It’s early February: in much of the northern hemisphere, the depths of winter. Many areas have snow on the ground, others are sopping wet with liquid mud wherever you venture off road. Each day is getting a little lighter, though, and with that the fresh hope that Spring will bring. This weekend, I’m standing back to admire the earth in the broadest ways possible, looking at landscape paintings of really big views, the painter’s equivalent of IMAX on canvas.
Early landscape painters discovered the human fascination for ‘big’ views of a wide range of different subjects, what are sometimes known as ‘World Views’ (weltanschauung in German, although these terms are also used for other purposes too). Characteristics which are often seen in these paintings include:
- a relatively high point of view, often elevated from the ground or from a high point,
- fine detail in much of the painting,
- marked aerial perspective to give greater depth,
- size disparity in humans (and their constructions) to make them appear tiny against the immensity of the view,
- a far distant horizon giving the impression of almost infinite extent,
- high aspect ratio of the image, often exceeding the preferred ‘golden ratio’ of 1.62:1, in the ‘landscape’ orientation.
Artists first realised the power of the ‘big’ view from the pioneering landscape paintings of Joachim Patinir. Although his Crossing the River Styx (1520-4) shows a mythological scene, including fire and damnation in Hell on the right, it has many of the characteristics of the World View, in that the spectator is elevated above the surface and looks on and down over a richly-detailed landscape which stretches to the far horizon.
Although Patinir paints a crisp and clear horizon to the sea, he uses marked aerial perspective for the land on the left, making it recede into distant haze, to give the impression of great depth of view.
Albrecht Altdorfer soon came to adapt the World View for a military scene, in his Battle of Issus (1529). Keeping his canvas in portrait orientation allowed him to show the deep recession in both land and sky. Not only does he paint the soldiers in intricate detail (military precision, perhaps), but also the distant town, and he avoids aerial perspective, which would have left the horizon indistinct.
Better known for his populous scenes of more local countryside, Pieter Brueghel the Elder employed the World View for this Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563). As with the paintings above, it shows an idealised landscape, into which he has set foreground figures from the Bible story of the departure of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus to Egypt, to avoid the slaughter of infants (the ‘massacre of the innocents’) by King Herod.
In the absence of knowledge of the actual setting, either by painter or public, it’s likely that the body of water shown would have represented the Red Sea, and that the track which the group is following represents the coastal road known as The Way of the Sea. The rocky peaks in the distance, on the right, may have represented Mount Sinai. If those attributions are correct, then the group is seriously mislocated; however it’s most likely that these are intended to be general cues rather than actual places.
By the end of the Renaissance, the World View seems to have fallen from favour among landscape artists. One unusually late example comes from the Japanese painter Kawahara Keiga (川原慶賀) working in the Edo period. He was painting in the city which was the link to the outside world, employing Western style and techniques, when he painted this World View of Nagasaki in 1820.
By this time, European art had moved on to what was initially a purely commercial form, the panorama, which didn’t really exist until 1789. The word was coined by Robert Barker, and applied to an invention of his which he patented, number 1612 of 1787. In that patent he referred to the invention as la Nature à coup d’Oeil, but clearly felt that a better term was required. It’s claimed that his first such panorama depicted a view of Edinburgh, and was exhibited in Leicester Square, London, which much later became (and remains) the centre for London’s movie theatres.
Barker’s original panoramas were painted on long rolls of paper, and either stuck to the inside of a large cylinder which could be revolved around the viewer, or kept rolled up and scrolled in front of the viewer. The former was also known as a cyclorama.
In the eighteenth century, changing aesthetics and tastes were also drawing landscapes ever broader. In its final quarter, artists such as Giovanni Battista Lusieri attained aspect ratios of more than 2.5:1, similar to those used in modern widescreen movies, by assembling multiple supports, in his case sheets of paper, as he worked in watercolour.
Lusieri was already painting his extraordinary panoramas on three or four sheets of paper, first of Rome (from before 1780), then Naples and other locations. When depicting views with generally lower relief, he kept the viewer on the ground, therefore followed more in the tradition of the veduta rather than the World View.
Sadly, most of Lusieri’s works passed into private collections, and were lost to the public eye, until the National Galleries of Scotland exhibited them in 2012. Even now very few are available on websites.
Many paintings in JMW Turner’s huge output are panoramic in nature if not in form. The example that I have chosen here, Petworth Park: Tillington Church in the Distance (c 1828), is viewed from a higher level even though its content has little vertical extent, to emphasise the long cast shadows. It has a high aspect ratio, and the odd arc of the path in the foreground gives it a wide-angle effect, making it a worthy successor to the World View.
Painted just a couple of years later, and in more strictly realist style, Théodore Rousseau’s Panoramic View of the Ile-de-France (c 1830) attains an even higher aspect ratio of just over 3.7:1, which may have been driven by the growing popularity of panoramas as entertainment.
Rousseau is also more conventional in placing the viewer at the level of the rooftops, so as to look over the buildings in the foreground. The angles of lines of trees and other objects in the foreground appear to show wide-angle lens distortion, although the earliest known photograph wasn’t made until 1838. One possible explanation is that Rousseau, and perhaps others before him, used optical devices such as the camera obscura to draw in the view, although I am not aware of any evidence that was the case.
Another member of the Barbizon School, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painted panoramic views en plein air and in his studio. This example of Avignon from the West (1836) shows how well he transferred the skills that he learned when in the Roman Campagna to the French countryside.
In North America, the more traditional World View was developed most successfully by Frederic Edwin Church.
Church’s Eagle Lake Viewed from Cadillac Mountain, Mount Desert Island, Maine from the 1850s is unusual. Painted in oil over a graphite drawing on paperboard, it doesn’t appear to have been completed in front of the motif, but must have started off en plein air. Cadillac Mountain is relatively low, at 466 metres (1530 feet), but the highest point of Mount Desert Island, which affords this spectacular World View.
Church travelled widely in the Americas, visiting Cotopaxi (1855) in Ecuador, to paint it on many occasions; during those repeated visits he produced detailed plein air sketches, then developed those into finished oil paintings in his New York studio. This particular view is rich in detail: a pastoral with foreground ranch, lush greens and rounded foothills, and the volcano itself apparently in peaceful repose.
Other versions were not so quiescent: that of 1862, commissioned by James Lenox, shows rugged waterfalls in the foreground, a barren rocky plain, and the volcano itself ejecting a high plume of smoke and ash. All this is lit by a blood-red sun, sitting low in the sky. This was apparently in order for Church’s painting to serve as a pendant to one of Lenox’s other paintings, Turner’s dramatic Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1832). This emphasises how readily the same subject can be interpreted in different ways.
Like other artists of the day, Church’s World Views were used as commercial attractions, in which panoramas were coming to dominance, as I’ll show in tomorrow’s concluding article.