From Sept. 21 to Dec. 8, 2018, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is presenting a temporary exhibition titled “Past Time: Geology in European and American Art.” The show features watercolors, sketches, paintings and drawings created by artists from the 1770s to the 1890s, a period during which geology emerged as a distinct scientific field and landscape became a major focus of artistic work. These concurrent developments in the areas of art and science prompted a shared interest in land and geology.
“Past Time” opened on Friday, Sept. 21, with a lecture by Associate Professor of Art at Wellesley College Rebecca Bedell. As to why the 18th and 19th centuries saw a surge in art related to geology, Bedell explained, “Geology was then a new science, and a controversial one, intent on overturning long established ideas about the Earth… already by the 18th century, geologists were vastly expanding the age of the earth and populating its long history with creatures more extraordinary than anyone had imagined. It’s no wonder that so many artists and other members of the public were drawn to geology in those days.”
The establishment of the field of geology was prompted by a novel scientific investigation of the Earth’s crust (The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, “Past Time,” 2018). Geology developed due to a blend of scientists’ interests in the application of minerals, new theories about how the Earth began and their curiosity about how rocks and land features form (The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center). Artists—especially landscapists—and scientists alike became fascinated by this newfound intensity in our ways of observing the Earth.
The exhibition was curated by the Loeb’s Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings Patricia Phagan, who has cited a watercolor by John Ruskin in the Loeb’s permanent collection as her inspiration for the exhibition. On the shared interests of artists and scientists during the time period, Phagan stated, “Artists found that geology sharpened their perceptions of the land and fed their curiosities about how the earth and its mountains, rocks, etc. were formed.” She continued to sum up how artists were instrumental to the development of geology, “There were friendships between artists and geologists during this long time period, from the 1770s to the 1890s, when geology was largely accessible to a popular audience bent on exploring and learning about the land around them and seeing faraway places…[E]ighteenth century geological societies were founded by naturalists, artists and others who were not professional geologists in the way that we understand that today.”
Nineteenth-century artists often began their geological landscape paintings by visiting land features and sketching in field notebooks, which is the same method of observation that geologists use in their studies; some of these artists’ notebooks are featured in the display. The exhibition is arranged according to four geological motifs: caves and natural arches; rocks and rock formations; mountains, volcanoes and glaciers; and cliffs.
Although the interests of artists and scientists were harmonious form the late eighteenth to nineteenth century, many still consider the worlds of art and science to be disparate in terms of methodology, purpose and ethos. However, “Past Time” highlights the similar ways in which scientists— particularly geologists—and artists process and study the world.
Professor of Earth Science and a consultant and guest contributor to the Past Time Catalogue, Jill S. Schneiderman, is one such geologist for which the studies of art and science are complimentary. She joined Phagan in presenting a gallery talk about the exhibition on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 4 p.m.
Schneiderman fueled her interest in the relationship between geology and art by sitting in on Art 105-106 lectures. Schneiderman explained, “I wanted to see how art dovetailed with geology, and how artists look at the world visually, because that’s what field geologists do. They both use a visual language to articulate what it is that they are taking in.”
Schneiderman found that contributing to the “Past Time” exhibition further allowed her to recognize the likeness between the artist and the geologist. She described, “One of the things I took home from doing the exhibit is that artists and geologists take in the world the same way by drawing what we see…We both draw what it is that we’re looking at as a way of understanding and taking it in.” She elaborated on this observing, expressing how it applied to her personally: “There are artists who are interested in rendering accurately what it is that they’re looking at, but they’re also perhaps expressing a feeling of awe. As a geologist, I don’t do it to only understand and record but to express my feelings of awe. When I try to explain what the Earth does, I do it as an act of devotion.”
The “Past Time” exhibition is in many ways complementary to the A. Scott Warthin Museum of Geology and Natural History in Ely Hall, which features an expansive collection of rocks, minerals, fossils and other artifacts related to natural history. Although “Past Time” is only on display until Dec. 8, the A. Scott Warthin Museum allows students to appreciate the beauty of the Earth’s art throughout the year. Schneiderman urged visitors of “Past Time” to enhance their understanding of the exhibition by observing both galleries. Ultimately, whether one understands the world primarily through a scientific lens or an artistic one, “Past Time” aims to evoke a sense of awe for all individuals, giving us a moment to appreciate nature.