Although it was Leon Battista Alberti, in the southern Renaissance, who first developed the subject of composition in paintings, in his 1436 book Della pittura (On Painting), landscape painting first developed as a genre in the northern Renaissance, which doesn’t appear to have developed any equivalent of Alberti’s systematic theory.
Giorgione’s pioneering painting of The Tempest in about 1504-8 wasn’t followed by any significant development of the genre in the south. Instead, landscape backgrounds were advanced for primarily figurative images. Giorgione did though anticipate the use of foreground trees to create repoussoir, which coupled with his linear perspective in buildings, give this view depth.
In the north, the pioneer was, as in several other major developments in art, the prodigious Albrecht Dürer. Some of his early oil paintings with landscape backgrounds employ the convention of foreground figures, middle distance buildings and habitation, and distant mountains, which were to become so common later.
Dürer’s Miraculous Rescue of a Drowned Boy from Bregenz, from about 1490-93, is a good example. He painted this as he started to travel throughout Europe, which apparently inspired him to make some of the earliest topographic watercolours in Europe.
Three months after his wedding in 1494, Dürer left Nuremberg in Germany to travel to Italy, where he probably reached Venice, drawing and painting watercolours of his travels through the Alps. He returned the following year, and opened his workshop, producing many fine woodcuts as well as various drawings and paintings. Around 1500 he produced several sets of woodcuts which amounted to early comics, although he sold large numbers of individual prints as well. He additionally started to produce engravings, with considerable success in the years after 1500.
Although these watercolours look as if they could have been painted in front of the motif, it’s more likely that he drew the views en plein air, perhaps adding watercolour washes to provide colour cues. When indoors he then probably worked them up to completion using further watercolour, pen and ink. This gave him ample opportunity to develop compositions rather than painting exactly what was in front of his eyes at the time.
This View of Trento from 1494-95 might appear quite conventional now, but again uses the standard foreground – middle distance – background which was to prove such a success for future generations of landscape painters.
Dürer’s View of Innsbruck from about 1495 is an early example of his use of reflections on the surface of the river and, because it was painted from the opposite bank, lacks a foreground. His horizon is low, allowing him the space to develop clouds of interest.
This view of his home town uses the rhythm of four church towers, and their difference in scale provides depth.
While most of Dürer’s landscape views appear to have been destined for commercial exploitation as prints, he also painted some works intended as pure landscapes.
Among those is The Willow Mill, thought to have been painted in 1498 or after 1506. This looks directly into the warm light of sunset. In the right foreground is a tree providing repoussoir, and its low horizon ensures that its sky is dominant.
In the early sixteenth century, another pioneer German artist was painting landscapes, this time in Regensburg in Bavaria.
Albrecht Altdorfer’s The Victory of Charlemagne over the Avars near Regensburg (1518), is a landscape secondary to being a visual celebration of this major military victory. Apart from its glaring anachronism of showing cannons in a battle which took place long before their appearance in Europe after 1300, it arrays troops for geometric effect, and for the intense rhythmicity of their arms. Altdorfer is one of the first artists to use a high viewpoint to create a World View, which later evolved into the panorama.
Landscape of the Danube near Regensburg is one of Altdorfer’s five known pure landscape paintings, and was made between about 1528-30. This further develops repoussoir, and follows the foreground – middle distance – far distance convention, with a low horizon to accommodate the framing trees and allow a dramatic cloudscape.
The third pioneer landscape painter of the northern Renaissance is Joachim Patinir, a friend of Dürer.
It was Patinir who first realised the power of the World View in his Crossing the River Styx (1520-4). The spectator is elevated above the surface and looks on and down over a richly detailed landscape which stretches to the far horizon. Although he has painted 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.
It was Dürer, Altdorfer and Patinir who had laid the ground in composing landscapes ready for their rising popularity in the latter half of the century, when the first of the Brueghel family started painting landscapes.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder employed the World View for his Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563). This is clearly idealised rather than representing any particular location, and forms the surround into which he sets 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.
Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow (Winter) (1565) brings together many of these elements, and is one of his best-known works. It’s unusual for his innovative treatment of the dense branches and twigs in trees, which has seldom been copied by others, but which appears very effective.
In less than a century of early innovation, these artists in northern Europe had introduced:
- the topographic view;
- the World View;
- recomposition from nature;
- the idealised landscape;
- low horizon and skyscape;
- foreground – middle distance – background;
- rhythmic form;