Landscape Before Photography

In his introduction to the original 1949 edition of Landscape into Art, Kenneth Clark argues that landscape art is a modern form.

“People who have given the matter no thought are apt to assume that the appreciation of natural beauty and the painting of landscape is a normal and enduring part of our spiritual activity. But the truth is that in times when the human spirit seems to have burned most brightly the painting of landscape for its own sake did not exist and was unthinkable.” (6: p.viii)

Malcolm Andrews, in considering, Clark’s views as a whole takes a step back and asks how land is transformed to landscape and then to art (13: p.3) and puts forward two viewpoints: firstly that the “aesthetic value of a landscape is not inherent in the spectacle  … but constructed by the perceiver” (13:p.4)  or alternatively that our response to  a ‘good view’ is “an almost spontaneous act of appreciation of which everyone and anyone is capable” (13: p.3).

My perception of landscape as art is a blend of all these ideas. Clark is right in saying that at many times in the history of Europe painting a landscape for its own sake was unthinkable but there is credible evidence from Bronze Age Greece and ancient Rome that suggests our distant ancestors brought the countryside into their living spaces as frescoes for no other reason than to brighten up their lives. Their motivations seem no more complex that the desire to buy an Ikea print to hang on the wall of an apartment. However, the way they depicted those landscapes was not photographic and speaks to Andrew’s constructivist idea that we interpret and the represent the landscape based on cultural norms and prefabricated constructs.

However, when society releases the artist or he otherwise escapes from the cultural, religious, political or artistic conventions of his time, I suggest that a pure love of a ‘good view’ often escapes and from the first century BCE until the invention of photography there were occasional escapes from hidebound conventions and the creation of works that celebrated the natural landscape in all its glory. I have attempted in this very superficial trawl through Western art to identify those moments.

“With the exception of love, there is perhaps nothing else by which people of all kinds are more united that by their pleasure in a good view.” (6: p.147)

Lillies. Room Delta 2. South wall - Akrotiri, Thera - Before 1650 to 1550 BCE

Lillies. Room Delta 2. South Wall – Akrotiri, Thera – Before 1650 to 1550 BCE

The earliest known landscape art are frescoes painted by the the Minoans in Bronze Age Greece between 2000 and 1500 BCE . Although many of the surviving frescoes on Crete and nearby Thera record rituals there are a small number that appear to simply celebrate nature; the famous dolphin fresco at Knossos and other animals in their natural habitat and natural landscapes without any humans present in the scene. (1) Professor Spyridon Marinatos, who led the original excavations at Akrotiri (i), a Minoan town buried by volcanic ash sometime between 1650 and 1550 BCE, believes that the many frescoes that have been found there (3) were not painted solely for their aesthetic value but had a direct relationship with the activities carried out in the rooms in which they were found.

“For a Minoan or Theran a painting represented part of his tradition which was comprehensible and even predictable. It can be said that art was a representation of the collective views of the society of which the viewer was a member.” (2)

It is unclear how we can interpret the purely natural scenes in the context of Marinates’ theory. It suggests that a ritualistic activity was taking place in a room decorated with dozens of swimming dolphins or lillies on a hillside; I suspect that Marinatos has adopted the default theory of all archeologists: if it is not possible to explain a structure or an object label it as ritualistic.

Pair of Centaurs Fighting Cats of Prey from Hadrian's Villa, mosaic, c. 130 BCE

Pair of Centaurs Fighting Cats of Prey from Hadrian’s Villa, mosaic, c. 130 BCE

There appears to be a gap of over thousand years before landscapes reappear as a subject  in Western art but this is probably misleading as most Greek painted wall art has been lost; we do know that the Greeks considered painting to be their greatest art and Dr. Steven Zucker believes that a Roman mosaic dating from 130 BCE might be the best clue we have to the style of that lost Greek art. (4)

The Pair of Centaurs Fighting Cats of Prey from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli dating from 130 BCE is a fine example of Roman art. It is only a small fragment of the floor mosaic from Hadrian’s dining room but it is notable for the amount of landscape detail that has been included as the stage for the mythical scene; the artist’s intent may have been to depict the chaos of nature by representing the battle between mythical beasts and wild cats and has provided a wild landscape of rocks and wind-blown trees as his setting. It is also worth noting that this mosaic, despite its fantastic subject, is remarkably realistic, the cats and the centaur are carefully executed to include realistic poses and in the case of the centaur a human-like expression; this suggests that the landscape is also intended to represent reality.

We cannot know whether the Athenians solely decorated the walls of their homes with similar mythical or religious scenes or whether they continued the traditions of Minoan art and included celebrations of the natural as well as the mythical world.

Garden Fresco from the triclinium of Livia's Villa, Rome, 1st century BCE

Garden Fresco from the triclinium of Livia’s Villa, Rome, 1st century BCE

However, it seems reasonable to believe, given the Roman tendency to mimic all that was Greek, that the few surviving frescoes from the period immediately before and after the birth of Christ are the culmination of a long tradition of ancient Mediterranean landscape art. The garden fresco from Livia’s villa in Rome is an exciting example of this form because, like the Akrotiri fresco, it excludes human subjects and as such appears to represent a desire to provide a beautiful view as a backdrop to the owner’s dinner parties. Rome by this time was the largest city in the known world and even for the upper classes a beautiful view would only have been possible from their country estates. This fresco suggests that it was fashionable to import beautiful views into the home as wall art, suggesting that the Roman privileged classes appreciated the landscape as an aesthetic resource. It is a far less stylised representation than the Minoan lilies and shows a quite factual garden scene.

Odysseus Landscape from the Esquiline Hill in Rome - 60 to 40 BCE

Odysseus Landscape from the Esquiline Hill in Rome – 60 to 40 BCE

Perhaps the most interesting surviving frescoes from ancient Rome are the Odysseus Landscapes discovered on the Esquiline Hill in 1848. These frescoes describe passages from the Odyssey so it is the narrative rather than the landscape that is the primary subject. However, they are remarkable not just for the detailed depictions of human forms but for the depth in the landscape background achieved by varying the application of paint to the wall. The six human figures are promoted as the main subject through light rather than scale and the inclusion of shadows suggests that the artist intended this to be interpreted as a factual or realistic scene.

The most surprising feature of this, and the other Odysseus frescoes, is the comparative scale of the human figures and the landscape. For most of the history of Western landscape art the landscape is merely a background to the main subject and to emphasise this point the vast majority of artists compose the human figures to dominate the picture. It is not until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that we begin to regularly find paintings where the landscape is given primacy.

Kenneth Clark concludes that the Greeks (and I presume he includes the Romans) did create landscape paintings but that the Odysseus series is the only example of “poetic expression”; he argues that their skill in recording light was otherwise solely used for “decorative ends”. (6: p.1). It is surprising that he reaches this conclusion based on such little evidence, I prefer to think that the homes of the Athenian and Roman privileged classes were adorned with wonderful landscapes that expressed their appreciation of the natural world and that the fact they were primarily decorative does not exclude the possibility that at least some were poetic.

Early Spring - Guo Xi c.1020 to c.1090 AD

Early Spring – Guo Xi c.1020 to c.1090 AD

Seven or eight hundred years later when Europe was in the Dark Ages a few Chinese scholar-beaurocrats chose painting as a pastime and so began a tradition of Chinese landscape art known as Shan Shui Hua (ii). This is a pure form of landscape that rarely includes human form and it became recognised as one of the highest forms of Chinese art. Christin Bolewski, who has extensively studied this art form, highlights the fundamental difference between the Western and Chinese approach to landscape.

“Unlike the Western painting tradition, which under the strong influence of science emphasised proportion, perspective and realistic depiction of form, the Chinese artists never felt compelled to restrict themselves to this limited view” (5: p.27)

Bolewski argues that the Chinese Shan Shui Hua painters did not restrict themselves to representing a view from a single position and developed a “more abstract and free spirited attitude” (5: p.27). They saw painting as a form of meditation influenced by Zen Buddhism and were not attempting to record what they saw in nature but to capture their emotional response to the land.

In Guo Xi’s Early Spring the blend of abstraction and realism, sublime mountains and subtle details of plants and waterfalls create an imaginary landscape that still to this day describes an idea of the landscape of rural China. It is even more remarkable that it was probably painted before the Norman conquest.

Effects of Good Government in the City - Ambrogio Lorenzetti 1338 to 1339

Effects of Good Government in the City – Ambrogio Lorenzetti 1338 to 1339

There is a tendency to discuss landscape art only in the context of natural scenes. As explained by Jesse Alexander the contemporary view of photographic landscape is far more inclusive:

“The history of landscape photography is full of practitioners who have studied both the town and the country as their subjects and every conceivable kind of terrain between the two, as well as beyond.” (7: P.8)

With this in mind, and to fill the rather long gap between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance I have included Effect of Good Governement in the City by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Ambrogio and his brother Pietro were active in Sienna between 1319 until their death in the plague of 1348. Most of their work was of religious subjects but this fresco from the Sala della Pace is a marvellous exception. Dr. Paul Taylor describes this painting as “one of the most original works of its time in all European art” (8: p.85) and it is indeed quite remarkable.

Lorenzetti not only gives us a detailed representation of the city of Sienna complete with bird cages hanging from windows and pot plants balanced on ledges but he also documents the daily lives of its residents in a series of miniature narratives. Wool comes into the city in sacks tied to horses’ backs, is teased, spun and woven into cloth; shops sell sausages and hams, a nun teaches children or novices, a man negotiates the price of new boots and women dance to the beat of a tambourine in a city square.

The detail is astounding, we can explore the fabrics and fashions of fourteenth century Italy; one women wears a dress decorated with dragon flies, and a crowned princess rides out of the city with her elegantly dressed entourage below three elderly people dozing on their sunny balcony. Europe will wait a very long time before such realism reappears in secular art. Clark argues that this painting is so factual and devoid of symbolism that it will “remain unique for almost a century” (6: p.9)

Effects of Good Government in the Country - Ambrogio Lorenzetti 1338 to 1339

Effects of Good Government in the Country – Ambrogio Lorenzetti 1338 to 1339

However, Lorenzetti’s painting of the city does not stand in isolation, it is accompanied by Good Government in the Country and, on the opposite wall of the Sala della Pace scenes that depict bad government. Malcolm Andrews draws our attention to the political nature of these paintings.

“Scenes of rural life and labour are to be related to the scenes of busy commerce within the city, and both realms are understood to be prospering as a single integrated beneficiary of an efficient and benign political dispensation.” (13: p.154)

Rather that promoting a rural utopia these scenes depict an overall scheme of government that results in a perfect harmony between the city state and its hinterland. However Andrews cites John White’s view that the scale of the city architecture compared with the rural landscape creates a hierarchy that implies the commercial activity of the city exceeds the rural activities in terms of importance. For all the factual elements or “new realism” that so impressed Clark Andrews is highlighting that these scenes are in fact heavy with symbolism, an idealised representation of the city state and that overall the paintings are “vehicles for simple moral or political axioms.” (13: p.155)

Scenes of Country Life at Avignon - Unknown artist 1343

Scenes of Country Life at Avignon – Unknown artist 1343

The fourteenth century has one other landscape highlight, the country scenes painted as frescoes at Avignon. Clark believes that this work expresses a deep distrust of the wilderness and portrays the forest as a dark and dangerous place; however it also shows that man can tame the wilderness by enclosing a garden to bring order and security to the landscape. (6: p.13).

It is far more stylised than the work of Lorenzetti and the perspective of the garden pool and the man fishing are quite distorted. The Roman landscape frescoes imported tranquility into the patron’s home but this work is likely to have had a different function. It is clearly full of symbolism, a panorama full of activity that was probably a statement of the industry of the patron’s estate to impress his visitors with the resources that he controlled.

It is one of many examples of landscape painted for the ruling classes that describes the labours of their peasant tenants, this is a theme that runs through, not just the history of landscape painting, but of early landscape photography and eventually becomes such an established motif that city dwellers acquire a perspective of the countryside that is best described as a rural idyll (see here).

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry -Limbourg Brothers 1413 - 1415

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry -Limbourg Brothers 1413 – 1415 (January top left to December bottom right)

Sometime around 1413 Jean Duc de Berry, the son of the French king, commissioned three German brothers, Paul, Herman and Jean de Limburg to illuminate a Très Riches Heure or book of hours (iii). The sheer scale of this manuscript is staggering, it includes over two hundred significant illustrations as well as countless smaller art works as part of the illuminated text but in the context of landscape art it is the sequence of twelve calendar illustrations that command our attention. (iv)

Clark describes these paintings as “the best illustrations of everyday life in the middle ages” (6: p.22) and whilst he categorises them as factual rather than symbolic, I would argue that they are filled with significant symbolism. (v) As a series these pictures are an expression of de Berry’s wealth and status, in January he presides over his court for the ritual of new year gift giving, February, March, June, July, September, October and November all show his peasants working on his estates and April probably records the betrothal of one of his daughters to another great lord but it is important to note that these scenes are not stylised landscapes but factual representations of his properties (vi). However, beyond this obvious symbolism, it is the factuality of these paintings that have drawn the most attention. At a time when secular art is rare the inclusion of these description landscapes into a religious manuscript suggest that de Berry wanted to document his world in a realistic and accurate manner. However Jonathan Alexander points out that “These scenes are constructs, and must not be seen, for all their ‘realism’, as neutral.” (11).

February from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry -Limbourg Brothers 1413 - 1415

February from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry -Limbourg Brothers 1413 – 1415

February provides an example of how these paintings depict not just the way of life of the peasants on de Barry’s estates but his attitude towards them. In January we see the great nobles of his court acting out a winter festival, in the warm and comfort of one of his palaces; the whole scene is one of courtly splendour and conspicuous wealth. This is juxtaposed with February which shows the peasants in the same winter, some are working towards providing the Duke with the food and fuel that sustains his lifestyle whilst three others warm themselves by a modest fire. Alexander argues that this picture contains a certain duality, on the one hand the artist has sympathetically recorded the working peasants but of the three peasants in their hut two are exposing their genitals to the heat of the fire which he interprets as a comment on their uncultured, boorish, and vulgar nature in contract to courtly behaviour of the January nobles (11). There may also be an element of voyeurism in this scene.

It is also noticeable that in all but one of the scenes that show peasants they are working in the shadow of one of de Barry’s great castles. This states one of the basic principles of feudalism; the ruling, warrior class protect the peasants in return for their labour; the castles are symbolic of the peace and security that make the pastoral scene being played out in the foreground possible. It also shows the scale of his military power so might be interpreted as propaganda aimed at his French rivals or the perfidious English.

In the rest of the calendar there are several more examples of symbolism that describes the political structure of medieval France but discussion of these goes beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is clear that this so called factual landscape contains many layers of meaning including some that may have only been readable by the medieval mind. It is also interesting to recognise that as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century the aristocracy commissioned painting of peasants labouring on their estates; aside from the statements of power and class distinction discussed above, these representations are early examples of how work in the countryside is sanitised and romanticised by the ruling classes. This romantic view of peasant life becomes an increasingly popular motif in the centuries that followed.

The Adoration of the Lamb, part of the Ghent Altarpiece - Jan van Eyck 1432

The Adoration of the Lamb, part of the Ghent Altarpiece – Hubert and Jan van Eyck 1432

Clark describes the Adoration of the Lamb, one panel of the twelve that make up the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (vii), as “the first great modern landscape” (6: p.29). Apart from a very few examples, some of which are discussed here, landscape art during the Italian and then the Northern Renaissance takes the form of backgrounds to religious paintings. Andrews refers to landscape at this time as being “parergon to the argument” (13: p.28), supplementary or a byproduct of the main intent. It is not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that northern European artists had to find new subject matter as the Protestant movement resulted in a significant reduction of in-church decorative art and a growing Protestant middle class demanded secular art.

The notable feature of van Eyck’s work is the attention to detail in the landscape that surrounds the complex religious symbolism. The landscape itself is not devoid of this symbolism; Raffaela Fazio Smith suggests that the “luxuriant garden filled with plants and flowers” connotes new life and represents the “renewal of mankind after their redemption through the blood of the Lamb” (12), whilst the garden in totality represents a locus amoenus – a ‘pleasant place’ which was used in classical times and during the Renaissance to “designate distinctly beautiful places” (13: p.53) in reference to the garden of Eden.

From the perspective of landscape painting the garden, distant hills and cities, are detailed and seemingly factual but are probably combinations of different cityscapes known the to artists. We know that to the left they include the tower of Utrecht cathedral and to the right the tower of St. Nicholas church in Ghent (viii); collectively they probably represent Jerusalem. The importance of this painting lies in the complex blend of religious symbolism and factual, pseudo-topgraphical landscape; at one level we could interpret the artist’s intent as a desire to include a beautiful backdrop to the biblical narrative but before making such a judgement we need to factor in the powerful religious motives of Renaissance artists who may have seen landscape as nothing more than an opportunity to incorporate complex layers of symbolism.

The Miraculous Draft of Fishes - Konrad Witz 1444

The Miraculous Draft of Fishes – Konrad Witz 1444

At a similar time, Konrad Witz, a German-born painter working in Switzerland created another religious painting that included a detailed landscape but unlike the van Eyck brothers who used real components to create an imagined scene he placed his biblical scene on Lake Geneva. It is such an accurate representation of the location that art historians have been able to identify the exact viewpoint he chose; this according to Fred Kliener makes it “one of the first fifteenth century works depicting a specific, identifiable site” (14: p.454). However it remains a religious subject that only uses landscape as a background.

House by a Pond - Albrecht Durer 1496

House by a Pond – Albrecht Durer 1496

It is not until some fifty years later that we begin to find landscape that was possible painted for landscapes’ sake, secular and topographical paintings that celebrate the natural world. Albrecht Dürer was a German artist who created woodcuts and drawings as well as watercolours. His early work is primarily devotional and he regularly returned to religious subjects throughout his career but he also produced a small number of secular watercolours that stand the test of time as expressive studies of the countryside. House by a Pond is a poetic study of landscape; the stillness of the pond reflecting the evening sky creates an atmosphere of tranquility. His wide body of work shows his interest in realism and the accurate depiction of nature:

“As I grew older, I realised that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.” (15)

The Virgin and the Long-tailed Monkey - Albrecht Dürer 1497 -98

The Virgin and the Long-tailed Monkey – Albrecht Dürer 1497 -98

House by a Pond is such a careful and thoughtfully composed and executed study that it seems likely that it was intended to be nothing more that a landscape study but the waters are mudded by Dürer’s recycling of part of the picture as the backdrop to his woodcut of The Virgin and the Long-tailed Monkey.

In the woodcut Dürer uses the house to balance the composition of the vertical cloud on the left and the Virgin’s head in the centre. Andrews states that the “introduction of the religious subject has not only displaced the landscape into the background, it has also inflected it with new significance.” (13: p.28)

However, what Clark calls, the landscape of fact would generally disappear by the end of the fifteenth century and not re-emerge until the seventeenth century.

The Renaissance imposed a philosophy on art that the value of a painting lay in the historical, religious or moral importance of the subject. If we change this to a measure of social or political import we might find common ground between Renaissance man and contemporary photographic criticism.

Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap - Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1565

Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap – Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1565

The most important exception is Pieter Bruegel the elder, whose prodigious output includes some of the best loved landscape paintings of any century. The importance of his work is hard to overstate but is especially relevant to contemporary photographers for his choice of subjects. Not only was his work primarily secular, his choice of religious subjects appear to only be an excuse for the creation of another spectacular landscape, but more importantly he painted ordinary people engaged in mundane everyday life. He is often referred to as Peasant Bruegel because of his interest in painting the working classes. His subjects included children at play, hunters, peasants harvesting and peasants dancing and celebrating the important moments in their lives.

Clark talks of his “all-embracing sympathy with humanity” (6: p.56) and this sets him apart not just from his contemporaries but from the majority of painters that came after him right up until the nineteenth century. It seems a trivial comparison but his work has elements that we more recently associate with Martin Parr or even Diane Arbus, he saw humour in the antics of his fellow man as shown in The Drunkard Pushed into the Pigsty and often painted the marginals of society such as the blind or beggars. He is perhaps the nearest we come to finding a social documentarist in the centuries before photography.

The start of the Protestant Reformation is usually placed in 1517 with the publication Of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and continues until the end of the Thirty Years war in 1648. This movement which called for the purification of the church had a significant impact on art especially in Northern Europe. Artists throughout the ages have depended on rich sponsors and the church for hundreds of years had been right at the top of this market, in the late sixteenth and onwards into the seventeenth century artists needed to find new markets, a economic shift that co-incided with the rise of the middle classes in the great trading nations of the north. It is no coincidence that this is a period when Dutch artists come to the fore in Europe as their new cliental demand secular paintings to decorate their homes.

View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds Jacob van Ruisdael 1665

View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds Jacob van Ruisdael 1665

Jacob van Ruisdael was one of a number of seventeenth century Dutch painters who revived factual landscape and in doing so had a significant influence on the painters that followed him including the English artists of the nineteenth century. Holland is generally flat and this creates the impression of big skies that dominate the landscape and van Ruisdael would regularly dedicate two thirds of his canvases to towering clouds or raging storms.

In his View of Haarlem he has chosen an elevated vantage point which emphasises relationship of the land to the heavens and makes the huge buildings of the city appear tiny and insiginifant in relation to nature. He includes two important contrasts; the bright clouds against the dark land and the white cloth laid out in a patch of sunlight in the foreground. The composition appears to be an early study of man’s relationship with the land as an industrial resource but their efforts are upstaged by both the scale of the flat wilderness and woodland and the dramatic sky. It is notable that he chose a vertical aspect for his canvas which exaggerates the relationship between land and sky instead of a panoramic aspect which would have given greater prominence to the landscape and neutralised the sky. The effect is intentionally awe inspiring, a theme that will be picked up and perfected much later by Turner and Constable.

Andrews offers an insight into the deeper motivations of the Dutch painters, he sees these paintings in the contact of the rapidly growing cities of Holland and the significant movement of people from the countryside into the towns. He believes that the painters and map makers of the late sixteenth and then the seventieth century were reassuring the busy mercantile class that pleasant places still lay outside their cities or even that they helped to temp wealthy city dwellers to buy land in the countryside. (13: p.86) It is reasonably certain that they are also an expression of nationalism, little Holland was fast becoming an economic powerhouse and in this context topography can “become positively heroicised” (13: p.87).

As we have seen during the Renaissance historical, moral or religious subjects took precedence over ‘mere’ landscape and whilst the Restoration opened a window that allowed the development of a factual style of painting within a short time the old prejudices began to re-emerge. Henry Fuseli, the Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1801 described the landscapes of the Dutch school as “no more than the transcript of a spot …. the negative kind of landscape” (13: p.91) and Clark in 1949 tells us that by the end of the seventeenth century landscape painting was so hidebound by formulas and conventions that it had become “mere picture making” (6: p.65)

The painters that these critics, separated by one hundred and city years, were excited by are the painters of heroic or pastoral landscapes that emerged in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe - Nicolas Poussin 1650-51

Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe – Nicolas Poussin 1650-51

Clark argues that that everything we know about Nicolas Poussin “proves that the intellectual content of his pictures cannot be exaggerated” (6: p.129). Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe is a classical scene and therefore carries the moral and classical influences the critics demanded but Andrews cites Anthony Blunt’s view that a letter from Poussin describing at some length how he has integrated the actions of each of his characters with the approaching storm that the “story of Pyramus and Thisbe….. acts as a pretext for an exercise in dramatic landscape (13: p.94).

What Fuseli, Clark and modern critics admire in Poussin’s work is his ability to evoke strong emotional responses from his audience. Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy being played out beneath a terrific storm, the painting is about nature’s ability to terrorise us; we are in awe of the power of the natural elements that send the minor characters running for cover, hide the approach of a lion which is attacking two horseman and stir up the great waves that we see crashing on the shore in the distance. This type of painting which Andrews describes as “heroic” is carefully constructed and executed to stir our primeval reaction to the great forces of nature and to stimulate our imagination.

Pastoral Scene - Claude Lorrain 1644

Pastoral Scene – Claude Lorrain 1644

The other side of this same coin is the pastoral landscape that is best exemplified by Claude Lorrain who, like Poussin, describes a stylised golden age but rather than the awe inspiring dramatics of Poussin Lorrain offers perfect pastoral scenes. Both painters took the natural landscape as their raw material but used reality as building blocks to create more perfect scenes. Clark argues that Lorrain was “inspired by a dream of earthly paradise” (6: p.139) and his work was to be highly influential on the English landscape painters that were to follow.

His landscapes are idealised and, according to Andrews (13: p.100) became more so as his career progressed and there is little doubt that his treatment of light brings a powerful emotive response, not of terror like Poussin, but of peace, tranquility and perfection. The human subjects are dwarfed by the landscape which, quite surprisingly, if we view a large sample of his work, follow very similar compositional patterns. Many of his paintings include large trees to the left, right or both that lead us into the centre of the painting although we rarely find his main subject there. Each picture includes a number of pastoral motifs that individually and collectively describe a rural idyll. It is hard to avoid the description of poetic and neither Clark nor Andrews attempt to do so.

The topographic, heroic and pastoral painters who emerged in the seventieth century provide, not just significantly contrasting styles, but offer equally contrasting answers to what landscape art should or should not entail. Despite their differences they were the first painters to firmly and successfully make their work predominately about the landscape and move it away from being the backdrop to sermons on morality or religion.

The Cloud - John Robert Cozens 1752 - 1797

The Cloud – John Robert Cozens 1752 – 1797

The eighteenth century was a transitional period in landscape art. Great names appeared, like Thomas Gainsborough who continued to develop the pastoral style of Calude Lorrain, and in the latter part of the century the invention of watercolour cakes stimulated the development of watercolour painting particularly in England.

John Robert Cozens was described by John Constable as “the greatest genius that ever touched a landscape” (8: p.276) and his work was extensively copied by the young J.M.W. Turner (16). His work was highly influential on nineteenth century British art and The Definitive Visual Guide to Art declares that his work “surpassed that of any of his contemporaries in English landscape art.” (8: p.276)

The Cloud, according The Tate, was an unusual subject for Cozens who more typically painted topographic landscapes. However, his work is notable for his treatment of skies which “have been described as, at one moment, ‘infinitely luminous’, and at another ‘charged with menace and oppressive cloud’.(17) Cozens suffered from depression and it is suggested that this influenced his melancholy interpretations of the Italian landscape which are typically of  “brooding …. weather, clouds and mountains” (8: p.276).

Michael Prodger tells us that:

“According to traditional art history, before the mid-18th century the British simply couldn’t paint. In this account, the first original native painter was Hogarth and the first genre to be distinctively British was landscape painting.”  (18)

However, the rise of the great names of British landscape, Constable, Turner and Gainsborough, didn’t change the fact that the great art academies of Europe continued to view it as a lowly form of art. Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts said, towards the end of the eighteenth century ” A mere copier of nature can never produce anything great” (18). However, despite these prejudices, British landscape was on the move, a progress that was partly stimulated by the publication in 1757 of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (19) which, according to Prodger, led to the “theory of the picturesque championed by William Gilpin”. In essence the sublime was awe and terror, the beautiful soft and aesthetically pleasing, and the picturesque – literally ‘in the manner of a picture’ – irregular, ragged and asymmetrical. (18)

The Destruction of the Children of Niobe - Richard Wilson 1760

The Destruction of the Children of Niobe – Richard Wilson 1760

Prodger argues that The Destruction of the Children of Niobe by Richard Wilson is the first painting of the British School of landscape art. It clearly aspires to the Burke’s Sublime and we can see references to both Poussin and Claude in the atmospheric skies and compositional conventions. Like Poussin Wilson is interested in how the weather impacts not just the landscape but the small human figures that inhabit it. It is a wild and terrific scene. According to Prodger it caused a sensation; it was seen as a “noble” landscape with a “moral, emotional and intellectual message” (18)

The Hay-Wain - John Constable 1821

The Hay-Wain – John Constable 1821

Wilson may have presaged the golden age of British landscape photography but the nineteenth century was a period in which landscape art in Europe and America reached new heights. Painters like John Constable continued followed in the footsteps of Claude but moved away from lofty moral narratives or the mimicking of Europe’s romantic landscapes and instead focussed their attention on their own local landscapes. Arguably his paintings are no less idealised than Claude or Poussin’s but it is new and different form of idealisation; Constable presents a mythical East Anglian landscape, devoid of poverty and hardship, a reassuring perspective of the countryside and rural life that ignored the desperate poverty of the rural poor. Perhaps these were the landscapes he remembered from his childhood but we all know the fallacy of those memories; Andrews cites John Barrell’s analysis of the peasants included as secondary subjects in Constable’s paintings:

“If they obtruded more, we would run the risk of focussing on them as men – not as tokens of a calm, endless, and anonymous industry, which confirm the order of society” (13: p.174)

I have previously discussed the contribution that Constable and many other artists made to creating the myth of the British countryside (here) and will not revisit those arguments but there is no doubt that many of these nineteenth century intentionally or otherwise promoted a view of Britain that suited the ruling classes and, as such, were what Andrews calls “landscape as a political text.” (13:p.175)

By the end of the century not only had photography been invented and firmly established as an artistic medium but the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had radically changed not just the social order but our whole way of thinking.

Snow Storm - J.M.W. Turner 1842

Snow Storm – J.M.W. Turner 1842

Art reflects society and the nineteenth century is a period of great experiment that discovered entirely new ways of depicting the landscape. Notable among these pioneers was J.M.W Turner whose work provoked criticism and praise in seemingly equal measure.

In many ways Turner is the perfect place to finish this journey through over three thousand years of landscape painting; his work, better than nearly any other of the artists before impressionism evolved, painted his physical and emotional reaction to nature. He was a man at ease in the natural world, his hobby was river fishing, and he immersed himself in the elemental forces that he painted. This approach not only inspires in the viewer a sense of the sublime but draws us in to experience the turmoil of a storm at sea, the drama of a sunset or the insignificance of man in the face of a mountain storm.

In 1835 William Henry Fox-Talbot presented his photogenic drawing process to the Royal Institution.

After photography was invented it rushed through an evolution of styles that included many of the conventions that had directed landscape painting in the previous centuries; factual, allegory, romantic, picturesque, topographical, sublime and many others before practitioners began, like Turner, to respond to landscape by capturing its essence.

Notes on Text

(i) Professor Spyridon Marinatos led the excavation of Akrotiri from 1967 until his death in 1974. Most of the huge number of frescoes (3) that have been found at Akrotiri were discovered prior to 1974.

(ii) Shan Shui Hua translates as mountain, water, painting.

(iii) A book of hours was essentially a prayer book that contained a sequence of prayers to the Virgin Mary that we’re intended to be recited throughout the day. These prayers were usually supplemented by other prayers and psalms. For three hundred years from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries various versions of the book of hours topped the best sellers list, more versions were commissioned, printed and reprinted that any other text including the bible. (9) To commission and own an illuminated book of hours was both an act of Christian piety and a statement of wealth and influence (10)

(iv) The Duc de Barry died in 1416 and it appears that the three eldest Limburg brothers died in that same year. The Très Riches Heures was incomplete and it was not until 1482 – 89 that the Duke of Savoy commissioned Jean Colombe to complete the illumination of the manuscript. It is recorded that Colombe painter November in the calendar sequence and retouched March and September. (11)

(v) Medieval society was highly structured and organised into three classes: those that fought, those that prayed and those that worked (10). The nobility’s identity was defined by their historic or current prowess as warriors, their younger brothers often joined the church and between them these powerful groups owned all the land with the third group, the peasants, working on this land.

(vi) March includes one of his many holdings,  the castle of Lusignan in Poitou. June and October are views from his Paris residence at the Hotel de Nesle showing the Ile de la Cité de Paris and The Louvre respectively. December shows the Chateau of Vincennes which was his birthplace.

(vii) The work (oil on wood) was begun in c.1420 by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his younger brother Jan van Eyck in 1432. (12)

(viii) Fazio Smith explains that Jan van Eyck used Romanesque architecture to represent the old testament and Gothic to represent the new. (12)



(6) Clarke, Kenneth (1949) Landscape into Art (1976 edition) London: John Murray.

(7) Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place. London: Bloomsbury.

(8) Graham-Dixon, Andrew (2008) Art: The Definitive Visual Guide. London: Dorling Kindersley

(13) Andrews, Malcolm ( 1999) Landscape and Western Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(19) Burke, Edmund (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Kindle edition 1998) New York: Oxford World’s Classics


(1) Cartwright, Mark (2012) Minoan Frescoes (accessed Ancient History Encyclopaedia 9.1.17) –

(2) Cartwright, Mark (2014) Akrotiri Frescoes (accessed Ancient History Encyclopaedia 9.1.17) –

(3) The Thera Foundation. Exhibtion of the Reproductions of the Wall Paintings of Thera. (accessed at idryma-thera 9.1.17) –

(4) Zucker, Steven (2012) Pair of Centaurs Fighting Cats of Prey from Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli (accessed at The Khan Academy 9.1.17) –!

(5) Bolewski, Christin (2008) Perspective and Temporality in Traditional Chinese Landscape Painting (accessed at BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT 9.1.17) –

(9) Medieval Books of Hours (ND) Book of Hours (accessed at Medieval Books of Hours 10.1.17) –

(10) SUNY Oneonta (2014) Très Riches Heure (accessed at SUNY Oneonta 10.1.17) –

(11) Alexander, Jonathan (2014) Labour and Paresse: Ideological Representations of Medieval Peasant Labor (accessed at SUNY Oneonta 10.1.17) –

(12) Fazio Smith, Raffaela (2012) the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (accessed at The Global Dispatches 10.1.17) –

(14) Kliener, Fred (2009) Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume 2 (accessed through Google Books 10.1.17) –

(15) Dürer, Albrecht (accessed at Art Quotes 10.1.17) –

(16) Turner, J.M.W. (1794 -7) Paintings “After John Robert Cozens” (accessed at the Tate 10.1.17) –

(17) Cozens, John Robert (1752 – 1797) The Cloud (accessed at the Tate 10.1.17) –

(18) Prodger, Michael (2012) Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and the making of Landscape (accessed at the Guardian 7.10.16) –

This entry was posted in Part 1 - Beauty and the Sublime, Research and Reflection and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s