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Landscape Paintings

The Landscape Painting through the ages

Reading time: 10 minutes. By art historian Wouter Maas

De Landschap Schilderij is een van de meest geliefde schilderijen om naar te kijken en te kopen. In Nederland hebben wij een lang traditie van Landschap schilderkunst. Wij hebben de kunsthistoricus Wouter Maas gevraagd om ons meer te vertellen over Landschap schilderkunst. Wouter is een kunsthistoricus gespecialiseerd in vroeg Moderne kunstgeschiedenis. Hij neem ons op een betoverende reis door de tijd en leg de ontwikkeling van Landschappen schilderkunst in Europa uit.

Middeleeuwse begin van de landschap weergeven 

The 9th century apse mosaic. Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, in Rome, Italy.

The 9th century apse mosaic. Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, in Rome, Italy.

In Rome, the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is located, a church built in the fifth century that has undergone many alterations (or 'updates') in its long existence. The mosaic in the apse, at the very back in the center of the building, is largely original. We see Christ in the middle, slightly larger than the figures around him. Five of these figures are saints, and the environment in which they stand is Paradise, or Garden of Eden.

Interpreting the afterlife as a garden was already common before the emergence of Christianity. Art that depicts paradise lends itself perfectly to the display of landscape art. The artist of the mosaic in the Santa Cecilia in Transtevere depicts the garden through green grass with flowers, and through the two palm trees on either side. The medium, which uses small stones, is of course not suitable for depicting a landscape. Yet there appears to be little attention for this genre in medieval art, and it is only at the end of this period that the attention of artists increases.

Cycle of frescoes in the Arena chapel in Padua, scene: Lamentation, (1304-1306) Giotto di Bondone. Fresco  200 cm x 185 cm. Scrovegni Chapel. Padova, Italy. History of Landscape Paintings by Art Historian Wouter Maas for Gallery Sorelle Sciarone

Cycle of frescoes in the Arena chapel in Padua, scene: Lamentation, (1304-1306) Giotto di Bondone. Fresco  200 cm x 185 cm. Scrovegni Chapel. Padova, Italy.

Stories of the Passion Scene 6: Agony in the Garden, (1309) Duccio di Buoninsegna. Tempera on wood, 51cm  x 76 cm. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena. Italy. History of Landscape Paintings in the West by Art Historian Wouter Maas for Gallery Sorelle Sciaro

Stories of the Passion Scene 6: Agony in the Garden, (1309) Duccio di Buoninsegna. Tempera on wood, 51cm  x 76 cm. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena. Italy.

Barring exceptions, such as the Utrecht Psalter, the first examples of attention to a detailed environment can be seen 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. The French Guillaume de Machaut depicts almost only nature in The Enchanted Garden from the book Le Dit du Lion. This is one of the first landscapes in Western art history and can be seen as a harbinger of later developments.

The Enchanted Garden from the book Le Dit du Lion, (ca 1345-1350) Guillaume de Machaut.

The Enchanted Garden from the book 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 setting for depicting figures. In fact, there is always a story that is told against a background. Christian themes such as crucifixion scenes, the Flight on the Road to Egypt, or saints in the wasteland, lend themselves perfectly to depicting landscapes. But also non-religious landscapes arise. A calendar has been added to the famous Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry  (a prayer book), the decoration of which was done by the Limburg brothers. The example here is from the month of March. In the background we see a walled castle, while in the foreground sheep are grazing, winegrowing is being done and a field is being plowed. Everyday life has entered the landscape genre.

Page "July" from the Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (1410). Musée Conde in Château de Chantilly, France.

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry is French for "The very rich hours of the Duke of Berry".

The rendering of an increasingly detailed landscape was a development that started in the Netherlands. Important in this was Jan van Eyck, who was followed and further developed by later generations. For example, a large part of the Rolin Madonna  in the Louvre in Paris is reserved for a wide landscape. We can look almost infinitely far away, with Jan Van Eyck providing an enormous variation: a meandering river, cityscapes, mountains, forests. Due to the popularity of the work of this artist and his followers in Italy, the detailed landscape also made its appearance here.

The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin. ca 1435, Jan van Eyck. Musée de Louvre. Paris, France.

The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin. ca 1435, Jan van Eyck. Musée de Louvre. Paris, France.

Portinari Altarpiece [Or; Portinari triptych] (1476-78), Hugo van der Goes. Oil on panel, 253 cm x 141 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Portinari Altarpiece [Or; Portinari triptych] (1476-78), Hugo van der Goes. Oil on panel, 253 cm x 141 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

It is important to mention is the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which was commissioned for a Florentine church in 1474. The depiction of atmospheric perspective, in which objects that are far away become bluish, is an innovation that had great influence, such as in the work of Leonardo da Vinci. An example can be seen in The Madonna of the Rocks. The Italian "invention" of the scientific perspective, and the dissemination of this knowledge across Europe, greatly influenced the display of large, naturalistic vistas.

"Madonna op de rotsen" (1491 - 1508), Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis , onder leiding van Leonardo da Vinci. Olie op Paneel. 189,5 x cm 120 cm. National Gallery, London, Verenigde Koninkrijke.

"Madonna on the Rocks" (1491 - 1508), Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, conducted by Leonardo da Vinci. Oil on Panel. 189.5 x 120 cm. National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

Back to the top of the Alps: The NORTH

"The Judgment of Paris" (1527), Lucas Cranach the Elder. Oil paint on panel. 50.5cm x 38cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.

"The Judgment of Paris" (1527), Lucas Cranach the Elder. Oil paint on panel. 50.5cm x 38cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Back to the North of Europe, over the Alps. Albrecht Dürer is undoubtedly the best-known artist from the German-speaking areas of the sixteenth century. However, the greatest innovations in landscape art were done by other artists. In the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder – and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger – the environment plays a major role. The classic story of Paris having to give a golden apple to the most beautiful Goddess is set in The Paris Judgment in a setting that is more reminiscent of the south of Germany than the warm Greek countries.

"The Battle of Issos" (1529), Albrecht Altdorfer. Oil paint on panel. 158x120cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Germany.

"The Battle of Issos" (1529), Albrecht Altdorfer. Oil paint on panel. 158x120cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Germany.

Even more dramatic can be the landscapes of the slightly younger Albrecht Altdorfer. In the Battle of Issos, the viewer looks down on a vast landscape with mountains, bodies of water, forests, cities, and heaps of figures in battle. The minuscule dimensions of the figures, the feeling in this work is mainly evoked by the combination of the view and the sky above. Especially the sun setting in dark clouds and pouring its last rays over the battle has an impressive effect.

Landscape Painting development in the Netherlands

Developments in the Netherlands in the same century flourished. The landscape developed more and more into an independent genre. Explanations for this are sought, among other things, in the influence of Humanism, which gave the Church less influence. And the tensions between different religious groups of Christians will also have had an effect. 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 the work of Joachim Patinir (early sixteenth century) and Pieter Breugel the Elder (second half of the sixteenth century).

"Saint Jerome in the Wasteland" (1515), Joachim Patinir. Oil on Panel. 137cm x 78cm. Louvre Museum. Paris, France.

"Saint Jerome in the Wasteland" (1515), Joachim Patinir. Oil on Panel. 137cm x 78cm. Louvre Museum. Paris, France.

"Jagers in de Sneeuw" (1565), Pieter Breugel de Oude. Olie op paneel. 117cm × 162 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Wenen, Oostenrijk. Geschiedenis van de Landschapsschilderij

"Hunters in the Snow" (1565), Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Oil on panel. 117cm × 162cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, Austria.

Besides the difference in seasons in Saint Jerome in the Wasteland and Hunters in the Snow, there are similarities. A high horizon, rocks for a dramatic effect, the sharpness decreases the further we look. 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. Landscapes became a hugely popular genre. This, combined with astonishingly talented artists, has ensured that we can still admire a large number of high-quality Dutch paintings.

Landscape Paintings: The Artist as Intellectual

With the development of the profession of painter from craftsman to intellectual, art theory arose, and later institutes – the academies – were established. In the seventeenth century, Paris became a leading example in Western Europe. One of the notions developed was the view that there was a hierarchy of genres in painting. At the top was the history painting with Biblical or Mythological subjects, portraiture, genre pieces (such as Jan Steen), landscape art, animals and still lifes at the bottom. Now the painter had opportunities to play with this rigid system. For example, in Landscape with the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli, by Baroque artists, Claude Lorrain gives the environment bathed in the Italian sun classic cachet by adding a dilapidated temple.

"Landscape with the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli" (1630-35) Claude Lorrain. Oil on canvas. 38cm × 53cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

"Landscape with the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli" (1630-35) Claude Lorrain. Oil on canvas. 38cm × 53cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

In the Rococo this landscape painting was further developed and took on a lighter, sweeter character, as can be seen in A pilgrimage to Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau.

"A Pilgrimage to Cytheria" (1717). Jean Antoine Watteau. Oil on canvas. 129 cm  x 194 cm, Louvre Paris, France.

"A Pilgrimage to Cytheria" (1717). Jean Antoine Watteau. Oil on canvas. 129 cm  x 194 cm, Louvre Paris, France.

Landschappen in de 19e eeuw

In the nineteenth century, the Romantic movement had an enormous influence on landscape art. Dramatic elements had often been a part of landscape paintings, this now became the primary feature of the genre. The French Barbizon School was influential 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 rejected at the Paris Salons, was one of its founders. The great sense of threat, partly achieved by the sketchy of his brushwork, plays on our emotions in Thunderstorm over Mont Blanc.

"Thunderstorm over Mont Blanc" (1834), Théodore Rousseau. Oil on canvas. 143 x 240 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Denmark.

"Thunderstorm over Mont Blanc" (1834), Théodore Rousseau. Oil on canvas. 143 x 240 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Denmark.

Another Romantic exponent of the landscape genre, but one that gives it a completely different interpretation, is Caspar David Friedrich. It is precisely the quiet and reflective nature 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, such as in Abbey in an oak forest.

"Abdij in een eikenbos" (1810), Caspar David Friedrich. Olie op Doek. 110 cm x 171cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlijn, Duitsland.

"Abbey in an Oak Wood" (1810), Caspar David Friedrich. Oil on canvas. 110cm x 171cm. Old National Gallery,
Berlin, Germany.

The Landscape painting early 20th century

"Harmony in Gold and Blue" (1894), Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 107 cm x 73.5cm. Musée d'Orsay , Paris, France.

"Harmony in Gold and Blue" (1894), Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 107 cm x 73.5cm. Musée d'Orsay , Paris, France.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists proved that the landscape was anything but boring later in the nineteenth century. Landscapes proved to lend themselves perfectly to the rapid stylistic developments of this period. The Impressionist movement is not only characterized by the fast, sketchy character of the brushstrokes. Light, and often the changing effects it has, also plays a major role. The series that Clause Monet made of the facade of Rouen Cathedral is famous, which can almost be seen as a study of sunlight itself. The example here is in the setting sun, distinctively titled Harmony in Gold and Blue.

A similar preoccupation with light can be found in much of Vincent van Gogh's work. However, he used landscape as a genre to paint a pulsating representation of reality. Due to the swirling way the paint has been applied in Wheatfield with Cyprus, we almost seem to hear the wind through the leaves of the trees.

"Korenveld met Cyprussen" (1889), Vincent van Gogh. Olieverf op Doek. 73 cm × 93,4 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Verenigde Staten.

"Korenveld met Cyprussen" (1889), Vincent van Gogh. Olieverf op Doek. 73 cm × 93,4 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Verenigde Staten.

Landscape paintings here and now

With the advance of abstract art in the twentieth century, it is difficult to describe an unambiguous development of landscape painting. Yet the genre has become an integral part of contemporary art, perhaps due to the influence of postmodernism and the reappraisal of the artist's history. I would therefore like to conclude with a work that I have recently come to know well. Sunrise II by Marko Klomp is on the one hand a retrospective on the long history of the landscape genre in painting. The high horizon, playing with light, the tension between realism and abstraction, all themes that artists have been working on. At the same time, Marko gives us his very own interpretation of the theme: the landscape has never been treated in this way.

"Sunrise II" (2019), Marko Klomp. Oil on Linen. 80cm x 100cm

Wouter Maas is a classically schooled Art Historian who specialises in Early Modern and Classical Art. This means his focus is on art from a few hundred years ago. Abstract Art, on the other hand, is about a hundred years old. We asked him to write about

Art Historian Wouter Maas

Wouter Maas is a classically schooled Art Historian who specialises in Early Modern and Classical Art. This means his focus is on art from a few hundred years ago. Abstract Art, on the other hand, is about a hundred years old. We asked him to write about Landscape Paintings. We hope you enjoyed and learned from this article written by Wouter Maas as he took us on a journey to trace Landscape paintings history through Western Art History. 

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