Landscapes: History and Significance

Copyright (c) 2006 Dianne Durante 

NOTE: This is a companion piece to my essay on still-lifes; I've repeated a few of the broader points so it can stand alone. 
Both articles were originally written for Quent Cordair Fine Art, and published on its website.

 "Landscape" as discussed here includes not only spacious skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountains' majesties, but seascapes and cityscapes. We'll also glance at some paintings in which human figures appear, but telling a story is not the focus.

Like still-lifes, landscapes have often been rated second-class compared to history and narrative paintings, or indeed any paintings with human figures. How did this attitude develop, and what message or meaning can landscapes offer?

Landscape painting in ancient and medieval times

Little is known of Greek painting, since artists painted on walls that have long since crumbled or on wooden panels that have long since disintegrated. Based on vase paintings and literary references, we do know that Greek artists of the Classical period (5th-4th c. BC) always focused on the human figure. Landscape was a subsidiary element, used to set the scene or help identify the characters.

The Romans, who conquered the Greek mainland in the 2nd c. BC, were intensely innovative and practical in matters of technology, including architecture and infrastructure. Under the protection of Roman laws and Roman soldiers, the standard of living and the level of knowledge around the Mediterranean increased steadily for centuries. In art, though, the Romans were mostly content to make copies of Greek painting and sculpture. The Odyssey Landscapes (1st c. BC; also on p. 5 of the PDF here) include swaths of land and sea as a setting for the adventures of wily Odysseus. Roman frescoes buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius occasionally include cityscapes such as one in the Metropolitan Museum's Boscoreale Room, whose buildings are drawn with a charmingly erratic notion of linear perspective. The Romans' fondness for such mundane scenes testifies to their overriding concern with the natural world during the late Republic and early Empire.

After the Fall of Rome (traditionally 476 AD), a few Byzantine artists persisted in copying Greek and Roman works, including elements of landscape. (See the 6th-c. Vienna Genesis.) In Western Europe, however, all attempts at realistic landscape disappeared - not surprisingly, given the combination of Christianity's emphasis on the next world and the misery of medieval life. An outdoor setting for a religious story might be indicated by one elaborately stylized tree or rock. Thirteenth-century French painters dispensed with even such tokens, using instead a checkered background or a sheet of gold leaf. (See Queen Melisende's Psalter, 1131-1143.)

Landscape in the Renaissance

The turning point for the re-emergence of landscape painting came in 13th-c. northern Italy, where increased political freedom, a rising standard of living, and the spread of St. Francis of Assisi's distinctive form of spirituality led to renewed interest in portraying life on earth. Giotto (1267?-1336) was not only a genius at figures and composition, but was adept at placing his figures in a this-worldly setting. (See his Lamentation, ca. 1305-1310). A generation later Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted a wonderful 46-foot fresco in Siena illustrating the effects of good and bad government (1338-40), which incorporated a cityscape and a landscape.

With the invention of oil painting in the early 15th c., painters suddenly had a wide range of colors plus the ability to show subtle gradations and to depict extremely precise detail. In works such as the Ghent Altarpiece, Jan van Eyck staged his religious stories against beautiful landscape backgrounds. Van Eyck is credited with inventing "atmospheric perspective," which makes a painting seem to recede into infinite depth by means of a decrease in intensity of colors and contrast toward the horizon.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Brunelleschi had developed a system of linear perspective that allowed artists to mathematically calculate the size of objects as their distance from the viewer increased. Using linear and atmospheric perspective, painters could now persuasively show three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. By the late 15th c., landscapes were incorporated into portraits as well as narrative scenes: see, for example, the works of Memling (ca. 1430-1494) and, most famously, Leonardo's Mona Lisaca. 1503-1505. Albrecht Altdorfer's Landscape with Footbridge, ca. 1520, is considered the first pure landscape, without any human figures. Sixteenth-century Venetians such as Bellini (St. Francis in Ecstasy1480) and Giorgione (The Tempest1505-1510) were the first to make human figures act within the landscape, rather than merely using the landscape as a backdrop.


Landscape in the 17th and 18th centuries

Wealthy 17th-c. Dutch loved landscape as well as still-life painting. Since Protestantism forbade religious images, paintings of mundane scenes became common in Dutch homes. Rubens (1577-1640), famous throughout Europe for his portraits and narrative paintings, also excelled at landscapes. Landscape with the Chateau of Steen, 1636, is a "portrait" of the country estate to which Rubens retreated after a lifetime of diplomatic service. Other Dutch painters specialized in seascapes, panoramas of flat Dutch farmland, ruins, and woodlands. Even Vermeer, who usually painted interiors with solitary figures, produced an exquisite cityscape, the View of Delft, 1661-1663.

Landscape painting elsewhere in Europe ran to different themes. After Louis XIV established the French Academy in 1648, landscape (like still-life) was considered an inferior genre. Poussin (1593/4-1665) and Lorraine (1600-1682) often did paintings whose titles were mythological or historical, but whose focus was land, sea and architecture. Lorraine is credited with making all the light in a landscape emanate from a single source, as in Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648.

During the 18th c. the British came to the fore in landscape painting. Gainsborough (1727-1788), who later became a popular high-society portraitist, began his career with dramatic paintings of the English countryside based on Dutch models. Turner (1775-1851) was fascinated by the effects of light and the power of Nature. His tiny human figures don't so much tell a story so much as give scale to the Nature's overwhelming forces, as in Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. Most famous and influential of the British landscapists was Constable (1776-1837), who painted familiar, intimate views of the English countryside in a monumental size and with great attention to flora, fauna, light and atmosphere. The White Horse1819, and The Hay Wain1821, had tremendous influence in England and abroad.

Yet another variety of landscape painting is exemplified in the paintings of Friedrich (1774-1840), the best-known German Romantic painter. Like Constable he painted with meticulous detail, but like Turner, his subjects tended toward the dramatic, fantastic and somber, as in Winter Landscape, 1811.

Landscape in the 19th and 20th centuries

Beginning in the 1860s the French Impressionists adopted the 18th-c. British landscapists' practice of painting outdoors, but took plein-air painting even further. They not only made sketches outdoors but also completed paintings there, striving to render minute changes in light and atmospheric conditions. The culmination of this trend is Monet (1840-1916), who in the 1890s began his "series paintings": twenty paintings of poplars, twenty of haystacks, thirty of the façade of Rouen cathedral, almost fifty of water lilies. All these paintings (ostensibly landscapes) focus on changes in color and light, while the subject and the artist's point of view remain static.

An exhibition of Monet's Haystack series in 1896-97 was a revelation to the Russian painter Kandinsky: "The idea that an object is an indispensable element of any painting had been discredited." Composition VII1913, shows how Kandinsky acted on that revelation.

The landscapes of Cezanne (1839-1906) also influenced the development of early 20th-c. abstract art. Over the course of two decades Cezanne's paintings of Mont Ste. Victoire, his favorite landscape subject, show a progression from normal if somewhat mosaic-like representations of the landscape to "representations" that are an almost unrecognizable abstract pattern.

What's to like about landscapes?

In my essay on still-lifes, I wrote that human figures are the most efficient - but not the only way - to convey "the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one's ideal world." (Ayn Rand, "Art and Sense of Life," Romantic Manifesto p. 38) Several aspects of landscape painting may be meaningful or appealing.

1. Content. Some landscapes are filled with indications of a human presence: buildings, tilled fields, railroad tracks, and so on. Others show land that's untamed or reverting to nature. Which content you prefer will depend on your mood and your misanthropy.

2. Style. Landscapes can be clear and sharp, like Poussin's or Lorraine's. They can be blurred, like those of the Monet and other Impressionists. They can be somewhere between, like those of Rubens, where less precisely defined areas "frame" the part of the painting Rubens wants us to focus on. Colors also evoke a strong emotional response. Much as I love cityscapes, those done in smoggy browns and grays repel me. On the other hand, although I dislike the blurriness of the Impressionists, I'm attracted by their vivid colors: cobalt blue and chrome orange were among the synthetic pigments invented during the 19th century.

3. Composition. Lorraine was particularly adept at creating a "path" that leads the viewer's eye to a focal point. The focal point's presence suggests an appealing orderliness in nature - more precisely, in the way men see nature. (As anyone who's ever snapped pictures of landscape knows, nature doesn't conveniently dispose itself into organized patterns.) Turner's early works have strong focal points as well as brilliant light and colors: see his paintings of Cologne and Dieppeat the Frick Collection. Details as "simple" as the height of the horizon line and the spectator's point of view can subconsciously make one cheerful or oppressed: compare Constable's The Hay Wain with Wyeth's Christina's World.

4. Context. A landscape may remind you of a particular place or time. Rubens' Landscape with the Chateau of Steen reminds me of the Appalachian foothills where I grew up. The background of Bellini's St. Francis in Ecstasy "reminds" me of Tuscany, a region I've longed to visit for years.

Bear in mind as you read the comments below that, as in the column on still-lifes, I am telling you my own emotional reactions to certain pieces and the reasons behind those reactions, rather than making philosophical or esthetic evaluations.

Christina Romano Puckett

Puckett never incorporates people or buildings in her paintings. Normally that would make me less interested in them, but as it happens, I have fond memories of attending conferences and visiting friends in California. The type of scenery that appears in her paintings reminds me of those times. The two I like best -Blooming California Buckeye and Pines, Sedges and Fog - both include glittering lakes. Although I seldom feel an irresistible temptation to swim, I love watching the play of light on brilliant blue water.

Dale Momii

Momii does seascapes: breakers crashing on the shore or waves lapping it. I prefer those of his paintings that incorporate other elements I like, such as the colors of the sky in Monterey Sunset and the palm trees in Evening Stroll.

Sylvia Bokor

Bokor's landscapes are much more stylized than Puckett's or Momii's. She's apparently less interested in precisely recording texture and light than in the massing of forms and the juxtaposition of colors. Look at the balance of the cliffs and their reflections (up and down, left and right) in Mesmerizing ViewsIt's not symmetrical, yet it feels satisfyingly balanced.

"Stylized" and "impressionistic" are often contrasted with extremely detailed or "naturalistic" works. If you've ever wondered about the difference between "stylized" and "impressionistic," look at Bokor's Water Lilies in contrast to one of Monet's series paintings of water lilies. Bokor seems to have searched out and represented only the most distinctive elements of the flowers and their setting. Monet attempted to regress to the level of mere sensation. Indeed, he once told a disciple that "he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint in this way without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him." (Lilla Cabot Perry, "Reminiscences of Claude Monet from 1889 to 1909," quoted in H.W. Janson, History of Art, 5th ed., p. 908, selection #92)

Alfredo Gomez

Dawn's Reflection reminds me of the nineteenth-century Hudson River School's landscapes celebrating the beauty of America, except that its colors are more vivid. Like Rubens' Chateau, this scene reminds me of the countryside where I grew up - but in the same way that Gomez's Red Apple (see last month's column on still lifes) reminds me of real apples. Mother Nature in the raw is seldom so well composed and beautifully tinted.

Damon-A.H. Denys

The French have a name for that gorgeous time just before full dark: l'heure bleue, "the blue hour." When I first saw this painting, that time of day is what came to mind. After I looked at the title, though, my emotional reaction changed. Is the Evening Storm coming or going? Should I feel anxiety or relief? What's communicated by a work of visual art is not always what's implied by the title. (Imagine being fascinated by a painting of a beautiful woman, then finding out the painter titled it Eve.)

Han Wu Shen

I liked Spring Is Coming more after learning its title. At first glance I had focused on the stark branches, but the title made me pay attention to the faint hints of green, so delicately rendered. It reminds me of that day in February or March when I first notice buds on the trees, and realize with relief that the long, cold Northeast winter will soon be over.

Bryan Larsen

Even in a sketch such as Among the Clouds 2 (no longer on the site; compare Among the Clouds IVLarsen's work is stunning. Look at the way the paler clouds curve to "frame" the two spires. Look at the shape and placement of those spires: shift them significantly further apart and the composition would break into two pieces; shift them closer and the spires would lose their separate identities. Look at how the setbacks on the right-hand spire are balanced without being symmetrical. It's not surprising that a man who puts this much thought into a study can produce such wonderful finished works.

One last time, let me stress that these are my personal reactions. Your own reactions should be as distinctive to you as mine are to me. They are, after all, based on your life and your values.

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