While Leon Battista Alberti’s book Della pittura (On Painting) made its way to the Northern Renaissance after its publication in 1436, its earliest equivalent in the north didn’t appear until 1604, when Karel van Mander’s Foundation of the Noble Free Art of Painting (Den Grondt der edel vry Schilder-Const) was published.
This appears to codify well-established artistic traditions, and is both more detailed and prescriptive than Alberti or his successors. Although primarily directed at figurative works, it provides a good starting point for examining the pioneering landscape paintings of the seventeenth century.
Van Mander views paintings as consisting of a figurative foreground and a landscape background. Pictorial formulation, placement of figures, their setting and the power of an image to capture the eye of the viewer are all part of what he terms ordinanty, ordering, or what we would consider to be composition.
He advises the artist to fill two corners (presumably the lower corners) with buildings and other background details, but to keep the open space in the middle of the painting as free as possible. The figures in the middle of the foreground should therefore be seated, to allow the more distant view into the depth of the landscape immediately above them. Figures should be arranged in relation to the frame and format, so that they don’t appear to support the frame, or become boxed in by it. Overall the figures and their landscape setting should be in harmony, rather than placing the figures in heaps or knots, a tendency in Italian paintings at the time.
There’s no evidence that Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) ever read van Mander’s book, but a great deal of evidence on how well-read and erudite Poussin became, and how carefully and thoughtfully he composed each of his paintings. One of his central concepts drew from modes in music, in which adoption of a tonal mode set the mood of the work. A great deal has been written about Poussin and modes, but rather than dwell on theory, let’s look at some of his paintings.
In his early career, Poussin was an outstanding figurative painter who specialised in classical narrative, such as his famous Abduction of the Sabine Women (c 1634-35). It’s set against the historical background of the Capitoline Hill and the Tarpeian Rock, because of their importance in the narrative. As the bearded figure of Romulus stands overseeing the abduction, the hill and its precipitous cliffs dominate the distance. Van Mander’s conventions have been clearly respected.
In Landscape with a Man Scooping Water from a Stream (c 1637) Poussin has painted a landscape dominated by trees, most probably his lifelong favourite, oaks, in this case the Holm Oak, Quercus ilex. Each is carefully constructed from the trunk and branch anatomy, and their canopies, although dense, are clearly formed from leaves rather than solid masses. The distant view is that of an idealised Roman campagna, which will appear again in his later works.
Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (1640) shows another idealised landscape, probably based on the western Italian coast, rather than Patmos in the Dodecanese, in the eastern Aegean. Instead of placing trees at the edges, Poussin sets them further back; again these have the look of oaks. There is a richer variety in the middle distance, breaking the more regular lines of ancient ruins.
In Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion from 1648, the narrative figures in the foreground are small, and mixed with others who are part of its non-narrative background. Among that staffage are some who recur in his later landscapes: the shepherd with his flock, and the horseman. Deciding which are intended to be part of the narrative isn’t always obvious, and part of the fascination of his paintings.
It was his patron Dal Pozzi who commissioned Poussin’s magnificent Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651). Here the classical tragedy of the deaths of the lovers is being played out against one of Poussin’s most exciting landscapes. The lioness from that story has escaped into the middle ground and is attacking a horse, as everyone else is fleeing from the imminent thunderstorm. The mode is impending catastrophe.
Landscape with a Calm from about 1651 is one of his late pure landscape paintings, of a view which never existed except in the artist’s imagination, although there’s something familiar about each of the elements within it. Like an Advent calendar, it contains scattered scenes which the viewer is tempted to try to construct into a coherent narrative, but are probably all part of the painting’s mode.
In the foreground is a herdsman with his dog, tending to a small flock of goats, which are grazing erratically at the borders of a track which meanders down to the lake. The only distinctive feature of the man – and indeed of this whole passage – is how non-descript he is. He has nothing which could be interpreted as an attribute, and gives no clue as to his identity. Just above his head is the distinctive arrowhead of broken water in the otherwise mirror-like surface of the lake, but there is nothing else of remark.
The most prominent feature of the painting is its large Italianate villa. In front of its outermost earthworks, two herdsmen tend a flock of sheep and cattle. The man on the left is playing bagpipes. There are figures scattered just outside and within the grounds of the villa, and two visible at its ground floor windows. There is nothing which appears to be out of the ordinary here either.
The greatest human activity in the painting is at the left, where there are two horses with riders, and another horse visible within the outbuilding. One horse and its rider are just galloping off to the left; the other horse, its rider still mounted, is drinking from a trough under a portico at the end of the building. Above that horse’s hindquarters is an inscription which is illegible.
Among the background details there are bonfires. One burns vigorously with bright orange flames, and their smoke wafts erratically into the air, indicating the calm.
All the clues which the artist gives us point towards the mode of calm and peace in this landscape. Its one small burst of activity is a galloping horse. The air is so calm that the lake reflects like a mirror, and one tiny patch of broken water stands out.
Towards the end of his life, Poussin’s hands developed a severe tremor which made painting fine details very hard for him. Despite that, his final years saw some of his greatest landscape paintings, and standing head and shoulders above those is his series of the Seasons, believed to have been painted between 1660-64.
Each of these is not just a fine painting of an idealised landscape, but includes narrative referring to a Biblical story. They not only move through the seasons of the year, but through the times of the day, starting in the early morning of Spring, and ending at night for winter – a device used by later artists such as William Hogarth.
Spring starts with the beginning of the Bible, with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve is persuading Adam to join her in an apple, the opening step of the Fall. Just to the right of centre, the trees part to reveal distant snow-clad mountains, just as van Mander would have liked.
For Summer, Poussin chose the story of Boaz discovering Ruth gleaning after the wheat had been cut in his fields, as told in the Book of Ruth. In its contrasting Italian coastal setting, this overlaps with earlier paintings of the Brueghels and others. Its fields are reminiscent of his earlier Landscape with a Man Drinking, and the view left wide open to reveal a receding series of hamlets and distant mountains.
Poussin refers to a story from the Book of Numbers for Autumn, in which Israelite spies visited the Promised Land, and brought back grapes as evidence of what lay ahead. Once again, the landscape leads the eye into the distance, in the middle of the painting.
Winter returns to the Book of Genesis, to show the great flood, with lightning crackling through the sky, and a few survivors trying to escape the rising waters. This also shows Poussin’s lifelong dread of snakes: one is slithering up the rocks on the left, and from memory I think that there is another in the water, although I can’t see it in this image. Beyond the distant lightning is the dark form of a hilly island or peninsula.
Poussin’s compositions are varied, but follow the pattern recommended by van Mander. He uses a rich variety of figures and objects within each landscape to establish a theme or mode, in a view which is entirely imaginary but thoroughly real.