Humanities vs Science. 3. Art History

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Studying art is a bit more scientific than simply loitering at gallery openings. The discipline of Art History is the study of how visual art styles and movements have evolved over time. It teaches how to read and interpret art; but it also provides valuable insight into how humanity, society and their values have developed across the ages…insights that are very relevant to science. Here are a few ways that scientists could benefit from studying Art History:

Natural history

In the modern age of Twitter, Instagram and camera-phones, we sometimes forget the natural history we can learn through art of the non-digital kind. Yes, Darwin’s sketches taught us a lot about ecology and biogeography. But he wasn’t the only artist to leave us with a stunning legacy of natural history resources.

Natural scenes, landscapes and wildlife have been the most common subject matter in artistic works across the ages, especially before the Industrial Age, when we lived in much closer contact with the natural world than we do now. These artworks are valuable teaching and research tools. They reveal clues about human-nature interactions, such as how landscape change in the Industrial Age was perceived by its contemporaries, and how we have influenced the genetic diversity of fruits and vegetables we eat today. And they provide records of past and present ecosystems, landscapes and biodiversity, like the work of Ustad Mansur, the Mughal Empire’s most respected artist and one of the best natural history artists we know. Mansur painted hundreds of plants and animals, mostly by request of the Emperor Jehangir, including a (live) dodo and the now endangered Siberian crane. From the intricate details of ancient Persian miniatures to grand Mayan murals, nature motifs and subjects have been included in artworks for centuries…you might be surprised at what you find if you take a closer look!

A Persian miniature with a huge array of ecological clues. (Behzad’s Advice of the Ascetic, c. 1500-1550)


Conservation science

Conservation doesn’t just apply to threatened species. One aspect of art history focuses on preserving and restoring historical artworks. Just like ecological species conservation, an artwork’s preservation and restoration reveals important clues about its ‘biology’ and evolution….knowledge that is crucial to its ongoing appreciation and preservation.

And this process isn’t all white gloves and museum cases. It requires knowledge of the chemistry and physics of colour, light and materials (yes, science education is just as relevant to non-scientific disciplines). It also requires collaboration with scientists. Some amazing things have been discovered by using scientific tools and techniques to analyse historical artworks, from hidden whales and gemstone reflections to the revelation that Paleolithic cave painters appear to have been more accurate artists than modern painters and sculptors (not surprising, because they spent a lot more time watching Nature than we do).

Landscape change

Understanding how landscapes change, and how this affects plants, animals and ecosystems, is a fundamental problem in ecology. As humans rapidly restructure landscapes all over the world, we are learning more about how the plant and animal communities we see today are influenced by historical land uses. Paintings are one of the best ways to find out what landscapes once looked like and how they were used and perceived, especially before photographs were invented. This great post from Ian Lunt on some of von Guérard’s landscape paintings, shows how studying art from historical periods of change (like the European settlement of Australia) can provide valuable insight into the flora, fauna and structure of a landscape at that time.

The study of landscape paintings to inform ecology was considered a neglected field back in the 1970s. Its neglect remains today.

von Guerard's stunning depiction of an 1857 bushfire near Timboon, Victoria.
von Guerard’s stunning depiction of an 1857 bushfire near Timboon, Victoria.


Humans and nature (or ‘social-ecological systems’, for the ecologists)

How humans interact with nature is central to most modern ecological problems. Studying ancient, and more recent, art shows us how our relationship with nature has evolved. From the cave art at Lascaux to the Easter Island statues, the images we have been bequeathed by previous generations are priceless reminders of how we use (and misuse) our environment.

In this sense, paintings and sculptures are often more valuable than photos, because they depict more than the scene – they also illustrate the artists’ interpretation and values as they interact with the scene. This social-ecological window is rarely seen in photographic art. Pieter Bruegel the elder produced a series of paintings called ‘The Months’, of which only a few survive. They are vivid in their detail of how late medieval humans used their landscapes and ecosystems, for survival and pleasure. We take for granted the beautiful landscapes of Hokusai, Turner and Rousseau, the shan shui art of ancient China, and the inscriptions of ancient Egypt. We marvel at the mythical sculptures and artefacts of ancient Greece and Rome, indigenous America and classical India. But all provide much more than a few minutes of viewing serenity – they provide insights to social-ecological history that won’t always be found in the published literature we rely on for evidence.

The Kailasa Temple at the Ellora Caves, India. The caves were carved out of the hillside by multiple generations of artists between the 5th and 10th centuries as sacred places for Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, during a time when religious harmony was the norm. This temple is carved out of a single rock and is a representation of the Hindu god Shiva’s home on Mt Kailash, in Tibet’s Kailash Range.

© Manu Saunders 2015

8 thoughts on “Humanities vs Science. 3. Art History

  1. Chris Buddle September 20, 2015 / 10:23 PM

    What a fantastic post! It really resonates with me. I simply adore art galleries, and I think I am drawn to some pieces because of a “scientific” interest in them, and I am certainly biased to landscapes, perhaps also because of ecological interests. Your post also reminds me of how the sky colours in “The Scream” by Munch was hypothesized to relate to the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Thanks for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jane September 23, 2015 / 11:34 AM

    You make many excellent points here, Manu! I loved this post. I’m often puzzled by the separation of fine arts from science as so often artists have excellent observational skills. They notice small details that others do not and often have patience and intuition. All of these qualities are highly useful in the practice of science.

    I visited a colonial painting gallery exhibition at UQ a little while back and was struck by a huge landscape painting of the site where Parliament house in Canberra now sits. It was a reminder to me of the value of art is showing us environmental changes. It actually helped prompt me to write my recent post about The Art of Hiking. Cameras are a relatively new invention in human history an so we only have written accounts, oral histories and artwork to show us what has gone on in the past.

    Beatrix Potter is more known for her children’s books and sweet illustrations but she was also a mycologist and a brilliant artist of the natural world. My daughter’s anatomy success at university is due in part to her artistic nature and experience with animals. Leonardo Da Vinci is another great example of an artist and a scientist/inventor. We will all benefit when the world sees Science and Art History as complementary. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders September 23, 2015 / 3:35 PM

      Thanks for the lovely comment and more great examples, Jane! I love looking at landscape paintings of the early days of our modern cities – so descriptive and can be such an eye-opener. Agree, science and art were considered complementary skills for centuries. It’s only been in the last 50-odd years that we have allowed the disciplines to drift apart…to our loss!

      Liked by 1 person

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