Art vs Science: von Guérard’s pot plants

Humboldt’s (1807) illustration, “Geography of plants in tropical countries: an image of nature on the Andes”

Many ecologists would kill for an accurate ‘scientific’ description of native grasslands and woodlands before European settlement. These threatened ecosystems have been so cleared and disturbed that it is impossible to know what they looked like originally. How abundant were different species of plants and animals, how thick were the grasses, shrubs and trees, how friable was the soil?

One way to address this question is to study small high-quality remnants in rural cemeteries and along rail-lines and roadsides. But all of these reference sites have been altered by European disturbances – and the absence of earlier disturbances – over the past 150 years. These sites are valuable now, not because they remain unchanged, but because they support a diversity of native species, many of which have disappeared from everywhere else.

While it is impossible to know what each grassland patch looked like at the small scale, we have more information to show us what things looked at the landscape scale. Landscape paintings prepared soon after European settlement provide a wealth of visual information. One of the best of the early landscape painters in south-east Australia was Eugene von Guérard. Von Guérard’s work is being shown in a superb exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

Von Guérard lived at an exciting time in the development of what we now know as geology and biogeography. The world’s greatest geographer, Alexander von Humboldt, had published early volumes of his magnum opus, “Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe”. Humboldt’s classic illustration of the distribution of plant species across a tropical mountain range –with detailed notes on soils, geology, aspect and temperature – highlighted a new desire to discover the relationships between climate, soils, species and ecosystems. To further this aim, Humboldt implored artists to paint landscapes, fauna and flora as accurately as possible.

Eugene von Guérard’s famous 1855 painting of Tower Hill in western Victoria (click on image to see full screen view)

For von Guérard and his colleagues, landscape painting represented the pinnacle of integration in art and science. Today, von Guérard’s paintings provide an extraordinary view of the landscapes of south-eastern Australia in the mid-1800s, before extensive agricultural development. While his paintings of mountainous landscapes are visually exciting, his paintings of landscapes that have been transformed by agriculture are most informative. Von Guérard’s famous painting of Tower Hill guided the planting of 1000’s of native plants in one of the earliest landscape restoration programs in Australia.

But how well do von Guérard’s paintings show us what natural ecosystems really looked like? One way we can address this question is to break it down into smaller questions about ‘representativeness’ and ‘accuracy’.

Imagine that an ecologist was recording the vegetation of a region nowadays. How would we select where to place our samples? Ecologists usually use random or systematic sampling strategies (for example by placing plots at regular intervals, as on a grid), or a combination of these designs. This way we ensure that our data provide a representative, unbiased view that encompasses the range of natural variation within our study area.

By contrast, von Guérard didn’t want to paint ‘average’ or ‘representative’ views, any more than a tourist wants to takes photos of ‘average’ landmarks. Imagine returning from a holiday to tell everyone at work, ‘I didn’t take any pictures of the Eiffel Tower, as I just didn’t think it was representative of French architecture’. Instead Von Guérard’s goal was to illustrate exemplary manifestations of geology, geomorphology and plant geography. Every painting was drawn from the most exquisite vantage point, to provide the best vista possible.

Consequently, we can never answer the question – did all waterfalls in Victoria have a similar vegetation structure to those in von Guérard’s paintings? By carefully selecting which waterfalls he painted, and which vantage point each waterfall was viewed from, von Guérard intentionally left us his glorious, selective representation of the world. There is nothing wrong with this approach – he’d have drawn some pretty crap pictures if he’d painted the landscape ‘randomly’. The problem emerges if we try to interrogate these images to deliver messages that they were never intended to portray.

Eugene von Guerard’s 1854 painting, Warrenheip Hills near Ballarat

The second question we can ask is, how accurately did von Guérard illustrate the scenes that he purposely selected? Von Guérard’s mastery of observation and technique enabled him to paint pictures of exquisite detail. His attention to detail also reflected his scientific aim, ‘to put before the public, views of this part of the world that demonstrate the character of the Australian landscape faithfully with truth to nature.’

Von Guérard based his paintings on detailed sketches that he drew in the field. By comparing his sketches and paintings, we can see the tension between art and science, between his quest for accuracy and the need for balance and composition. His paintings reproduce his field sketches in striking detail, especially topography (the ‘lie of the land’), and the details of rock outcrops. But von Guérard changed the foreground details a lot. Foregrounds were left blank in many field sketches. In others, logs, rocks, shrubs and people were added and moved to create the final masterpiece. In the Warrenheip Hills painting above, a fallen log leads the eye from the indigenous hunter to his prey, a wallaby on the far slope. In the words of the exhibition curator, Michael Varcoe-Cocks,

‘In the foreground of a composition… a pragmatic substitution of local forms was used that held true to the specificity of the location while ensuring the poetic sensibilities of the landscape genre’.

From a botanical perspective, this creates the challenge that much of the apparent detail in von Guérard’s paintings is in the foreground, not the background. Hence much of their apparent faithfulness to local flora may be at least partly contrived.

Von Guérard’s famous painting of Tower Hill (see above) shows a pair of tall grass-trees (Xanthorrhoea species) on the left. Botanists have long questioned whether grass-trees ever occurred at Tower Hill. The value of a large exhibition is that this detail can be seen in a broader context.

Von Guérard included grass trees in many of his paintings. Not only that, but he repeatedly drew grass-trees in pairs, with the base of their twin trunks obscured behind a shrub or log, as though hiding a large pot plant that he’d carted around the countryside just for this purpose. Indeed, he plonked his pot plant down in almost exactly the same place in his paintings of Tower Hill and the Warrenheip hills (see paintings above). By comparing many paintings, von Guérard’s use of a tall Xanthorrhoea as a foreground set-piece looks decidedly contrived, as can be seen in the mosaic below.

Von Guérard’s pot plants. The artist added a single pair of Grass-trees (Xanthorrhoea species) to the foreground of many of his paintings.

Why choose a grass tree? Following in Humboldt’s footsteps, von Guérard was fascinated by ‘exotic’ plants that highlighted the biogeography of the world’s vegetation. Palms, tree-ferns and grass-trees held the twin attractions of being very popular at the time (especially tree ferns), and clearly demarcating the location of the painting in space. Their inclusion transformed a painting from a generic image (which may have been painted anywhere in the world) to a ‘near photographic’ record of local biogeographic patterns. Ironically, this local ecology was embedded using touch-ups and ‘pot plants’.

We could view quibbles about the ecological veracity of adding a grass-tree or two as simply being an issue of scale; to exactly the same issue of scale that haunts local restorationists. It’s the unanswerable question, ‘how local is local?’

From an aesthetic perspective, von Guérard’s paintings inspire awe and beauty, regardless of their historical veracity. From a nostalgic perspective, they highlight the enormity of ecological losses in landscapes converted to agriculture and urban development. From a conservation perspective, what can we draw from these wondrous works from the past?

On the one hand, they inspire us to conserve the ecosystems we have today, so our descendants can view them in person rather than be forced to decipher their composition from the text and images we leave behind on Facebook and Flickr (will we leave them any greater legacy?). On the other hand, they highlight the futility of using the past as a beacon for future landscape conservation.

We face the enormous challenge of conserving biodiversity in a period of massive global change (as did von Guérard’s generation). The ecosystems that survive 150 years from now will be very different from those we see today. Our quest is to manage and restore human landscapes to foster the migration of indigenous species between remnants and ecosystems, and to enhance the capacity of each patch to support diverse functional ecosystems.

Ironically, our quest is to create landscapes that will allow grass-trees and other biota to colonize and prosper at Tower Hill and the Warrenheip hills in the distant future, to form novel combinations of species that we (and von Guérard) could never imagine (and perhaps never value).

Under global change, the past may not be a foreign country, but it will certainly support an increasingly foreign biota.

Further reading

The catalog by Ruth Pullin, from the National Gallery of Victoria’s von Guérard exhibition, contains 100’s of photographs and wonderful essays on the artist and his work.

  • Pullin, Ruth (2011). Eugene von Guérard Nature Revealed. National Gallery of Victoria.

The quotes included in my essay above (from von Guérard and Michael Varcoe-Cocks) are taken from this superb book. The 300 page, soft-cover catalog costs $49.95, which is great value.

Related blogs

15 thoughts

  1. I recently visited a pioneer cemetery that dated back to the early 1800’s (quite old by USA standards). There was remnants of a 200-year old prairie biome there, which was fascinating.

    A very informative post!

    1. Thank you once again for your comment. As in your prairies, cemeteries contain many of the best remnants of our endangered grasslands and woodlands in south-east Australia. Many cemeteries were created in the early and mid 1800s, so they share a similar history to the pioneer cemetery that you were fortunate to see. They possess a very rich cultural and natural history. Best wishes Ian

  2. I love this post – I’ve read it about 8 times. Science really is multi-disciplinary (as much as I hate that phrase!). There is so much “non-science” information out there to inspire truly good scientific work, if we only look for it. Onward and upward, instead of clinging to the status quo of the Past!

  3. Thank you for your article. We have recently moved to one acre of farmland in Bungaree ,below Mount Warrenheip, and hope to develop a native garden. We are doing our research! Please can you recommend other useful resouces. We will follow the links on your blog too.
    You may be interested in a charity / website set up by my friend Colleen Fillippa, who has been inspirational that one person can make a difference!
    Best wishes and thanks
    Mary Wade

    1. Hello Mary, thanks very much for your comment. I hope you enjoy your new property at Bungaree. I haven’t worked in your area for ages now so can’t recommend the best local resources that may be available. Your local CMA, DSE,Trust for Nature or Greening Australia staff will be far more helpful than I can be. Thanks also for the link to the site, it is indeed a fantastic initiative. Best wishes Ian

  4. The following comment was submitted by Gordon Morrison, Director, Art Gallery of Ballarat, shortly after the blog was posted, but was posted on a different page of the blog site. I have moved it here, where it fits best, with my original reply below, Ian

    “Interesting piece on von Guerard and Grass-trees. Believe me when I say that Xanthorhoeas are extremely abundant in the bushland east of Ballarat on the lower slopes towards Mt Warrenheip. I know that ‘Warrenheip hills’ has been criticised for its ‘fake’ noble savages, but the foreground is remarkably convincing in terms of vegetation and overall greeness. But Warrenheip is actually a single cone not a set of hills; and it was forested not grass covered (attested by EvG’s own drawing of Feb 1854 of the tent city of Ballarat (Art Gallery of Ballarat collection). Gordon Morrison”

    1. Hello Gordon, thanks very much for your informative comment. I have never been to the Warrenheip Hills, so it’s great to hear from someone who has. From your message, I gather that it’s possible to find the place where von Guerard sat when he painted the Warrenheip Hills painting. Is that correct? I shall make a point of visiting the Ballarat Gallery next time I visit Ballarat. Best wishes Ian.

What Do You Think? Please Leave a Reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s