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Landscape Paintings

The Landscape Painting through the ages

The Landscape Painting is one of the most loved paintings to look at and buy. In the Netherlands we have a long tradition of landscape painting. We asked the art historian Wouter Maas to tell us more about Landscape painting. Wouter is an art historian specialized in early Modern art history. He takes us on an enchanting journey through time and explains the development of Landscapes painting in Europe.

Medieval beginnings of the landscape

Landschap Schilderijen: Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

Het apsismozaïek uit de 9e eeuw. Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, in Rome, Italië. 

In Rome is the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, a church built in the fifth century that has undergone many changes (or "updates") over its long existence. The mosaic in the apse, at the very back centre of the building, is mostly original. We see Christ in the centre, just a bit taller than the figures around him. Five of these figures are saints, and the setting in which they stand is paradise or Garden of Eden.


Interpreting the afterlife as a garden was already typical before the emergence of Christianity. Art that depicts paradise is, therefore, excellent for the representation of landscape art. The mosaic artist in the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere shows the garden through green grass with flowers and the two palm trees on either side. The medium, which uses small stones, is, of course, poorly suited for the representation of a landscape. Yet, there appears to be little attention for this genre in medieval art. It is only at the end of this period that the awareness of artists grows for this.

Cyclus van fresco's in de arenakapel in Padua, scène: Klaagzang, (1304-1306) Giotto di Bondone. Fresco  200 cm x 185 cm.  Scrovegni-kapel. Padua, Italië.

Verhalen van de passie Scéne 6: Ondraaglijke pijn in de tuin, (1309) Duccio di Buoninsegna. Tempera op hout, 51cm  x 76 cm. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena. Italië.

Apart from exceptions, such as the Utrecht Psalter, we can see the first examples of attention to detail of nature from the fourteenth century. Tuscan old masters such as Duccio di Buoninsegna and Giotto di Bondone pay attention to the environment in which they place their figures. Rocks, trees, plants, grass, flowers. Suddenly saints start moving in a real space. As a result, from the "real" aspect of their painting, saints become more human. This development is not only visible in Tuscany. In The Enchanted Garden from the book Le Dit du Lion, the French Guillaume de Machaut almost exclusively depicts nature. These are some of the first landscapes in Western art history and can be seen as a precursor to later developments.

e betoverde tuin uit het boek Le Dit du Lion

De betoverde tuin uit het boek Le Dit du Lion, (ca 1345-1350) Guillaume de Machaut.

Landscape Paintings: Jumping to the 15th Century

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the genre of landscape was used by artists as a backdrop to the figures in the forefront. Like a theatre backdrop to a play. There is always a story that is told against a background. Christian themes such as crucifixion scenes, the Flight into Egypt, or saints in the wasteland, lend themselves perfectly to depicting landscapes. But non-religious landscapes also arise. In the famous Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (a prayer book), the decoration carried out by the Limburg brothers, and a calendar has been added. The example here is from March. In the background, we see a walled fortress, while in the foreground, sheep graze, winegrowing is underway, and a field is ploughed. Everyday life has entered the landscape genre.

Bladzijden "juli" uit de Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (1410). Musée Conde in Château de Chantilly, Frankrijk.

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry is Frans voor "De zeer rijke uren van de hertog van Berry".

The rendering of an increasingly detailed landscape was a development that started in the Netherlands. Jan van Eyck, who was followed and developed further by later generations, was crucial in this respect. For example, a large part of the Rolin Madonna in the Louvre in Paris is reserved for an expansive landscape. We can see almost infinitely far away, with Jan Van Eyck providing an enormous variety: a meandering river, city views, mountains, forests. Due to the popularity of this artist's work and his followers in Italy, the detailed landscape also made its appearance here. It is important to mention the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which was commissioned for a Florentine church in 1474. The representation of atmospheric perspective, in which objects that are far away become bluish, is an innovation that had significant influence, such as in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, in The Madonna of the Rocks. The Italian "invention" of the scientific perspective, and the dissemination of this knowledge across Europe, had a tremendous impact on the rendering of grand, naturalistic vistas.

Rolin Madonna, Louvre. Door Jan van Eyck. Voorbeeld van vroeg landschaps schilderkunst.

De Maagd van kanselier Rolin. ca 1435, Jan van Eyck. Musée de Louvre. Parijs, Frankrijk.

Back to top the Alps: The NORTH

Back up the Alps. Albrecht Dürer is undoubtedly the most famous artist of the German-speaking areas of the sixteenth century. However, the most significant innovations in landscape art were done by other artists. The environment plays a significant role in Lucas Cranach the Elder's work - and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger. Paris's classic story, who has to give a golden apple to the most beautiful Goddess, is set in The Paris Judgment in an environment that is more reminiscent of the south of Germany than the warm Greek countries. Even more dramatic can be the landscapes of the slightly younger Albrecht Altdorfer. In the Battle of Issus, the viewer looks down on a vast landscape with mountains, water features, forests, cities, and many figures in combat. This work's feeling is mainly evoked by the minuscule dimensions of the models by the combination of the vista and the sky above. The sun sinking in dark clouds and pouring its last rays over the fight has an awe-inspiring effect.

Het Parisoordeel sals belangrijke punt in de ontwikkeling van landschapsschilderkunst.

Het oordeel van Paris (1527), Lucas Cranach de Oude. Olieverf op paneel. 50.5 cm x 38 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Kopenhagen, Denemarken.

Development in the Netherlands

Developments in the Netherlands in the same century did not stand still. The landscape developed more and more towards an independent genre. Explanations for this are sought, among other things, in the influence of humanism, which gave the Church less power. And also, tensions between different religious groups will have resulted in Christians. An artist made paintings for Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, etc. Landscapes that have a secular character are attractive to all these groups. In this context, it is interesting to compare Joachim Patinir (early sixteenth century) and Pieter Breugel the Elder (second half of the sixteenth century). There are similarities besides the difference in seasons in Saint Jerome in the Wasteland and Hunters in the Snow. A high horizon, rocky outcrops for a dramatic effect, the diminishing of sharpness the further we look away. While Patinir still needs the justification of a Christian subject, Breugel does not see the need for this. And where German painters at least get their subject from Classical Antiquity, Breugel looks at everyday life as an independent painting. This development continued in the seventeenth century in the Northern Netherlands. The landscape became a hugely popular genre. This, in combination with astonishingly talented artists, has ensured that we can still admire a large amount of Dutch paintings of high quality.

The Artist as Intellectual

With the painter's profession's development from craftsman to intellectual art theory arose, and later institutes - the academies - were established. In the seventeenth century, it became a leader in Western Europe in Paris. One of the notions developed was the view that there was a hierarchy of genres in painting. At the pinnacle was the Historical painting with Biblical or Mythological subjects. Portrait art followed second and continued from most regarded to least; genre paintings (such as Jan Steen), landscape art, animals, and the bottom still lifes. Well, the painter had options to play with this rigid system. For example, Claude Lorrain, in Landscape with the Sibyl temple in Tivoli, gives the environment bathed in the Italian sun classic cachet by adding a dilapidated temple. In the Rococo, this landscape was further developed and acquired a lighter, more charming character, as seen in Jean-Antoine Watteau's A Pilgrimage to Cythera.

Landscapes in the 19th century

In the nineteenth century, the Romantic movement had an enormous influence on landscape art. Where dramatic elements had often been a part, this now became the genre's primary feature. The French Barbizon School had influence in Europe for much of the century. They combined the study of nature with knowledge of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Théodore Rousseau, a painter whose works were refused at the Paris Salons, was one of the founders. The great sense of threat, partly achieved by his brushwork's sketchy nature, plays on our emotions in Thunderstorm above Mont Blanc. Another Romantic exponent of the landscape genre, but one that gives it a completely different interpretation, is Caspar David Friedrich. It is precisely the silent and reflective that predominates in many of his works. The tension between man and nature, or perhaps faith and nature, also seems to play a prominent role in his paintings, as in Abbey in an oak forest.

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