While it may not be the first thing we think of when looking at a work of art, environmental factors have shaped everything about it, from how it was made, to how it has been perceived and appreciated, to how it has been preserved for today’s audiences. Dive into the complex and interconnected relationships between art and the environment—from images of the natural world to recycling ancient jades—to see our collections in a whole new way.
At A Glance
Nature as a Source of Inspiration and Meaning
While environmental conditions differ from place to place, contact with nature has been a universal human experience. It’s therefore not surprising that natural motifs—plants, animals, water, the sky—adorn works of art across all cultures and are a consistent source of inspiration and meaning.
In youth I was out of tune with the world,
By nature I loved the hills and mountains,
But I fell by misfortune into the dusty net,
Once gone, and thirty years have passed. …
In my home there’s no taint of worldly dust,
And its empty rooms hold leisure to spare,
Long was I penned, confined in a cage,
Till again I could get back to nature.
Depictions of landscapes can serve as valuable documentation of specific places, but they can also evoke strong emotions. Images of the natural world can remind us of the beauty and power of nature, evoking feelings of tranquility, wonder, awe, and contemplation.
From the earliest Japanese poetry anthology, compiled in the eighth century, to the present day, the beauty of the Japanese landscape has been celebrated in literature and art. At first, landscapes were not an independent subject but were incorporated into the backgrounds of Buddhist paintings, seasonal subjects (shikinami-e), and paintings of famous scenic or sacred sites (meisho-e). Beginning around the thirteenth century, possibly through the influence of the introduction of new modes of ink painting from China and Korea, landscape became an independent subject in Japanese painting. Landscapes of Japan were most often, but not exclusively, painted in the full color mode, which effectively expressed the seasonal changes that are inextricably linked with natural imagery in Japanese poetry and art. Ink painting was usually chosen for varied and dramatic landscapes of China, which most Japanese artists understood through their study of imported paintings, and later, of painting manuals as well. Whether rendered in rich, deep colors or in subtle tones of ink, landscapes by Japanese artists are imbued with a sense of intimate understanding and appreciation of the transient beauty and spiritual significance of the natural world.
Travel to misty mountain valleys and foggy ocean beaches through the eyes of great Japanese artists from the sixteenth century on, accompanied by the sounds of the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), in this exploration of nature as an inspiration for Japanese art and music, guided by the virtuoso Kurahashi Yodo II and curator Frank Feltens:
For Chinese scholar-officials, viewing landscape paintings not only provided aesthetic delight, but a landscape setting was often vested with meaning, which could range from providing a clue about the season of the painting to conveying more complex meanings. Seeing an image of figures in a remote landscape often referred to the key cultural and political concept of eremitism. The literati, or scholar class, believed in the Confucian notion that government service was a high moral duty. However, if the emperor was corrupt, or if a scholar was faced with serving a dynasty founded by usurping foreign rulers then, following the tradition of eremitism, a true gentleman refused government office. Instead, he became a mountain recluse, or at least assumed the demeanor of a hermit or rustic fisherman, to protest the corruption of moral order. Vested with meaning as a symbol of ethical reclusion, landscape motifs had poignant significance.
This scroll depicts both common fishermen—one of the artist’s favorite themes—and scholar-recluses in robes and hats boating on a river. Near each figure is a poem that offers insight into his state of mind. The isolation of the fisherman’s life provided Wu Zhen with a comparable metaphor for his own disappointment with the current political situation and his disdain for an official career.
Careful observation of nature did not only translate to depictions of real places. Artists used their knowledge of the natural world to create imagined landscapes as well.
Unique in every way, this luxurious burner was created shortly after incense began reaching China from the West. Although its form relates to Chinese notions of the Isle of the Immortals, said to be located in the Eastern Sea, the use of precious metals (gold and silver) and inset colored stones (turquoise and carnelian) are evidence of West Asian influences. The burner takes the form of a jagged mountain peak raised on a short pedestal whose supporting base includes a shallow basin for burning the scented powders. When it was covered by its conical, perforated lid, smoke from the smoldering contents emerged from holes hidden in the hills, resembling clouds or mist rising from the mountain.
On the base, the metals and stones highlight aspects of the geometric decoration. On the lid, they indicate swirling clouds as well as details of the landscape and the figures it contains. Four different nature scenes are depicted in the mountains, including a hunter confronting a leopard at the top of a hill. This is among the earliest depictions of a landscape in China, a subject that would dominate the painting tradition of later centuries.
A full appreciation of Chinese art includes embracing the category of “scholar’s rocks,” alternatively called “spirit stones.” Scholar’s rocks consist of wondrously shaped and textured rocks, often of limestone, that are collected for placement in a designed garden or are brought indoors for display in a scholar’s study. The size can range from twelve feet or more to tiny enough to be enclosed in a fist. Philosophic and religious texts as well as poetry have a long history of singling out mountains and rocks for special consideration. A saying from the time of Confucius (551 BCE–479 BCE) notes, “The wise take joy in water; the humane take joy in mountains.” At the same time, Daoists pictured mountains as sanctuaries or paradises for immortal beings and used minerals in elixirs for infinite life. Placement of evocative rocks in gardens and homes helped turn a mundane space into a paradise, or at least into an environment conducive to cultivating personal longevity or to the pursuit of eternal life.
The purest essence of the energy of the heaven-earth world coalesces into rock. It emerges, bearing the soil. Its formations are wonderful and fantastic. Some with cavernous cliffs, revealing their interior, some with peaks and summits in sharp-edged layers.
In Chinese tradition, the educated class delighted in rocks as tangible embodiments of the powers of creation and cosmic transformation, and they sometimes rhapsodized about them as eternally faithful “friends.” Gazing upon them could encourage imaginary travel deep into nature. Chinese scholars, poets, painters, and emperors all engaged in collecting rocks, and painters often studied the rocks they collected, treating them as both muse and model for their landscape paintings.
Observation of nature, especially of phenomena such as moving water, light, atmosphere, and optical effects, underlies many of Hokusai’s paintings, prints, and illustrations of landscapes, plants, animals, and birds. Nonetheless, the realism that seems innate to many of these works is a carefully wrought illusion. Most, in fact, combine elements of perception and imagination. Regardless of medium, these works reveal how Hokusai’s mastery of techniques for linear and tonal definition of texture and form combines effectively with elements of design, including meticulous composition and unique manipulations of color. Hokusai also traveled extensively, and it is possible he saw some of these places himself.
Nature’s majesty was at times conflated with sacrality, and certain places took on particular spiritual significance. According to ancient legends, the islands of Japan were created by the gods (kami), who continued to dwell in the mountains, waters, and trees. Many mountains, such as Mount Fuji, are considered sacred and became pilgrimage sites.
Journey to India and Indonesia with curator Emma Natalya Stein to explore Hindu and Buddhist temples and their relationships to the local environment:
From intimate courtyards to monumental temple, tomb, and pleasure gardens, Asia has been central to the development of cultivated landscapes. The earliest known garden—the biblical Garden of Eden—may have been located in West Asia at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates in present-day Iraq. The very word “paradise” is derived from the walled orchard gardens and hunting parks of ancient Iran, referred to as pardis. This type of enclosed garden became an integral part of Persian architectural landscape for centuries and also often included pavilions to provide shade and relief from the sun. According to written sources, the earliest gardens in China, dating to the Zhou period (ca. 1050–256 BCE), consisted of enclosed hunting grounds reserved for the royal elite. Chinese gardens were often characterized by carefully positioned rocks and pools intended to recreate microcosms of nature at large. In Japan, gardens followed a more naturalistic design and incorporated rolling hills and languid ponds to underline harmony between humans and their surroundings. In the arid landscapes of West and South Asia, one of the most common garden plans depended on a series of interconnected pools and axial watercourses.
Learn more about the significance of gardens in Chinese art:
Documenting Environmental Changes
Throughout history, art has served as a reflection of and response to environmental change. Sometimes this change is deliberately brought about through human beings adapting to and altering their surrounding environment. Cultural landscapes—including the ways that humans have built on, altered, and imagined natural environments—play a significant role in how we understand the world we inhabit.
Across South Asia, kings built sophisticated water-harvesting systems to preserve and channel the annual monsoon rains. A massive oval reservoir might seem to be a strange focus for a painting that depicts the king of Mewar—a kingdom in the modern state of Rajasthan in India—hunting crane. Its centrality within the composition constitutes praise of the water-harvesting infrastructure of the king’s realm. Ringed by fertile flatlands and scrubby mountains that splay softly outward, the lake is the heart of a cultural landscape signifying dynasty, identity, and accomplishments. Fed by runoff from the surrounding mountains, the reservoir nourishes a verdant grid (a habitat for migrating waterfowl) on which the royal party hunts and the irrigation system that sustains the gardens and fields of the prosperous village in the lower register .
The painting provides information about/records a landscape that no longer exists. The lake at its center was formed in 1687 when Maharana Jai Singh (r. 1680–98) constructed an earthen embankment, depicted as the pink rectangle on which the composition is squared. In 1899 Maharana Fateh Singh (r. 1884–1930) had it replaced with a stone dam that was engineered to create the substantially larger Fateh Sagar Lake, which exists to today.
Learn more about how the environment influenced painting at the eighteenth-century court of Udaipur in India through an episode of the Smithsonian’s podcast Sidedoor:
Works of art can bear witness to the environmental changes that have taken place throughout recorded history. Depictions of animals from regions where those animals no longer exist, for example, can tell us about migrations or extinctions.
Over three thousand years ago, an elephant and its keeper were buried together in north China in a cemetery dedicated to the late Shang dynasty kings. Contemporaneous court divination records mentioning the animal as game in royal hunts testify to the existence of live elephants in the Shang capital at Anyang. The use of ivory and images of elephants on objects at Anyang and in south China suggest the animal was valued in both regions. It is not known whether ancient Anyang’s elephants were native or were imported from the south, but continued hunting, deforestation, and loss of habitat to farming led to the elimination of most large mammals in the region long ago.
Art also serves as valuable documentation of major environmental events. Read about the Great Kanto Earthquake that rocked Japan, as seen through a series of scenes painted by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun:
Humans have always had an impact on the environments where they live, but the scale of that impact dramatically increased with industrialization. In the United States and Europe, factories and advances in transportation sprung up to create a range of consumer goods and ways to travel with new ease and speed. Largely coal powered, these machines spewed pollution that artists such as Whistler sought to visualize in paint.
Similarly, the infusion of Western technology into Japan from the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912) spurred widespread visual documentation of the new developments. Railroad transportation, telegraphic communication, gas-fueled lighting, steam-powered river and ocean vessels, and new materials and designs for bridges and buildings were crammed into the Japanese landscape over two decades.
A self-taught artist and minor retainer of the Tokugawa shogun deposed in 1868, Kiyochika (1847–1915) returned to Tokyo in 1874 from self-imposed exile to discover his hometown transformed by railroads, steamships, gaslights, and brick buildings—all beyond imagination just a few years earlier. He set out to record these new scenes, where old and new stood together in awkward alliance, in an auspicious and ambitious series of one hundred woodblock prints.
Contemporary artists are increasingly exploring the impact of climate change on the natural world and human communities, whether their goal is to raise awareness about the urgent need to address climate change, to highlight the social and political issues that are bound up in environmental degradation, or to envision alternative futures and inspire hope and action.
Ebrahim Noroozi began his career as a photojournalist in 2004, working for major press outlets in Iran and internationally. He has won significant recognition for his images from The Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan and as a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant. In addition to his photojournalism work, Noroozi has created extensive photo essays on life in Iran that are remarkable for their richly saturated and textured compositions.
In 2016, he focused on Lake Urmia, once one of the largest saline lakes in the world. Located in northwestern Iran, Lake Urmia has been vanishing—at one point reduced to about ten percent of its original size—and often turns an intense red color due to high salinity, algae, and bacteria during the drier seasons. Despite the devotion of significant international resources to reviving the lake, and although rainy seasons bring it back to life for brief periods, Noroozi is not optimistic about its long-term future.
Noroozi’s approach goes beyond simply documenting the lake’s imperiled state. With their shifting fields of vivid color and expansive views, his images serve as both witness and memorial to this place. In this otherworldly landscape, figures lying still or wading through the shallow waters emphasize not only the shocking dissipation but also the sense of capturing the lake’s last fleeting moments.
The Creation and Destruction of Art
The creation of art itself impacts and is impacted by the environment. Stones and precious metals need to be mined. Wood needs to be harvested. Clay is extracted from the earth. Plants need to be gathered. Many works of art make use of animal products, such as parchment, feathers, horn, and ivory. Different production techniques require burning fuel sources for melting, firing, and glazing. The gathering of raw materials and their transformation into art objects is not without impact on the environment and has at times come at the expense of the exploitation of natural resources and people.
While recycling may seem like a very recent phenomenon, materials have long been reused in the creation of works of art, whether due to the scarcity of materials or to the value placed on an existing object. For example, since jade was such a prestigious medium and a valuable commodity in ancient China, broken or out-of-fashion articles were not discarded but were instead recycled to make new objects. This appears to be especially true in the late Shang dynasty (ca. 1250–1050 BCE). Archaeologists working at the late Shang capital of Anyang have found that, possibly due to the scarcity of resources at a time of high demand, earlier Stone Age (ca. 5000–1700 BCE) objects were being transformed into decorated jewelry and other items that held more interest and meaning to the Shang people. All three pendants shown here were made by cutting up a special kind of Neolithic square tube called a cong, which had lost its ritual significance by Shang times. It is noteworthy that the recycled cong used here represent different Stone Age cultures dispersed across north and south China.
Environmental conditions can significantly impact the preservation of works of art. Factors such as temperature, humidity, light, and pollution affect the chemical and physical properties of materials in different ways, causing damage and degradation to objects over time. On a larger scale, major environmental changes such as temperature shifts and more destructive weather patterns can threaten heritage sites around the world. Conservators play a pivotal role in safeguarding the objects in the museum’s collections. Read about conservation and scientific research initiatives at the National Museum of Asian Art.
The Smithsonian Institution acknowledges climate change as the existential threat of our time. Learn more about the Smithsonian’s sustainability initiatives.