Well before landscape painting was recognised as a genre in its own right, the only ways that an artist could paint a view of the countryside were in the background of a figurative motif, or as a view through a window or similar. This weekend I look at a small selection of paintings from the early Northern Renaissance to the middle of the twentieth century in which a landscape is embedded within a different type of motif.
There doesn’t appear to be any generally accepted term for these; elsewhere I’ve referred to them as cameos or vignettes, which also have different associations. For this weekend, they’ll just be embedded, much in the way that a story within a story is also said to be embedded.
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 impart 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 landscape embedded 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 don’t 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 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 aren’t dissimilar to that in van der Weyden’s Saint Ivo, although too generic to indicate location. Note that 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.
Two of Fra Bartolomeo’s early religious paintings, both from about 1497, have embedded landscapes. In The Annunciation, Gabriel holds a white lily, and its landscape is visible through the open doors. It shows a Renaissance town on a bridged river, and a prominent tree which echoes the lily.
Bartolomeo’s Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist provides small glimpses of a distant landscape that are a rustic delight, with a watermill and distant church.
Attributed to Giorgione (c 1477/8-1510) or his circle, The Virgin and Child with a View of Venice (The Tallard Madonna) (c 1500) is an excellent example of an embedded landscape seen through a window.
The Virgin Mary and infant Jesus (who never of course came anywhere near Venice) are seen with a view through the window of the south-eastern corner of the Piazza san Marco, during completion of the first Campanile, when it still had a flat roof (which was in place between 1489-1511). Surprisingly the painter doesn’t take the opportunity to show the frontage of the Basilica. There is also the odd contradiction that the Basilica and Piazza as a whole are dedicated to Saint Mark, who was martyred in about 68 AD in Alexandria.
Thus this embedded landscape appears to be an artistic device to link the subjects of the painting with Venice, even though the link is geographically impossible and highly anachronistic.
Paintings in Joachim Beuckelaer’s Four Elements series are composed with contrasting foregrounds which refer to the element, and an embedded narrative landscape referring to a story from the Bible. In Earth. A Fruit and Vegetable Market with the Flight into Egypt in the Background from 1569, the Biblical story is shown at the upper left, and the foreground is dominated by the fruits of the earth.
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 depicting the five senses, in which his good friend Peter Paul Rubens was responsible for the figures, he chose to embed a landscape in each, with only Hearing showing the view through a window.
This shows a country palace amidst fields on a rolling plain. Given that almost every other object shown in each of the paintings in the series is associated with its respective sense, these embedded landscapes are the only significant parts which appear completely disconnected with that sense.
One explanation for them 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 don’t appear to give much location information, and may in fact be generic in content.
James Ward’s portrait of An Unknown Woman from 1811 is an honest and skilful depiction of a woman of advancing years, with an unusual embedded landscape seen through the window on the right. That landscape has the painterly style and light effects of his oil sketches, and may have been the first time that his public got a glimpse of that.