At the start of this series, I suggested some different types of vision which landscape painters might have, in terms of what they were trying to achieve when painting a landscape. I have now considered most of these, but there are two remaining before I try to summarise what I have covered.
The decorative backdrop
The original use of a landscape background for portraits, narrative, and other figurative paintings has persisted.
Although some artists have integrated the figures to form a coherent whole, in many cases they are put in stark contrast to the background; Bassano’s Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1545) is a good illustration of this, and more recently it is prominent in some of the highly finished studio paintings of Bouguereau, notably The Wave (1896).
Studio techniques have commonly used painted backdrops to add external backgrounds such as landscapes. However I remain puzzled as to why some painters chose to leave such marked contrast in their treatment of the figures and background, making their technique the more obvious.
There were also works which used landscapes both as a backdrop and for other purposes: Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-88) double portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews (1749) is a good example of such a composite. Not only is this a quite informal portrait of a young married couple from the landed gentry, but it gives the viewer a good impression of their wealth, and the places to which they were attached.
The couple are shown in informal, almost casual, dress, he in a loose hunting coat with the kit to go shooting, she in an informal summer suit rather than a dress, with mules and a straw hat. The remaining majority of the canvas to the right of them contains a view of their estate, in North Essex close to Sudbury. The church, at Long Melford, was the place where they had been married. On the right are the barns of Mrs Andrews’ childhood home, and much of the rest is their own estate, Auberies, with its parallel rows of ripe corn, sown using the most modern and efficient seed drill.
As an extension which takes expression of the artist’s personal vision to its ultimate conclusion, some have created paintings which show the landscape altered in very obvious ways, becoming fantasy.
This may start with emphasis on certain regular or unusual appearances in a normal landscape, as was seen in geometric patterning of some twentieth century landscape painters. This is in contrast to the normal emphasis in landscapes to suppress any tendencies towards underlying patterns or regularity, for fear that they will make the view appear unnatural.
The American realist Frederic E Church (1826-1900) seemingly could not resist making explicit the parallel between ribboned clouds lit by the dawn sun, and the stripes of the American flag, in Our Banner in the Sky (1861).
This marks the point of departure for the whole new genre of fantasy landscape, which became enormously popular during the twentieth century, in Magical Realism and other movements and styles. Besides the more extreme visionary images of Blake, there were a few imaginary landscapes which appeared in the nineteenth century.
Thomas Cole (1880-48) painted many regular realist works, but his Titan’s Goblet (1833) remains something of a mystery even today. Set in what appears to be a plausible rugged landscape of the new American West, there is a vast goblet fashioned in rock. The goblet is full of water, on which there are sailing boats. Around its lip are buildings set in woods and countryside, and thin cascades drop from its edge. Cole himself never explained this work, and it has since been claimed to be allegorical or outright fantasy. Some have suggested that it is another and most elaborate form of landscape set within a landscape.
Just as it is
The most common vision in landscape painting is to show a motif just as it is. Although many paintings are adjusted slightly from reality, they remain fairly true to the motif. There is though great variation in the ways in which motifs are expressed in paint. That expression is distinctive to the artist, their individual style, and the period when they were painting: great artists have very individual ways of showing it just as it is.
Landscapes of awe
From the early years of landscape painting as a genre in its own right, artists have used it to depict the awe-inspiring but fascinating horrors of the sublime. Those landscapes show natural phenomena such as storms, mountainous terrain, and human activities, which are chosen, exaggerated, or imagined to result in the excitement of horror in the viewer. The viewpoint is typically low in order to exaggerate the savagery of cliffs and peaks, and there is often exaggeration in vertical scale, with clouds and other props were arranged so as to heighten the sense of danger. Staffage, such as people, are often shown in a state of panic, and are used to emphasise the scale of nature, whilst diminishing the power of man.
Early landscape painters discovered the human fascination for ‘big’ views of a wide range of different subjects, quite distinct from the awe and horror of the Burkean sublime. Characteristics often seen in these include:
- a relatively high point of view, often elevated from the ground or from a high point,
- fine detail,
- marked aerial perspective to give greater depth,
- size disparity in humans (and their constructions) to make them appear small against the immensity of the view,
- high aspect ratio of the image, often exceeding the preferred ‘golden ratio’ of 1.62:1, in the ‘landscape’ orientation.
These have developed into sub-genres such as battlefield panoramas, maritime scenes, cityscapes, and extreme panoramas.
Landscapes which are overtly influenced by the artist’s vision are relatively unusual, but quite distinctive. Depending on that personal vision, they are likely to use:
- optical effects, transient or partial lighting, such as twilight, moonlight, or the effects of heavy cloud,
- cloud, fog and other devices to obscure part of the motif,
- recurrent or repeated (even obsessional) themes and subjects, which are often unusual or strange,
- deliberate depopulation,
- crafted figures, possibly amounting to narrative,
- symbolic objects, or allegorical passages,
- enigma and difficulty in resolving an interpretation.
Early landscapes provided a visual inventory of what was in the landscape which was not well related to their actual location. Although these died out with the Renaissance and its emphasis on perspective and projection, they reappeared with Cubism in the twentieth century.
Other early landscapes have functioned as topographic records, and there has been mutually beneficial exchange with the craft and science of map-making. These are currently most common in the work of illustrators.
Figures, staffage, and Advent Calendars
Several artists have dispersed figures, action, and other details through their landscapes, in the manner of an Advent Calendar. Among their characteristics are:
- details are dispersed across multiple (more than five) locations in the landscape,
- figures and actions are often incongruous or bizarre,
- some have obvious ‘meaning’, others appear more puzzling,
- multiple details may assemble into a bigger narrative or meaning, which may augment that of the landscape, or may be quite distinct,
- unlike simple staffage, details differ from one another in action and nature, and often contrast,
- they can transform a pleasant but mundane view into a fascinating and even controversial painting.
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,
- displays of skill of the painter,
- objects linked to the patron or client,
- narrative relationship with the foreground,
- contrasting views adding to the meaning or reading of the whole painting,
- visual conundrums.
Because these landscape elements are constrained within the overall work, the artist retains control over them, a property reflected in their reading. Such cameo landscapes are never awe-inspiring, but subjugate to the whole.
Very few landscape painters have tried novel methods to help the viewer construct 3D space, at least until the twentieth century. The remarkable exception to this was Seurat, whose five series of paintings of ports on the Channel coast of France seem to have been carefully made to enable the viewer to construct 3D space, by means of carefully positioned multiple views.
I hope that these insights into landscape painting will enrich your appreciation of the works that you see.