i Charles-Joseph Natoire, Life class at the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, 1746, pen, ink, wash, and watercolour over black chalk on laid paper, The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust), © The Courtauld

From Life: Representing Nature in Northern European Art, 1500-1750


Dr Thomas Balfe

10 pre-recorded lectures and 5 live Zoom seminars at 18:30 [London time], over 5 weeks from Thursday 3 October to Thursday 31 October 2024, with an optional course visit on Saturday 2 November 2024

£395 or £445 with visit

Course description

By the sixteenth century, the depiction of landscapes, plants, animals, and other subjects drawn from nature was widely recognized as a strength of northern European artists – one admired by patrons and collectors on both sides of the Alps. Nature is a vital presence in the work of celebrated figures such as Dürer, Bruegel, Albrecht Altdorfer, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and features strongly in the work of innovative female artists, such as the intrepid German traveller and watercolourist Maria Sibylla Merian.

This course explores the interwoven empirical, political, and symbolic meanings conveyed by early modern images of nature. A fundamental question is why lifelike depictions of natural entities were so highly valued in the period, and how artists sought to convey to their audiences the impression that their works were truthful, reliable, or made ‘from life’. This was a particularly pressing issue for depictions of the plants, animals and geographies of Asia, the Americas, and the Arctic – all places that were still relatively unfamiliar to Europeans at this date. The course will discuss several of the artistic genres associated with nature, including landscape, seascape, animal painting and still life. Additionally, it will consider artefacts such as maps, travel books, anatomical and ethnographic images, and ornamental and functional objects that fall outside traditional definitions of fine art and that often challenge the modern distinction between artistic and scientific images. The Zoom meetings will allow us to look in more detail at selected case studies that relate to the topics discussed in the recorded talks.

Lecturer's biography

Dr Thomas Balfe is an art historian specialising in early modern (c.1550–c.1750) northern European easel painting and the graphic arts. His main research areas are seventeenth-century animal, hunting, fable, and food still-life imagery. His co-edited book on the term ad vivum and its relation to images made from or after the life was published in 2019. He is currently working on a long-term writing project that focuses on European depictions of hunting practices in the Americas, Asia, and the Arctic.