See the iconic short film by Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten:

Resting on a bluff above the Missouri River in a small clearing, I watched a wasp moving about, investigating a leaf in a methodical way. Suddenly, I was struck by the intimate and self-contained quality of the wasp’s world, oblivious to the vast sweeping perspective of the river far below. I was an observer looking down into the insect-high perspectives of a small world. The sheer chance of my being there to discover this small world made me think of the infinity of other small worlds unobserved in the expanse of landscape. I had a perspective which encompassed the near view of the wasp in the context of a landscape of immense spaces. For a moment, I imagined a perspective that looked down on me and my perspective, as a subset of a much larger world.

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Joel Babb, Copley Square from 500 Boylston, oil, 36 x 66 in., 1991.

To our senses, nature seems to dissolve at a threshold of smallness on one hand, and, on the other, things disappear in the distance, in nature’s incomprehensible vastness. Microscopes, telescopes, and cameras extend those thresholds. I had been using a 4 x 5-inch camera to photograph cityscapes, enlarging the transparencies to make complex paintings that could never have been done directly from nature. Some were aerial views taken from helicopter flights over Boston—thus perspectives containing the viewpoint of familiar street-level scenes below. Such is the view looking straight down on a street in Copley Plunge. In Copley Square from 500 Boylston, there is an aesthetic thrill for me in seeing a familiar place from a different perspective—a sublimity in which people, cars, and buildings in the distance are turned into abstract patterns of rectangular blobs or even dots. The macrocosm engulfs the microcosm.

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William Trost Richards, In the Woods, oil, 16 x 20 inches, 1860, Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

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Gustave Doré, Summer, oil, 104 x 78 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Wikimedia Commons).

In 1988, I worked with large-camera photographs to paint the woods near my home in Maine. I had been impressed by a painting by William Trost Richards in the Bowdoin Museum, Into the Woods. It is a careful capture of a quiet corner of a wood with lovingly-rendered foreground. Through an opening in the forest is a glimpse of a remote landscape. I had also seen a large painting by Gustave Doré in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with a foreground full of wildflowers, a scythe laid aside, butterflies swirling into the air and beyond a distant castle or ruin on a hillside. In this painting, 107 inches tall, the plants and flowers in the foreground are life-size, and the frame functions as a sort of trompe-l’oeil doorway into a Romantic landscape.

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Joel Babb, The Hounds of Spring, oil, 96 x 68 in., 1988, Harvard Business School.

I would make a large vertical painting which would be a kind of doorway for a viewer to enter the picture space. Plants and rocks would be rendered life-size in the foreground. They would allow you to survey the nature at your feet with the intimacy of the “wasp’s eye view” of the ground—to be aware of the microcosm. As you pass over the threshold and climb up the hillside, detail begins to dissolve and you journey from microcosm to macrocosm beyond.

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Joel Babb, The Hounds of Spring, oil, background detail.

The title The Hounds of Spring comes from a verse in a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne that deals with the return of life to nature in spring:

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaf and ripple of rain;

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Joel Babb, The Hounds of Spring, oil, foreground detail.

New green growth is pushing up through the litter of last year’s leaves. In a rocky, unpromising place, a washed-out logging road, the force of nature is reclaiming dominion, establishing life. In realist art, generally the careful observation of a corner of nature can show the operation of universal forces. These in their omnipresent aggregate are powerful and universal.

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Joel Babb, Restless Sublimity, oil, 55 x 77 in., 2015, collection James Zimpritch.

Elemental natural forces over immensities of time are brought to mind in Mount Desert. You see the cliffs against which storm surges break and imagine inconceivably large waves having ground away the granite foundations of Maine forests. I have returned there recently to do a series of paintings. The latest of these, Restless Sublimity, is based on a series of photographs I took on the day after a hurricane passed through. This painting expresses the feeling I get in Acadia of eternal restlessness in the elemental confrontation of sea and granite. The Roman poet Lucretius in his Of the Nature of Things expresses the world as made of atoms and void, atoms aggregating and combining to become what we know, and then dissolving and recombining in other forms. This always comes to mind when I’m in Acadia.

While working on the painting, I became aware that the forms which the violence of surf piling into my cove was making, were similar to the forms of the clouds. It was as if the element of water under the power of the tide had sublimated to the sky where it built similar vast structures moving off into the air: microcosm sublimating to macrocosm—a perspective of worlds changing in the immensity of time.

Writing in the eighteenth century, W. H. Mallock paraphrased Lucretius:

No single thing abides; but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings—the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.

Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms: and even the systems and the suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.

You too, oh earth—your empires, lands and seas
Least with your stars, of all the galaxies,
Globed from the drift like these, like these you too
Shalt go. You are going, hour by hour, like these.

Nothing abides. The seas in delicate haze
Go off; those mooned sands forsake their place;
And where they are, shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.[1]

[1] W. H. Mallock, Lucretius on Life and Death, London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900, 15–16.

Image at top: Joel Babb, Copley Plunge, oil, 82 x 68 in., 1990, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.