Long before painters in Europe dared to produce ‘pure’ landscape paintings, they were showing cameo appearances of countryside views in the background. These typically appeared through windows, either behind or to the side of the portrait(s) which were the main subject of the painting.
These first came to prominence in the highly detailed oil paintings of the Northern Renaissance, and spread to the Southern Renaissance over time. They remained quite popular among some artists, even to the present day, despite landscape becoming an increasingly popular genre in its own right.
Northern Renaissance cameos or vignettes
Although not the first, one of the best-known cameo or vignette landscapes is that in Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435).
Set behind the three figures which are the subjects of the painting, and divided vertically by two pillars which transform the view into a triptych, a garden, city, and distant countryside are shown in fine detail.
The garden is rich in objects which appear symbolic: these include rabbits, magpies, peacocks, lilies, irises, peonies, and roses, which commentators have interpreted as having various contemporary meanings. The garden is contained within a crenellated castle wall, against which two figures, their backs to the viewer, face towards the river below them; again various interpretations have been suggested for the figures.
Behind the wall, stretching into the distant haze, is a large city with its grand buildings, divided vertically by a major river. Van Eyck has not spared any detail, showing a built-up island, bridge, even a boat with several occupants, and abundant reflections on the glassy calm water surface. Around the city are rolling hills with fields and small woods.
This landscape appears primarily to give great depth to the painting, to give it location, and to augment the importance of the Chancellor, who is shown as overseeing the wealth and bustle of the city. It is also an opportunity for van Eyck to display enormous detail, and to explore further surface textures and the effects of light, and his painterly skills. Another reading is that the outside world is contained and controlled, both within the painting itself, and by the Chancellor.
The Rolin Madonna at the Louvre
Born A & Martens MPJ (2012) Van Eyck in Detail, Ludion. ISBN 978 94 6130 059 1.
Harbison C (2012) Jan van Eyck, The Play of Realism, 2nd ed., Reaction Books, ISBN 978 1 86189 820 3. pp 107-122.
The cameo landscape shown in Rogier van der Weyden’s (1400-64) portrait of Saint Ivo (1450) is smaller, simpler, and in keeping with the painting’s monastic simplicity.
Seen through a small window above and to the left of the subject of the painting, its middle distance shows a country house or farm, with a lake and deer park. Behind those are hills, with towers and spires of a town. This too is clustered on the banks of a river, which is crossed by a bridge. There is also a boat visible on the river, and beyond the town the landscape fades into distant haze.
This modest glimpse of landscape adds depth and interest, as well as allowing the painter to show off his skill. Unlike van Eyck’s there do not appear to be any symbolic objects in it, and it seems to have a straightforward reading, possibly also giving location.
Working mainly in Sicily during the Southern Renaissance, Antonello da Messina (1430-79) provided even smaller glimpses of landscape in his Saint Jerome in his Study (c 1475). Two small windows, themselves repoussoir behind the frontmost framing stone archway, are placed at the same level as Saint Jerome’s body.
The views shown through these windows depict pastoral countryside, with a castellated house, pond with a boat on it, and distant rolling hills. They are not dissimilar to that in van der Weyden’s Saint Ivo, although too generic to indicate location. Note that any symbolic creatures, such as a peacock, are shown on the step at the front of the painting, and not in the small landscape cameos. This leaves the latter with only one likely function, that of adding depth to the painting.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) was an accomplished landscape painter, and one of the pioneers of the genre. When he came to paint his series depicted the five senses, in which his good friend Rubens was responsible for the figures, he chose to give each a landscape backdrop, only Hearing showing the view through a window.
That in Sight is reminiscent of the port views of Claude Lorrain, that in Hearing shows a country palace amidst fields on a rolling plain, that in Smell shows regular rows of trees in a wood, that in Taste shows a large manor house and forest, and that in Touch shows trees and ruins such as those in post-Classical Italy.
Given that almost every other object shown in each of the paintings in the series is associated with its respective sense, these landscape cameos are the only significant parts which appear completely disconnected with that sense.
One explanation for the cameos has been suggested, that they depict palaces which belonged to Albert VII, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Isabella, who may have commissioned the series. However, with the exception of that in Hearing, the views do not appear to give much location information, and may in fact be generic in their content. It is also worth emphasising that Brueghel painted these when Claude was still a youth, and therefore could not have been referring to his work in Sight (or any of the other senses in this series).
The landscape in Hearing is the best-developed of the five. Using a triptych format, created by two pillars, in a similar way to that in van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna, it shows a large palace set in rolling countryside. There are many green fields with criss-crossing wooded roads, as might be typical of a royal estate. The sky shows either a coming or clearing storm, and there are several birds in the air; these, through their calls, may be the only real reference to the sense of Hearing.
In addition to their possible location value, the main role of these landscapes appears to be the addition of depth. It remains puzzling that Brueghel did not use his ingenuity to turn the landscapes to reflect the sense being shown, but for him the need to please his patrons may have been paramount.
Seen through a window
As post-Renaissance painting matured, occasional use was made of landscape seen through a window. My next milestone, though, is in works of the twentieth century, particularly those of Eric Ravilious (1903-42), such as his Interior at Furlongs (1939).
This watercolour has the appearance, and many of the traits of, a print, and combines its interior view of a largely empty room in a cottage, with one view through the open door, the other view through a closed window. The landscape shown is that of the South Downs in East Sussex, Furlongs being the cottage owned by Peggy Angus, who invited Ravilious to stay there. The fragmented view shows woods, a distant hut or cottage, and golden fields of grain crops, so would have been painted in the late summer, at the outbreak of the Second World War.
Ravilious’ landscape (and cottage) is empty, the only sign of life being a coat hung on a hook on the back of the door. In its way, it is as eerie and foreboding as the more overtly visionary landscapes of Samuel Palmer, which were also painted in Kent.
The second of Ravilious’ landscapes seen through a window is that of Train Landscape (1940), painted during the early part of the war. He had intended producing a book showing the many chalk figures found on the Downs in the south of England. That shown, again in the form of a triptych, harking back to van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna, is that of a huge horse, near Westbury, Wiltshire (and not even near his pre-war stamping ground of Kent).
Conservation work on this painting has shown that it a composite, assembled using collage, of two different views painted from compartments in trains. One, originally showing the Wilmington Giant, provided the train interior, the other shows the Westbury White Horse seen through the windows.
For Ravilious these composite paintings of train interiors and landscape triptychs were quite different in intent from their ancestors. The railway carriage was much more than a framing device, and the landscape much more than a means to add depth to the interior. This type of travelogue motif was popular at the time, as a means of promoting travel to see places, and it is likely that would have been an important theme had Ravilious been able to complete his book. He was tragically lost when flying on a sortie from Iceland in 1942.
Russell J (2015) Ravilious, Philip Wilson. ISBN 978 1 78130 032 9
Many other artists have shown landscapes viewed through windows. Among my favourites are Pierre Bonnard (still covered by copyright), for example his The Window (1925).
The Painting within a Painting
Windows and similar architectural features are not the only means of framing and confining images of the great wide world in a painting. Several paintings have featured paintings of landscapes within them, of which probably the most famous is Courbet’s (1819-77) The Painter’s Studio (1855).
This huge allegorical work was painted in just six weeks, largely as a political statement and protest, for submission to the 1855 Paris World Fair. Although the jury for the Fair accepted eleven of his works, this was refused. Courbet therefore set up his own exhibition close to the site of the World Fair, in an act of self-promotion which was also a precedent to later Salons des Refusés for the Impressionists.
The figures in the painting show individuals who had influence over Courbet’s life and artistic career, and are detailed in the references. However at the painting’s centre point is a canvas, at which Courbet himself is shown at work. The nude model beside him might appear contradictory, given that the work in progress is clearly a landscape. This has been interpreted as indicating how Courbet has shunned the academic art tradition for the new (and increasingly popular) genre of the landscape.
Courbet has shown considerable detail in the painting within the painting, making it clear that it is a landscape set in the countryside around his home town of Ornans. This makes obvious reference to his origins and where he considers is still his home.
Although Courbet did paint many landscapes, of which many depicted the countryside around Ornans, he is not as famous today as a landscape painter, but for works such as A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), and his notorious erotic nudes, culminating in The Origin of the World and Sleep (both 1866). There is some irony in history, in that an honest version of The Painter’s Studio later in his career might have shown him painting the nude, whilst the landscape painting lay neglected in the corner.
The can be no greater contrast among nineteenth century artists, perhaps, between Courbet and Georges Seurat (1859-91). However Seurat’s only known painting featuring the female nude, Poseuses (Models or Posers) (1886-8), deals with common elements: three nudes (which are almost certainly three different views of the same model), and landscape paintings. These have recently been analysed in depth by Michelle Foa.
The painting on the left wall is clearly Seurat’s monumental work La Grande Jatte (1884-6), which itself poses many questions and offers a multitude of readings. Given that Poseuses dates consecutively with that painting, it is feasible that La Grande Jatte was still in Seurat’s studio when he started Poseuses in 1886.
The four paintings on the far wall are shown more indistinctly and are thus harder to identify. The pair on the left are most probably two from Seurat’s series of works depicting ports on the north coast of France, as might be that on the right. The largest in the centre appears to be a portrait. Unfortunately none seems to match in form other paintings completed by Seurat prior to 1888.
Foa argues that Poseuses is “an extended and sophisticated exposition of the physiological grounds of vision”. In that La Grande Jatte contrasts with Poseuses in its deep spatial effect, against which the illegible flatness of these four smaller paintings makes further contrast. She thus considers that, in showing one deep painting within the whole painting of Poseuses, Seurat is able to make that comparison, as a quotation, perhaps.
Foa M (2015) Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20835 1
Another pair of famous paintings within paintings are those of René Magritte’s La condition humaine (The Human Condition) of 1933 and 1935. As these are still protected by copyright, I can only point you at the account on Wikipedia, which lists some of his other works which use this device, and a full image of the earlier version at the National Gallery of Art, where it is on display.
Magritte himself stressed the effect on the viewer, for whom objects shown in the painting within the painting were both inside the room, and outside in the real landscape. Perhaps that should be the closing vision in this particular theme in landscape paintings.
Paintings showing landscapes confined to cameos seen through windows or other architectural features, or shown inside a painting within the painting, can add the following:
- a landscape to a portrait or painting of other genre,
- information about those portrayed in the foreground,
- a place to put symbolic objects,
- locational information about the whole scene,
- displays of skill of the painter,
- objects linking to the patron or client,
- narrative relationship with the foreground,
- contrasting views which add to the meaning or reading of the whole painting,
- visual conundrums.
Because these landscape elements are constrained within the overall work, the artist has complete control over them, and that is a property which is reflected in their reading too. Such cameo landscapes are never awe-inspiring, but subjugate to the whole.