detailed and lifelike images, northern artists were active in producing innovative depictions of nature. The visual materials in this area are enormously rich. They range from Albrecht Dürer's pioneering nature studies, to landscape prints and paintings by Rembrandt, Hercules Segers and other Dutch artists, to the depictions of objects observed with the microscope linked with Robert Hooke's work for the Royal Society in London.

Some key issues addressed by the course include:

How new artistic techniques and forms of empirical investigation were connected to developments in representing nature.
How early modern visual culture was used to conceptualise and delimit (and thus also to exert a degree of control over) the unpredictable non-human environment.
How early modern artists sought to overcome some of the challenges involved in representing nature, such as the notorious problem of recording colour accurately.
How and why early modern people chose to learn from nature, which was regarded in the period as the second book of God (alongside the first book, the Bible).
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Students MUST have passed: History of Art 2 (HIAR08012) OR Architectural History 2a: Order & the City (ARHI08006) AND Architectural History 2b: Culture & the City (ARHI08007)
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Additional Costs Museum or gallery visit (these costs may be covered by the department).
Information for Visiting Students
Pre-requisitesVisiting students should have at least 3 History of Art courses at grade B or above (or be predicted to obtain this). We will only consider University/College level courses. As numbers are limited, visiting students should contact the Visiting Student Office directly for admission to this course.
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Not being delivered
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Demonstrate knowledge of the main varieties of imagery depicting natural phenomena by early modern northern artists, and familiarity with scholarly debates that have surrounded their interpretation and reception.
  2. Apply their knowledge of the historical, art historical and historiographical frameworks with reference to representations of nature in order to offer persuasive interpretations of a range of visual materials.
  3. Present their views effectively, both orally (in seminar and museum presentations or discussion) and in writing.
Reading List
William Ashworth, Jr., 'Natural history and the emblematic world view', in Reappraisals of the scientific revolution ed. David Lindberg and Robert Westman (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 303-332 [Main Library (STANDARD LOAN) - 3rd floor Q125 Rea.]

Eric Jorink, 'Introduction', Reading the book of nature in the Dutch golden age: 1575-1715 trans. Peter Mason (Leiden and Boston, 2010), pp. 1-30 [Main Library (STANDARD LOAN) - 3rd floor QH21.N4 Jor.]

James Elkins, 'Art history and images that are not art', Art bulletin 77:4 (1995), pp. 553-571 [JSTOR]

Katherine Park, 'Nature in person: medieval and Renaissance allegories and emblems', in The moral authority of nature ed. Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal (Chicago, 2004), pp. 50-73 [e-book online]

Sachiko Kusakawa, 'The uses of pictures in the formation of learned knowledge: the cases of Leonard Fuchs and Andreas Vesalius', in Transmitting knowledge: words, images, and instruments in early modern Europe ed. Sachiko Kusukawa and Ian Maclean (Oxford, 2006), pp. 73-96 [Main Library (HUB SHORT LOAN) - Ground floor Q127.E8 Tra.]
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Visual and critical analysis;
Clear thinking and the development of an argument;
Independent research;
Presentation and communication skills;
Organisation and planning.
KeywordsNature,early modern,plants,landscape,Britain,Germany,the Netherlands,art and investigation
Course organiserDr Thomas Balfe
Course secretaryMrs Sue Cavanagh
Tel: (0131 6)51 1460
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