A Brief History of Landscape Painting

A Brief History of Landscape Painting

  • Posted on: May 16, 2015
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By Priyanka Sacheti

The word, landscape is derived from the Dutch word, landschap, which means ‘region, tract of land’; however, it only entered art parlance in the context of depicting the scenery of a land in the early 1500s. In fact, prior to the 16th century, apart from figuring as wall paintings during Greek and Roman times, landscapes were not particularly the subject of paintings. They mostly functioned as settings for human activity with the works having historical or religious currency in works like Leonardo da Vinci’s The Anunciation, Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Anunciation, 1475, 39 x 85”, oil and tempera on panel

It is not a coincidence though that both the origin of the word, landscape as well as the development of it as a subject occurred in Netherlands as it was one of first places where it became a popular subject for painting. Political changes occurring in the country influenced the painting style; when Northern Netherlands gained independence from Spain, the populace rejected Catholic art-works interlinked to Spanish rule and the artists instead chose to depict the Dutch republic’s flat, familiar landscapes as an assertion of national identity and pride.  Artists like Albrecth Durer and Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted landscapes more independently as in Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565, oil on wood panel, 46 x 64”

However, landscape paintings came into their own only in the seventeenth century with the rise of Dutch and Flemish schools with painters like Jan Vermeer and Ruebens. French artists Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine also popularized the genre.  Humans continue to crowd landscape paintings, but now the purpose is not to depict human activity but to indicate scale and enormity of nature and landscape and evoke viewer empathy.

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Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice, 1650, oil on canvas, 4ft 1″ x 6ft 7″

The English sought to illustrate an ideal landscape, specifically referring to Arcadia, a legendary place in ancient Greece known for its pastoral beauty. A classical landscape featured a conscious, stylized positioning of objects to present an idealized, harmonious mood, where Nature was in balance and serenity. Beauty in order and harmony was the adage, so that landscape gardening and ordered houses came to define upper class lifestyle and manners.

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Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750, oil on canvas, 27.20 x 46.87”

Landscape paintings were acknowledged for their own sake due to their significance in documenting nature as an educational study. While Italy remained a favorite source of inspiration for the landscape artist in the century, France and England became the new centers of landscape art, although the ideals of 17th-century Dutch and Italian landscapes—including the classical model—were still popular. Post-French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars period was when some of the greatest landscapes were produced. Artists like John Constable and Turner romanticized the countryside and landscape, their scenes more dramatic and nostalgic. Caspar David Friedrich infused his landscapes with religious symbolism but what was common to all these artists was the sublime feeling of awe that man felt amidst the expansive Nature, which is both generous and dangerous.

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JMW Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796

The late 18th century saw Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes creating a new destiny for landscape painting in France; he worked hard to convince the Royal Academy to see the landscape painting as worthy of a history painting.

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Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Two Poplars

There was a transition observed from moving to idealized, classical paintings to painting out of doors directly from nature, known as plein air painting, which led to the development of Impressionism. Even Turner’s latter works are highly impressionistic in nature as they play with colour and light. Claude Monet radically pushed the envelope, re-defining and re-presenting landscape painting, leading the way for the next generation of painters, the Impressionists, who would completely shatter conventions of realism and naturalism through their work. The Impressionists, which included Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley mostly worked out of doors, producing iconic landscapes wrought in their characteristic style.

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Alfred Sisley, The Terrace at Saint-Germain, 1875

The 19th century also witnessed the emergence of landscape photography, which greatly impacted the painters’ compositional perspectives; they shifted away from realistic, faithful interpretations of the landscape and instead imbued the works with their personal interpretations.

Landscape was also extremely popular with the post-impressionist painters. Some of the compositions include Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Chelsea, Paul Cezanne’s Lac d’Annecy, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea 1871 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver- Chelsea, 1871

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Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884, oil on canvas, 79 x 118”

In the 20th century, the landscape still continued to hold sway although it appeared in various avatars such as urban landscapes, cultural landscapes, industrial landscapes, and landscape architecture. Twentieth art century movements which incorporated landscapes included Photorealism and Precisionism focused on urban landscapes with industrial building. Precisionism inspired by Futurism and Cubism, was rooted in the machine age. Human figures rarely appear in these works commenting on the dehumanization and conflict in the industrialized metropolis or the barren countryside. Precisionist painters include Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Georgia O’Keefe. A few Fauvist and Cubist artists too dabbled in landscape painting but this experimentation ended soon. Artists like Maurice de Vlamnick, Andre Derain, and Albert Marquet are some of these fauvists.

Charles Sheeler - Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931, oil on canvas, 25 x 32.25”

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Georgia O’Keefe, My Front Yard, Summer, 1941, oil on canvas, 20 x 30”

Landscape painting like all genres of art became completely chaotic and disjointed after the Second World War as new movements like Minimalism, Pop-Art, Kitsch and Neo-Dada changed and came to define the aesthetics of a world in complete chaos and economic and psychological depression. Artists like David Hockney painted scenes from his car.

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David Hockney, Winter Timber, oil on 15 canvases, 108 x 240”

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Jefferey Smart, Approach to a City III

To comment on the state of landscape painting in the 21st century is difficult but it is interesting to wonder what more can the artists innovate in a genre, how else can they change the mode of representation, and influence the aesthetics of an era. If Charles Fazzino’s fun, colourful, apolitical aesthetics will define the genre we are yet to find out. What do you think?

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Charles Fazzino, An Atlantic City Summer, 9″ x 23.5″