1.3(a) The Conventions of 18th and 19th Century Landscape Art


In the early eighteenth century the Baroque movement was superseded by Rococo, a style that would dominate European art for most of that century.  Rococo was much lighter and more frivolous than Baroque and whilst it continued to feature symbolic, classical and mythical subjects they were now treated in a decorative and light-hearted manner. Playful cherubs, elegant costumes, frilly dresses and other ornamental flourishes were included in paintings to reflect an emphasis on decoration. (1:p.242/3)

The Embarkation for Cythera - Jean Antoine Watteau 1717

The Embarkation for Cythera – Jean Antoine Watteau 1717

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721) was considered to be the greatest French painter of his time and was instrumental in shaping the Rococo style. As previously discussed (here) since the fifteenth century landscape was most usually the setting for, rather than the subject of paintings and with few exceptions this trend continued into the eighteenth century.

As a consequence we must recognise that Watteau is primarily interested in representing the narrative of a group people about to embark on a voyage to Cythera where, according to myth, they will meet their ideal partner in love.

The landscape contains many of the compositional features of Poussin and Claude who had been leading proponents of Baroque landscapes in the previous century but whilst the structure may be similar the precision and realistic detail that made Poussina and Claude’s work influential has now gone. Watteau uses the compositional device of coulisses, or theatre wings to frame his main subject but like the general level of detail it is a watered-down version of the technique. There is a strong group of trees to the right and a much weaker, less significant, but balancing tree line to the left. The foreground grassy knoll is the stage between the curtains and the background is indistinct and hazy as if replicating a theatre backdrop. The two curtains of trees also act as the middle ground that increases the emphasis on the foreground subject.

The Stonemason's Yard - Canaletto, c.1725

The Stonemason’s Yard – Canaletto, c.1725

Canaletto (1697 – 1768) is best known for his “landmark views of Venice” and this everyday scene of an industrial space set against the skyline of Venice is an unusual work. The choice of subject is the most obvious deviation from the popular classical and mythological scenes and unlike much of his other work which features great parades and pageants in both Venice and London.

Canaletto’s work is usually topographical and filled with precise detail so we can assume that a Stonemason’s Yard did stand on the banks of this canal in the early seventeen hundreds. Aliki Braine confirms that this is an accurate depiction of Campo San Vidal (2: p.296). As his career developed Canaletto’s market was the rich British aristocrats visiting Italy in the Grand Tour and most of his work is destined for these clients, however The Stonemason’s Yard is an early work and pre-dates his more commercial phase.

The buildings to the right lead us into the painting and to the tower of the church of Santa Maria della Carita which is positioned to the left of the rule of thirds line. This use of linear perspective is the structure around which the painting is created. Light is used as an important compositional tool to emphasise the main subject which is the detailed activity within the stonemason’s yard; a woman to the left runs to her fallen child, two masons are engaged in their craft and a woman to the right draws water from what Graham-Dixon describes as a well (1), but that could as easily be a font that has been produced in the yard.

View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana - Bernardo Bellotto c1745

View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana – Bernardo Bellotto c1745

Bernardo Belotto (1721 – 1780) was Canaletto’s nephew and pupil so it is a natural progression to look at one of his paintings, a scene that Canaletto himself painted. I am using this painting as a general example of what Braine calls the “mathematically formulated perspective” (2: p.302) that features in Canaletto and Belotto’s work. This painting is also representative of the type of work that both men undertook specifically to sell to rich Grand Tour tourists.

Whereas Canaletto’s early painting of the Stonemason’s yard has a sense of atmosphere, an emotional reaction to a scene that perhaps he painted for himself, both his later work and this painting from Belotto has a sense of exacting detail and careful topographical representation of how the light fell on an observed scene.

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews - Thomas Gainsborough c1750

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews – Thomas Gainsborough c1750

Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) was influenced by the European Rococo artists and became renowned for his sentimental “fancy” pictures (1: p.263). Mr. and Mrs. Andrews was probably commissioned as a wedding portrait (2: p.305).

The two people and their dog are firmly positioned in the left third of the painting. which suggests a narrative that tells the viewer that the estate belongs to them. The sheaves of wheat, stubble and trees create leading lines that drawn the viewer into the picture; this gives the painting depth and seems to underline their status and the vastness of their estate.

The landscape is full of interesting detail, crops, stone walls, sheep, woodland and what are possibly mounted horses behind the man. The towering clouds that herald a change in weather are a dominant feature and the combination of land and sky well represent his naturalistic style which was unusual in the mid eighteen century.

Although acclaimed as a masterpiece it is a contradictory picture with the landscape appearing to have been more carefully observed and sympathetically rendered than the doll-like people in their unconvincing and uncomfortable poses. He made his living as a portrait artist but Graham-Dixon (1: p.263) tells us that his real love was landscape so the contradictions in this painting may be more autobiographical that first meets the eye.

Snowdon from Llyn Nantile - Richard Wilson 1765

Snowdon from Llyn Nantile – Richard Wilson 1765

Richard Wilson (1713 – 1782) also began his career as a portrait artist but eventually concentrated on landscape. He spent time in Italy in the 1750s and returned to Britain bringing with him the European tradition of the romanticised, idealised, classical landscape. The palette and light give a sense of Wales under an Italian sky. He bestows a classical grandeur on the Welsh landscape.

He uses a classical convention referred to as repoussoir to create a light area in the centre of his canvas surrounded by the dark hills and shaded foreground. This technique gave depth to the scene, a depth that is emphasised by the middle distance hills pointing down to the brightly lit central hill which stands out against the dark mountain. The people in the foreground are brightly lit and stand in a picturesque group that sets off the lake and the mountains in the background.


Towards the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century there was a brief period in which Neoclassical art was the dominant form. According to Graham-Dixon it is usually “severe and high-minded, often linked with the fervent political ideas of the time.” (1: p.266)

Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau - Antoine-Jean Gros 1808

Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau – Antoine-Jean Gros 1808

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771 – 1835) met Napoleon in Milan in 1796 and “immediately became part of his entourage” (1: p.270). One could argue that the Battlefield of Eyau is not strictly a landscape painting, more a return to the Renaissance convention of landscape as a backdrop to human events but I have included it here as an example of landscape as political propaganda. A painting of Napoleon, for Napoleon, that projects him as the heroic but compassionate victor. This is Napoleon as he saw himself, a heroic general on his warhorse surrounded by his victorious troops and appearing to give his blessing, a benediction to the defeated enemy.

It is highly unlikely that the landscape is faithfully recorded but Gros was close enough to Napoleon’s campaigns to have carefully created a potentially realistic background. The most notable detail is the huge French army drawn up in its battle formation in the distance in contrast to the bodies of their foe chaotically scattered in the foreground, another statement of power and a glamorised version of war.

English Watercolourists

I have previously discussed the work of John Robert Cozens (here); he along with John Cotman, David Cox and Thomas Girtin developed what feels like a particularly English genre after the invention of watercolour cakes by Reeves in 1784.

Valley of Oberhasli, Berne, Switzerland - John Robert Cozens C1776

Valley of Oberhasli, Berne, Switzerland – John Robert Cozens C1776

John Robert Cozens (1752 – 1797) was described by John Constable as “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape” (1: p.276). His work is pure landscape, rarely including people or even the obvious impact of humans on the land. As a watercolorist his palette is desaturated and often monochromatic as in this view of the Oberhasli valley.

He was strongly influenced by the writings of Edmund Burke whose book A Philosophical Enquiry into The Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful  “argues that our aesthetic responses are experienced as pure emotional arousal” (3).

This landscape is typical of an early interpretation of the sublime power of nature, he has chosen a high vantage point to look down on the winding river beneath the hard mountain slopes. Cozens captured many of these grand and mysterious Swiss landscapes and by using such a limited palette introduced a haunting atmosphere to his scenes that probably reflected the severe depression that eventually led to his death (1: p.276).

He forms a bridge between the European and Grand Tour painters and the English romantic landscape artists of the nineteenth century and is known to have influenced Girtin and J.M.W. Turner. His work is poetic, emotional and picturesque.


In the late eighteenth century the old idea of Romanticism which referenced chivalry and love was superseded by a new Romanticism which was the antithesis of Classicism whose core values were reason and order. For the nineteenth century artists like Goya, Constable and Friedrich Romanticism emphasised the power of imagination, emotion and individualism. (1: p.296)

Charles Baudelaire remarked:

“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” (4: p.652)

Landscape with Shepherd and Cows - Joseph Anton Koch 1832 - 34

Landscape with Shepherd and Cows – Joseph Anton Koch 1832 – 34

Joseph Anton Koch (1768 – 1839) was one of the leading Romantic painters of the early nineteenth century (5: p.397). combining the classical style of Poussin and Claude-like idealised Italian landscapes with his emotional response to the rugged and far more intense landscapes of the Alps. He referred to his work as “heroic landscapes”  (5: p.397) and he was strongly influenced by his upbringing on a Tyrollean farm. This mixture of contrasting landscapes, for example olive trees growing in an Alpine valley, and his depiction of farm hands in a “heroic” style, looking far more Roman than Austrian, creates an early example of a nostalgic rural idyll.

His vantage point is slightly elevated, looking down into an amphitheater created by the river banks and the hill rising in the background.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows John Constable 1831

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – John Constable 1831

John Constable (1776 – 1837) once said that, above all, he wanted to be a “natural painter” (4: p.665) and there seems little doubt that his English landscapes define not only an era of great British landscape art but have established a view of his native countryside that has become part of the national sense of identity. Contemporary critics quite rightly refer to the idealised vision he presents of that countryside and his desire to represent his own childhood memories of a perfect rural landscape with contented labourers working in beautiful surroundings.

Such was his influence on the way later artists represented a mythologised rural idyll that John Barrell dedicates a complete chapter of The Dark Side of the Landscape to Constable. (6) To attempt to summarise Barrell’s arguments here would be to do him an injustice but the most superficial analysis of Constable’s work suggests his view of the rural poor was at best patronising and at worst that they are inconsequential compositional elements in his masterpieces, that is they hold no more relevance that any other, what he called “objects of colour”. This discussion is important not just in the context of Constable but to the English Pastoral paintings and photographs that were to follow. Barrell defines Pastoral as:

“A vision of rural life whereby the fruits of nature are easily come by, more or less without effort.”

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows - John Constable 1830

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – John Constable 1830

However, this debate should not distract our attention from the skill of this painter, Honour and Fleming write:

“No painter has ever represented the English countryside with greater fidelity, the sparkle of dew on grass, the glint of sunshine on sappy leaves, the noble form of great elms, the enthralling intricacies of the hedgerow, and as a result his paintings are very much more than straightforward topographical records.” (4: p.665)

Constable has influenced painters and photographers alike; his originality was to paint seemingly simple rural scenes rather than great vistas of towering mountains or Italian landscapes.

I have included two of his paintings here to show a number of compositional points and to provide an insight into his processes. The 1831 version of Salisbury is the final work, the 1830 version is one of a number of oil sketches that he made as he developed his ideas. (i). It is likely that the composition references Claude, the trees to the left and the cathedral beyond lead the eye to the huge storm cloud rising in the centre with its brightly lit right hand face and, in the final version, the great rainbow that it has spawned.

There are six main compositional blocks, the foreground, the left to right river and the horse and cart, the rough scrub to the left, the cathedral, the meadow  and finally the sky. Other that the sky the size of each block is remarkably similar which brings harmony and balance. The river bank takes our eye as far as the cathedral and then leaves us to complete the journey under our own steam. This technique underlines that leading lines only need to point in the required direction and not always lead there.

Building on the idea of harmony there is sense in many of Constables’s paintings that everything in the scene is indeed in harmony:

“The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His heaven – all’s right with the world.” Robert Browning 1841

Every element of the composition speaks of what he saw as the harmony of nature and the physical world; everything is in its place from the sheepdog to the carter, the cathedral, the meadow and the city and it all exists under a sublime stormy sky framed by an idyllic English landscape. I have included his 1830 sketch partly to show how compositional elements, that at first seem minor, are vital to the coherence of the landscape. Without the river coming from the left and the carter and his wagon the foreground is dead and lifeless, we are offered a simple route to the cathedral and the light on the horizon by following the river but whilst we reach the same point the journey has been far less interesting.

The other point we can draw from seeing the two paintings together is that Constable was a master of sublime skies, the great clouds already emptying themselves of rain and lit by varying strengths of sunlight as they roll up from the horizon to hang menacingly over the city and its church.

The Sublime

The Sublime was a concept first discussed by Longinus in the first century and brought back to the public’s eye in the eighteenth century when Edmund Burke published his book A Philosophical Enquiry into The Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757. (3) The book was a treatise on aesthetics and “argues that our aesthetic responses are experienced as pure emotional arousal” (3). A number of artists were influenced by Burke, including John Robert Cozens as mentioned above and painters like Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg  diverged from the main stream of Romanticism to great artworks that represented the sources of the Sublime as defined by Burke: “power, obscurity, privation, vastness, infinity, difficulty and magnificence.” (8: p.134). Malcolm Andrews explains that the experience of the Sublime is what Burke calls a “delightful horror” (8: p134), to be taken near to a disaster without actually being in danger.

The Sea of Ice - Caspar David Friedrich 1824

The Sea of Ice – Caspar David Friedrich 1824

Casper David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) was a German Romantic painter who excelled in investing his paintings with the Sublime aesthetic. In the Sea of Ice he uses a series of triangles which lead the eye from the disaster towards the heavens but the awfulness of the wrecked and crushed ship suggests that salvation is a forlorn hope.

One of the aspects of the Sublime is to put humans in their pale as insignificant compared with the forces of nature or of a higher power and Sea of Ice firmly expresses this view.


Gustave Courbet is believed to have coined the term Realism. A staunch socialist he shocked the art world by painting ordinary people engaged in mundane activities and by giving them a prominence in the composition that had previously been reserved for religious, mythological or aristocratic subjects. He is less well know for his landscapes.

The Gleaners - Jean-François Millet - 1857

The Gleaners – Jean-François Millet – 1857

Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875), like Courbet gave prominence to the ordinary people that worked and lived on the land but more so than Courbet he placed them in a contextual landscape. The subject matter here is important, gleaning is a tradition where people follow the harvest and collect what is left, it speaks of the hierarchy of landownership and exploitation. Millet, himself came from peasant stock (2: p.438) and he gives his three peasant women what Graham-Dixon calls “monumental dignity” (1: p.325); they dominate the composition and are the focus of our attention but the representation of the landscape is realistic. The land is scarred by the harvest, the women in the foreground stands on soft damp earth, the farmer or his supervisor watches the straw being stacked and oversees the scene.


Impressionism was one of the great art movements of the nineteenth century and we could select any one of the great names of that movement to end this exercise. The impressionists drew on the ideas of Courbet and the Realists and campaigned against the art establishment’s preoccupation with the great themes of religion, mythology and history. They are also the first group of painters to be influenced by photography and its ability to accurately capture  how people and animals moved.

Gasometers at Clichy - Paul Signac 1886

Gasometers at Clichy – Paul Signac 1886

Paul Signac (1863 – 1935) originally trained as an architect but was inspired by a visit to a Monet exhibition to become a painter. I have selected this painting which is from early in his career and that is not representative of his later post-impressionist work.

It is a comparatively simple and balanced composition of small houses against a backdrop and surrounded by gasometers and therein lies the most interesting point. If we look back over the history of landscape painting, for most of that time landscape is a backdrop to great events, often religious or mythical, or it is used to idealise the world, taking nature as a starting point that must be re-organised and enhanced by the artist.

In the nineteenth century a small group of artist had the temerity to treat peasants and ordinary working people as subjects in their own right and by the end of that same century a French artist decides that gasometers are a valid subject.

How photography was influenced by eighteenth and nineteenth century landscape art will be discussed in a subsequent essay.

Notes on Text

(i) The sketch sold for £3.5m in 2015 (7)



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

(2) Braine, Aliki (2011) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die edited by Stephen Farthing. London: Cassell Illustrated.

(3) Burke, Edmund (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry into The Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford World’s Classics Edition 2015) Oxford: Oxford University Press

(4) Honour, Hugh and Fleming, John (2002) A world History of Art. London: Laurence King Publishing.

(5) Ward, Ossian (2011) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die edited by Stephen Farthing. London: Cassell Illustrated.

(6) Burrell, John (1980) The Dark Side of the Landscape: the Rural Poor in English Painting 1730 – 1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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


(7) Denham, Jess (2015) John Constable painting set to fetch up to £2m at Sotheby’s after Christie’s sold it for £3.5k (accessed at The Independent 23.1.17) – http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/john-constable-painting-set-to-fetch-up-to-2m-at-sothebys-after-christies-sold-it-for-35k-10010054.html

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