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The Enduring Relationship of Science and Art

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte1884, 1884–86
Georges Seurat (French, 1859–1891)
Oil on canvas
83 3/4 x 121 1/4 in.
Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1926.224

Introduction to Science and Art

The Enduring Relationship of Science and Art
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Science and art naturally overlap. Both are a means of investigation. Both involve ideas, theories, and hypotheses that are tested in places where mind and hand come together—the laboratory and studio. Artists, like scientists, study—materials, people, culture, history, religion, mythology— and learn to transform information into something else. In ancient Greece, the word for art was techne, from which technique and technology are derived—terms that are aptly applied to both scientific and artistic practices.

Art and Scientific Investigation in Early-European Art
Leonardo da Vinci, painter and draftsman of the High Renaissance, is best known as an artist whose works were informed by scientific investigation. Leonardo observed the world closely, studying physiology and anatomy in order to create convincing images of the human form. He believed that the moral and ethical meanings of his narrative paintings would emerge only through the accurate representation of human gesture and expression. For this Christian artist, science and art were different paths that led to the same destination—a higher spiritual truth. His Sketch of Uterus with Foetus (c. 1511–13) is one of several thousand drawings he produced in his lifetime in which artistic and scientific investigation are bound together. These extraordinary drawings are revered as examples of the Renaissance concept of the integration of all disciplines.

The Astronomer (1668) by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is another example of the profound connection between science and art. The people of 17th-century Netherlands had an exploratory spirit. Equally interested in this world and the larger universe, the familiar and the exotic, they were intent on looking and investigating. It was here in the early 17th century that the microscope and telescope were first developed. Vermeer’s painting celebrates an astronomer. Yet it equally celebrates the work of artists and the materials of this world. The painting hanging on the back wall was created by a local artist; the Middle Eastern carpet on the table was crafted by a foreign artist; Vermeer’s own paints (ground mineral pigments mixed with linseed oil) and brushes were produced by local artisans. The globe at which the astronomer gazes evidences the link between science and art most pointedly, for it demonstrates this astronomer’s—and his culture’s—combined interest in finely crafted objects and scientific systems, such as cartography and astronomy.

The Science of Color in 19th-Century Painting
In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the physiological, psychological, and phenomenal effects of color and light were of primary concern to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists such as Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Paul Gauguin (1843–1903), and Claude Monet (1840–1926). Considered by many to be the greatest nature painter in modern-art history, Monet suggested that our sense of our physical environment changes continuously with our shifting perceptions of light and color. In On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868), a painting of his wife-to-be, Monet captures a fleeting “impression” of the landscape through loose brushwork and composition. His impression is pre-cognitive—before the mind labels, identifies, and converts what it sees into memory. Tellingly, the woman in the painting looks not at the house and trees across the river, but down at their wavering, upside-down reflections in the river, a perspective that echoes the process of perception itself. Images in the form of light enter the eye, an orb with a nerve-sensitive background. As light penetrates, it is inverted and projected onto the back of that light-sensitive orb, where the brain processes the information. Monet’s painting captures the vibration between impression and perception—the contingent moment. It conveys a sense of trembling as the light and color of the landscape shift and time passes.

A number of years after Monet’s Bennecourt, Georges Seurat began painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte1884 (1884–1886) (above). As an art student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, he studied the physics of color, and this enormous painting is an exercise in color theory. Unlike Renaissance and Dutch artists, Seurat and Monet did not mix their own paint. They benefited from breakthroughs by French chemists in the early 19th century who had invented both premixed paints packaged in tubes and synthetic pigments, such as ultramarine blue, which previously had been made from ground lapis lazuli and was, therefore, the most expensive pigment. Neither Seurat nor Monet, with little money in their pockets, could have created their blue-filled, experimental works without the scientific breakthroughs earlier that century.

Using these new paints, Seurat invented a technique called Pointillism to investigate how adjacent colors blend when taken in by the eye. Up close, the surface of his painting contains thousands of painted dots and dashes, discrete areas of color. But Seurat placed these dots of complementary colors next to each other—purple and yellow, orange and blue, green and red—so that at a distance they interact to create vibrant blended colors and larger, whole forms. Carrying his scientific approach to color theory to the edges of the image, Seurat represented the range of the visible spectrum in the painting’s border dominated by red and blue.

20th-Century Art and Science
Pablo Picasso's (1881–1973) portrait of art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910) combines Monet’s ideas about the contingency of time and Seurat’s theory about the perception of discrete elements. Here, Picasso breaks up the figure and objects in his composition in the style known as Cubism. Instead of rendering his subjects as distinctly recognizable forms, he paints them from several points of view. Kahnweiler’s head, suit, watch fob, and hands, as well as the still life to the left and the decorated wall behind, remain identifiable, but these elements have been broken up into flattened planes and rearranged across the picture surface. Painted just a few years after Albert Einstein put forth his theory of relativity, which asserts the contingent nature of observing reality, Picasso’s work similarly illustrates the elusive presence of his subject—Mr. Kahnweiler. Picasso’s Cubist painting style, like studying Einstein’s scientific theory, requires careful analysis, but it rewards the viewer’s effort with perception and understanding.

The invention of photography in the middle of the 19th century was a technological wonder—artistically and scientifically. The practice of oxidizing and fixing images on light-sensitive paper or a metal plate posed a great challenge to painters, who had historically been charged with the task of providing their culture with images of itself and the world around them. People believed this new medium could represent the world accurately and more quickly. Ansel Adams (1902–1984) one of the most extraordinary photographers of the North American landscape, used his camera to capture the spirit and beauty of the American West. His majestic vistas of mountains and rivers, such as The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (1942), embraced the bond between man and nature while recording with astonishing technical accuracy the phenomenal effects of light and atmosphere.

Today, light-and-space artist James Turrell seeks to link the terrestrial and celestial realms in his work at Roden Crater, a natural cinder volcano situated on the southwestern edge of the Painted Desert in northern Arizona. Since 1972, Turrell has been transforming the crater into a large-scale artwork by subtly manipulating and reshaping its form. Like Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci did, Turrell uses his knowledge of engineering, and, like Seurat and Monet, he employs his knowledge of the effects of light and space. When Turrell completes his gigantic project, visitors standing in the middle of the crater on the reflective material with which the artist has lined it will feel suspended between the sky and earth.

There has long been a connection between art and science, one that can be traced back to the Egyptian pyramids. History proves that the two disciplines cannot exist without each other, enduring in constantly changing and evolving relationships.

Adapted from a lecture by Robert Eskridge titled “Exploration and the Cosmos: The Consilience of Science and Art.”