Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2017
Anne Helmreich Nature's Truth: Photography, Painting, and Science in Victorian Britain University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016. 264 pp.; 47 color ills.; 26 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780271071145)

At a moment when popular opinion has us living in a “post-truth” world, it is revealing, and indeed imperative, to review the contested nature of past truth claims. In Nature’s Truth: Photography, Painting, and Science in Victorian Britain, Anne Helmreich examines the truth to nature edict that resonated through artistic and scientific discourses in the mid-nineteenth century. She then traces the transformation of truth to nature from its initial reliance on inductive reasoning—the development of general theories from close observation and experimental investigation—to its early twentieth-century focus on sensation, flux, and subjectivity. Throughout the book, Helmreich combines meticulous research with rigorous visual analysis to recast the story of British modernism in light of artists’ engagements with the era’s most innovative scientific research.

In the opening lines of Nature’s Truth, Helmreich stresses the interconnectedness of art and science in the nineteenth century, with their joint devotion to experimentation, observation, perception, and the pursuit of truth. Yet it is also important to remember that the art/science binary fails to fully describe the relationship among intellectual realms either then or now. Though Helmreich occasionally falls back on this binary in her own rhetoric, the book teases out the complications inherent in it. Helmreich examines the dense web of connections and communications, personal networks and print discourses that surrounded works of art created in Britain between the 1830s and the 1910s, drawing on scientific and artistic treatises as well as art criticism. Her focus on the British landscape acknowledges both the significance of landscape painting and photography in the development of modern art, and also the importance of the natural world to early scientific pursuits such as geology, chemistry, and astronomy.

Helmreich’s first chapter begins, fittingly, with a look at the earliest popularized photographic techniques in Britain, William Henry Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings and calotypes. As is evident throughout Nature’s Truth, photography was often caught uncomfortably in the web of artistic and scientific inquiry. Talbot’s own training in astronomy and optics; his correspondence with astronomer, chemist, botanist, and theorist of scientific methodology John Herschel; and his touting of photogenic drawing as “new proof of the inductive methods of modern science” (26) point to the scientific value of early photographs, even as Talbot appealed to artists and sought the picturesque in his photographs. Helmreich also appropriately examines John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites in her opening chapter. Like Talbot, Ruskin trained in the sciences—geology, botany, and meteorology—and was strongly committed to the inductive process. He believed the scientific quest for truth to nature could purify art and make it modern. Artists John Brett and William Dyce exemplify, for Ruskin and for Helmreich, the incorporation of discoveries in astronomy, geology, paleontology, and even conchology into British landscape painting. Helmreich’s lovely description of variations of light and color in William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852) shows her partaking in the same close looking as the artists under scrutiny, and it verifies her belief, stated in the introduction, in visual analysis as a form of argument. The analysis gets complicated, though, in the section titled “Tensions, Resistance, and Challenges,” in which Helmreich addresses “fissures, weak spots, and disjunctures” (62) in the story she has begun to outline. Here, the certainty of truth to nature is overturned by the heightened visual knowledge provided by nature prints, the photographic pursuit of the picturesque, and the challenge of achieving equanimity of painting. When the accuracy of a photograph is questioned and the truth value of a painting is “so great that it produce[s] its opposite, doubt” (77), artists and scientists alike find themselves on shaky ground.

Chapter 2 looks at the work of John Everett Millais and John Brett, two Pre-Raphaelite painters whose successes and failures demonstrate the evolution of truth to nature. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Brett’s realism remained wedded to accurate observation and precise rendering, bringing him criticism and economic decline, while Millais shifted his focus to overall effect, sensation, and emotional resonance, gaining praise and success. The evolution of Millais’s work owed a debt to discoveries in the nascent field of psychology, especially relationships between vision and cognition and the concept of scientific imagination introduced by physicist John Tyndall and botanist Joseph Hooker. At this moment, the mind began to trump the eye, with ideal truth supplanting visual truth and individualism replacing universalism. Helmreich navigates these waters with great precision, and the section exploring scientists’ public remarks at annual Royal Academy banquets demonstrates her drive to plumb novel and illuminating source material.

In chapter 3, Helmreich revives her examination of photography, focusing on the artistic crises of photographer Peter Henry Emerson and painter George Clausen, which paralleled the predicament in British painting in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Emerson has always been a curious figure in photographic history due to his sudden change of opinion on the medium in 1891. Early in his photographic career, Emerson broke from the minute observations of the Pre-Raphaelites and also the mechanistic transcription attributed to the camera to pursue his interest in Hermann von Helmholtz’s physiology of perception. Rather than stressing the objective description of detail, Emerson considered space, atmosphere, and color as the best measures of truth. In monochromatic photography, color translated into turbidity. Emerson used differential focus to communicate the effect of the scene on the human eye in a technique he termed “naturalistic photography.” But in 1891, Emerson dramatically reversed course, declaring the death of naturalistic photography and arguing that photography was only capable of a literal transcription of nature. In his mind, this disqualified photography from the realm of fine art. Here, Helmreich rightly argues that questions of the status of photography vis-à-vis fine art were integral to debates about truth to nature. It is this complication that causes some of her photographic analysis to become a bit circular, but the examination of this relationship also offers new perspectives on some of the most common debates in early photographic history. Like Emerson, Clausen rejected the inductive, positivist basis on which truth to nature originally rested, arguing instead, again in response to recent findings in psychology, that the literal truth may not be the highest truth. In 1895, Clausen dispensed with the detailed objectivity of realism and naturalism in favor of a unified composition of parts pared down to their essentials.

The final chapter of Nature’s Truth enters the twentieth century with a look at James Dickson Innes and Augustus John that probes the relationship between Henri Bergson’s psychological theories and the development of modern art. Helmreich notes that Bergson’s work once again recalibrated the truth to nature project, rejecting positivism and inductive philosophy in favor of intuition and the continuity between the inner and outer worlds. For artists, this translated into a merging of perceiver and external reality, of self and model. While direct connections between the two artists and Bergson are scant, Helmreich effectively demonstrates Innes’s and John’s devotion to Bergson’s ideas of flux, dynamism, and continuity. Her deft visual analysis of flow and artistic intuition in John’s Welsh Mountains in Snow (1911) reinforces her material connection to the artworks at hand. After briefly considering the Neorealism of Charles Ginner and the Camden Town Group painters, the book closes by crediting critics T. E. Hulme and C.R.W. Nevinson with ending the quest for truth to nature, completing the shift from optical to mental perception as the source of art, and refiguring the relationship between the arts and sciences. The rational empiricism on which both scientific inquiry and artistic representation rested in the early nineteenth century had been shattered.

Very few spots in Nature’s Truth expose missed opportunities. While Helmreich’s attention to both scientific and artistic literature is impressive, only the first chapter examines the variety of scientific endeavors that informed art at the time. In the later chapters, her focus on psychology eclipses research into anthropology, ethnology, and evolution, which produced anxieties in the 1880s as severe as those caused by geology and astronomy earlier in the century. Another subject mentioned in passing several times but never addressed at length is the role of Henry Peach Robinson in debates about photographic truth. Though his composite photographs did not purport to follow truth to nature, a deeper exploration of his philosophy may have served as a productive foil to Emerson’s and another route to understanding the growing distinction between truth and accuracy offering further insight into the place of photography in the narrative of truth to nature.

Nature’s Truth is essential reading for scholars of British art and modernism. Perhaps more, it adds to the growing literature delving into intersections among the arts and sciences in the nineteenth century and evaluating the complex intellectual networks in which art objects are produced. Helmreich writes in her conclusion that for some art historians learning to understand science should be a prerequisite along the lines of comprehending a foreign language, a necessary means of accessing the realm of artistic production and interpretation. Helmreich’s examination of truth to nature also forces the reader to contend with the ever-shifting nature of scientific, artistic, and philosophical truth, to ask: Where are we now in the continuing search for and examination of truth? How do we understand the intellectual framework of truth claims and steady ourselves when this ground shifts beneath us? Helmreich’s work reminds us that these questions of reasoning, science, philosophy, and art remain as crucial today as they were in the nineteenth century.

Sarah Gordon
lecturer, curator, and art consultant