Where Art Meets Science

Teaching a class can feel like a dance, with some of the steps choreographed and others unfolding unexpectedly. In the case of the labs for ENV201B, “Fundamentals of Environmental Studies: Population, Land Use, Biodiversity, and Energy,” held at the Art Museum, the students’ spontaneous remarks in front of the works of art led to unforeseen topics of discussion, including the framing effects in a composition and shifting societal attitudes toward the environment. Catherine Riihimaki, associate director, Science Education, Council on Science and Technology at Princeton, first brought students from the ENV201B labs to the Museum in the fall of 2014 to consider Albert Bierstadt’s painting Mount Adams, Washington (1875).

Students grappled with questions of how to reconstruct the past scientifically and whether a work of art might serve as a form of proxy data for past environments (a sort of indirect measurement of a particular environmental variable). Standing in front of the painting, we slowly worked our way from the students’ observations about the receding trees, snow-covered mountain, and hovering fog to the stylistic choices that Bierstadt made and their possible significance.

“Our trips to the Art Museum provide students an opportunity for self-reflection, a chance to discuss their views and understanding of the environment.”
—Catherine Riihimaki

These first labs resonated with the class, and this semester forty-seven students in three different labs are visiting the Museum twice to examine a painting in the galleries and several photographs in a study room. During the first visit in September, we stood before Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples (ca. 1830, recently attributed to Franz Ludwig Catel). The students discussed the painting’s possible interpretation in light of Malthusian versus Cornucopian views of the environment—or as a debate about whether natural resourcesare finite or infinite—while pointing out the artist’s use of light and the miniature depiction of the figures.

The visits to the Museum were designed to draw connections between the humanities and social sciences, and the sciences and engineering, and to appeal to the students’ different academic interests (many of the students in ENV201B are not majoring in the sciences). In examining the painting of Mount Vesuvius, students seamlessly moved from a discussion of the repetition of geometric forms in the composition, to the distant view of Naples, to the level of volcanic activity suggested by the saturated red paint. As Riihimaki and I facilitated the students’ discussions we noted their willingness to engage in visual analysis as well as in a consideration of the class material—a testament to object-based teaching as a stimulation of critical thinking. 

The ENV201B labs have inspired a panel discussion on December 10 in which Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art; David Wilcove, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School; Daniel Sigman, Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences; and Susan VanderKam, manager, Diversity Initiatives, Chemistry, will present Bierstadt’s Mount
Adams from the perspective of their own disciplines before engaging in conversation with one another and continuing the dialogue between art historians and scientists in the galleries.

Veronica Maria White
Curatorial Assistant for Academic Programs