The Story of Landscape

A Trip Around Europe

Landscape. It’s my favourite kind of painting. It is a visually elaborate, often imagined, and endlessly intriguing.  But is hasn’t always been this way. Throughout the history of art, landscape was once a discredited genre, left to the bottom of the pile and disregarded by great artists and academies. Visit any national gallery, and you will see that most works predating the 16th century don’t celebrate landscape in its own glory. There are many reasons for this, and a fabulous story of how it came to be celebrated as a respected genre in its own right. So, grab a cuppa, it’s story time!

We begin in the Middle Ages in Europe, where art was created for a specific purpose. It was mainly used to illustrate Christianity though decorating churches, illuminated manuscripts, and visual representations of Bible stories. Most people during this period were illiterate, and so art was a powerful means for the church to spread the message of Christianity. Landscape has always existed in painting, and sometimes was necessary for the artist to make the story recognisable. For example, you couldn’t have a painting of the Virgin Mary in a Hortus Conclusus (this is the Virgin in a walled garden, known in Latin as a Hortus Conclusus, which symbolises her virginity) without a garden landscape. Another good example of a religious scene that relies on landscape is St Jerome in the wilderness. This subject makes a great example to show the progression of landscape, and how artists came to explore this once functional element in more and more detail.

St Jerome and Landscape

In Giovanni Bellini’s painting, St Jerome in the wilderness, 1460, St Jerome is the focus of the image. As I said before, this picture wouldn’t make sense without a landscape background, but the artist has explored this area in very little detail, keeping all the attention on the religious story. Bellini painted many different versions of this same subject, but importantly, they all follow a very similar layout in terms of size, positioning, and attention to the landscape.

There is some exploration into the depth and perspective of the landscape as the winding path follows the hills in the background, but two thirds of the canvas is dedicated to the religious motif. Bellini was painting during the Italian Renaissance, and although paintings of mythology and Pagan subjects were becoming popular, the demand for religious art was still strong.

Next, we have Lorenzo Lotto, St Jerome Doing Penitence in the Desert, painted in 1506. This slightly later version sees Lotto exploring the potential of landscape. St Jerome is now much smaller, and the artist has dedicated the main part of the canvas to painting trees, foliage and natural textures. Religious paintings often convey their message through symbolism, and so the size of St Jerome within a landscape may have more significance than you’d think.

The detail of different types of tree and rock formations indicate that the artist would have produced studies outdoors to implement in this painting. Lotto’s exploration of landscape is evident, and this shows that by the 1500s landscape was beginning to pique the interest of religious artists.

In 1520, we are introduced to Joachim Patinir, a Dutch artist who dominated the Northern Renaissance with imaginative and vivacious landscapes for religious subjects.  This version of Landscape with St Jerome (even the title of this work shows how the focus has changed) features an elaborate landscape, with St Jerome almost overshadowed by the enormity and complexity of the scene behind him.

The diminishing size of St Jerome throughout these paintings could be interpreted as a secularisation of art, with artists using this subject as an excuse to break into a more diverse range of genres. In this painting, the craggy rocks, winding river, rolling hills and hidden buildings draw the eye everywhere around the canvas apart from St Jerome; this is a clear indication that artists were staring to break the boundaries of traditional painting.

Early Beginnings

In the 1600s, French Academician André Félibien proposed a hierarchy of genres. The most prestigious and admirable for an artist to paint was history painting (scenes of religion, mythology, or historical events). This was followed by portraiture, genre painting, landscape, and then still life. So as you can see, landscape was not at the top of the list in the 17th century.

However, some artists had ideas of their own. Breaking away from the traditions and influence of the Academies, Albrecht Altdorfer painted the first ever known autonomous landscape. Not just a sketch, the work was completed in oil paint, and there is a key absence of any human figures. This painting is: Landscape with a Footbridge, 1518-20.

Dutch Landscape

Landscape progressed much more quickly as an autonomous genre in the north of Europe than in the south. This could be linked to the Reformation, as protestant countries now known as The Netherlands and Belgium quickly disregarded Félibien’s hierarchy and began to favour the beauty of landscape paintings. Queue: The Dutch Golden Age.

Kickstarted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and soon taken up by artists such as Aert van der Neer, Jan van Goyen, and Jacob van Ruisdale to name but a few, Dutch Landscape was characterised by heavenly cloud formations, flat planes of fields and lakes, and a beautiful realism offset by an earthy and natural colour palette.

French Progressions

The alluring escapism of Dutch Landscape soon spread throughout Europe. Claud Lorrain was particularly inspired by his Dutch contemporaries and became well known for his pastoral, Italianate landscapes, such as The Ford, 1636. His works are characterised by a golden, rosy light which the artist created by looking through a “Claude glass” ‐ this is a convex, tinted mirror which gave landscapes an ethereal, idyllic lighting.

His paintings often feature peasants and animals, which help to give the expansive landscapes a sense of scale and perspective. Claude was rivalled by Nicolas Poussin, who was also inspired by the Dutch traditions, combined with a more southern European pastoralism.

From Gainsborough to Turner

Now, it wouldn’t be a blog about landscape without mentioning some of the finest and most love British landscape artists. The 1700s saw the growing popularity of Thomas Gainsborough; although he made his living by painting portraits, he was a keen landscapist inspired by the Sufolk countryside.

Later, in the 1800s, we are introduced to John Constable and William Turner, who both revolutionised landscape painting in very different ways. Constable’s famous Hay Wain of 1821 is a world away form Turner’s Slave Ship of 1840, but both artists made astounding advances in the treatment of landscape as an autonomous subject with their own distinctive styles.

All the artists I have discussed in this post should really have a post each! There is so much to say about this fascinating genre which strove to become a genre in its own right and excelled to the height of fashion from the 1600s to the 1900s. And the story doesn’t end with Constable and Tuner! It goes all the way to the Impressionists, who rejected the realism of their predecessors, instead favouring a faster, bolder and more colourful approach. Just take Monet’s Impression Sunrise 1872, for example. Of course, landscape is still a very popular subject, and we have even more ways to capture it, like photography.

Hopefully you’ve learnt something about how landscape has become what it is today, and why it is such a beautiful, imaginative and versatile genre. Landscape exhibitions are cropping up all the time (like the recent exhibition of ‘Monet and Architecture’ at the National Gallery in London) so keep an eye out to discover the beauty of landscape for yourself!

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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