A Brief History of Landscape Art August 17, 2019
Landscapes are one of the most commonly painted genres in the art world. The word landscape is derived from a Dutch word, landschap, for ‘tract of land’. It was not used to refer to a genre of painting, though, until the 1500s. The ancient Greeks and Romans decorated their walls with landscapes. But, prior to the 16th century, landscapes were generally never the subject matter of paintings. The 15th century masters did incorporate landscapes as a backdrop. But even so, they generally functioned as settings for religious themes. Take, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Anunciation, Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy, and Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
The Dutch Golden Age
However, in the 17th century, the ‘Dutch Golden Age’ brought about a push for landscapes as the subject matter of paintings. The Netherlands was home to a sizable Protestant population, and Dutch Calvinism forbade the display of religious paintings in churches. Depicting human activities in a non-religious context also elevated the function of the landscape as the subject of a painting. The paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder is an example of Dutch art from this period. So too, political changes at the end of the ‘Eighty Years War’ influenced the Dutch painting style. After the Netherlands gained independence from Spain, Dutch artist began to feature scenes of their own countryside in a show of national identity and pride. Thus, in works by artist such as Jan Vermeer and Peter Paul Rubens, the purpose is not so much to depict human activity, as to display the natural beauty of the land.
The Role of Romanticism
By the end of the 18th century, the Romantic movement had taken hold. And not just in the art world, but in literature and music, as well. Romanticism placed emphasis on individual emotions and the glorification of nature. It was, in many ways, a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. English artists such as William Turner, and especially John Constable, are known for their dramatic landscape paintings. Even today, they are considered among the finest proponents of the genre.
Inspired by the work of John Constable, French artist, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, created a style of landscape painting that became known as ‘plein air’. Largely made possible by the invention of oil paint in tubes, this style was characterized by the artist taking his studio outdoors, to paint scenery ‘on location’.
Closely related to Romanticism and the plein air style, Impressionism marks the beginning of what would soon come to be known as ‘modern art’. It was the artist’s attempt to convey the emotional impact, underlying the ‘visual’ impact, of a particular scene. Claude Monet was one of the early proponents of the Impressionist movement. His paintings re-defined what landscape painting was about, leading the way for the next generation of painters. Many other artists of this period, including, Renoir, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, and Matisse, produced some of the most iconic paintings of the modern era.
I love to go hiking and camping, so it’s no wonder that my art is all about landscape painting. And with the incredibly spectacular scenery I encounter on my excursions, there’s no end to my inspiration. Check out my gallery.