Art Term Tuesday: Landscape

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

When we look at genres of art—portraits, history paintings, still lifes, landscapes—it’s safe to assume they came into being simultaneously with the creation of art, right? For landscapes, not at all; in fact, landscapes as a distinct subject are not even found in all artistic traditions. As the low genre in the hierarchy of Western art (it beats out only still life), works depicting natural scenery like mountains, rivers, valleys, trees, and forests as the main subject didn’t enter the artistic lexicon until 1598. Arguably a type of still life, as the subject is stationary, many early landscapes were used like still life: to study and explore aesthetic elements such as color, light, texture, and form. An anglicization of the Dutch “landschap”, the word was first used purely as a term for an artwork. Yet we’ve always lived within the landscape; so, why did it take so long to put them on paper?

A black-and-white photograph of the bend in the Oxbow river, with a mountain in the background that is reflected in the water.
Clyde Butcher, American, b. 1942. Oxbow Bend #63. Silver gelatin print, 2006. Loan from Venice Gallery & Studio. Image courtesy of Clyde Butcher.

Whether entirely imaginary, copied directly from reality, or a mix of the two, landscapes require a system of perspective, or scaling for distance, that wasn’t developed until the Renaissance. The earliest “pure” landscapes—no human figures—occur in frescoes in Minoan art (c. 1500 BCE), in ancient Egyptian hunting scenes like those uncovered in Nebamun’s tomb (c. 1350 BCE), and in ancient Roman frescoes of panoramic, imaginary landscapes that decorated the interior rooms of houses. Until the end of the 15th century, landscapes were simply settings for figural dramas, incorporated into the background of portraits and religious, mythological, and historical narratives. As the century progressed, the figures were scaled down as increasingly large, natural scenes that incorporated everyday life and biblical or mythological narratives superseded. It wasn’t until the end of the 15th century that pure landscapes in drawings and watercolors were introduced in Europe.

A Japenese woodcut print shows a mountain in the back, with a river and hills in the middle ground. In the foreground, three people walk along a path toward the mountain.
Utagawa Hiroshige, Japanese, 1797-1858. Misaka Pass in Kai Province, from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Woodcut on paper, 19th century. Gift of Mrs. Ora Brant, 1965.69. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The “world landscape”, debuted in the Netherlands, showed a panoramic landscape from an aerial viewpoint with small figures. The development of a system for perspective and scale by the Italians produced formulaic, ideal pastoral scenes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, painters like Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin included small figures to classify their highly stylized, artificial landscape works as history paintings to increase their prestige and relevance. As religious painting decreased, however, thanks to Calvinism and Romanticism, the landscape gained further ground as artists began exploring realistic techniques to capture light and weather. The chief artistic creation of the 19th century, landscape painting celebrated the natural beauty, mammoth scale, and epic scope of home. A rise in Nationalism and transportation services (both trains and cars) and the invention of pre-mixed paint in tubes pushed artists outside their studios to paint en plein air. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, freed by the invention of the camera from perfectly capturing a scene, moved to the outdoors to portray a moment, or impression. In the United States the Hudson River School, helmed by Thomas Cole, placed emphasis on the raw, awe-inspiring power of nature. A secular faith in the spiritual benefits to be gained from the contemplation of natural beauty moved through the West and was captured on canvas and paper; though, that feeling that had permeated the East for centuries.

A woodcut showing a begonia plant with a bird flying overhead.
Koson Ohara, Japanese, 1877-1945. Begonias in the Rain. Woodcut on paper. Gift of the Helen Van Arnam Estate, 2012.15. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In East Asia, China’s greatest contribution to the world of art is considered to be its landscapes. Influenced by Daoism and shan shui (“mountain-water”), the ink paintings are panoramas, similar to those found in Roman houses, that include mountains and water, whether waterfalls, fountains, lakes, rivers, or seas. The only sign of human life is often a sage or the glimpse of his hut. Not intended to be representative of actual landscapes, these works purposefully made use of the artist’s imagination and were highly regarded because of this. While European artists used landscapes to promote history and mythological narratives, in China landscape works stood on their own. In Japan, landscapes combined one or more large birds, animals, or trees in the foreground, usually to one side of the composition, and then a wider landscape beyond with much of the canvas left open and untouched. Today, we recognize the ukiyo-e woodblock landscapes (Hiroshige and Hokusai) as the cream of the crop, and particular influences on the Impressionists.

The first Western landscape to show a specific scene was completed in 1444 by Konrad Witz, depicting a view across Lake Geneva. Today, landscapes have evolved to include rural and urban settings in multiple media. Artist often choose locations for their defined landforms, weather, and/or ambient light. Linked with environmentalism and preservation, many landscape artists use their art to promote these values; for example, landscape artworks by William Henry Jackson convinced the United States Congress in 1872 to create Yellowstone, the first National Park in America. Photographer Ansel Adams found fame for his images of US landscapes, and, currently on display at FWMoA, influenced large-scale landscape photographer Clyde Butcher.

A black-and-white photograph from Pepperwood shows a forest. In the foreground is a log covered over with moss, lichen, and ferns.
Clyde Butcher, American, b. 1942. Pepperwood #1. Silver gelatin print, 1996. Loan from Venice Gallery & Studio. Image courtesy of Clyde Butcher.

Landscape photography requires simple equipment: a camera (film or digital), lens, and a tripod (for stability). Some artists, such as Butcher, choose a more panoramic, immersive view while others, like Adams, focus in on specific forms. These documentary photographers explore not only the places we live but our effect on them, recording the impact human life has had on the land and environment. Contemporary artists continue to push the boundary, moving beyond the realistic and breaking tradition by using non-naturalistic colors, abstraction, and the landscape itself to celebrate the natural beauty that surrounds us.

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