Well before the publication of Karel van Mander’s Foundation of the Noble Free Art of Painting (Den Grondt der edel vry Schilder-Const) in 1604, there was a landscape tradition building in the Low Countries of northern Europe, on which his account appears to have been based. Among those forerunners were members of the Brueghel family, including Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
Although most of his surviving landscapes aren’t pure in the sense that they feature foreground figures and their narrative, his Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap from 1565 does appear to be a pure landscape view. There are no figures particularly close by, and those on the ice are not demonstrating the many different activities which they could be undertaking. It also happens that this was one of the first paintings to show Netherlandish people on the ice in the winter – a theme which became very popular with successive generations of artists from that region, and whose influence extended throughout Europe, across centuries and styles.
Its composition appears uncomplicated, and it lacks any more distant background. Its slightly vague horizon is about halfway up the panel, providing equal areas for its barren branches and crows, and the snow-clad village below.
One natural successor to the Brueghels was Peter Paul Rubens, several of whose youthful works were painted together with Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Rubens was an early adopter of a broader format, better suited to panoramic landscapes. This painting has an aspect ratio of 1.75:1 (width:height), which is close to the modern 16:9 HD video standard, rather than 1.62:1, the ‘golden ratio’ so popular since its rediscovery in the Renaissance. His Summer: Peasants going to Market from about 1618 follows the compositional guides which had only recently been recorded in print by Karel van Mander. Both lower corners are busy with trees and a hamlet, with action down in the foreground. In the middle of the canvas the landscape opens up to a view which centres on heavy showers over a far distant city. The viewer’s eyes are guided deep into the image by this framing, the meandering river, the peasants on the road with their flocks of sheep, and the sky above.
At the end of his career, Rubens returned to paint some of the finest landscapes of the seventeenth century, set in the countryside around his estate of Het Steen.
An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c 1636) is one of the larger panels, now in The National Gallery in London, and one of my favourites. As the sun is rising off to the right, a man drives a cart, on top of which a woman is perched precariously, away from Ruben’s castellated mansion. Beside that stream, a hunter is stalking game with his gun and dog.
A small group of people are on the grass in front of the house: a woman is seated, perhaps nursing an infant; next to her is another woman, and a man. Another man is fishing in the moat, from the bridge which connects its main entrance with the outside world. At the far right, a milkmaid walks out to a small herd of cows. There are birds in the sky, and some small tits and others on the scrub in the foreground. Beyond, a great plain of meadows and woods sweeps far to the horizon. The day has begun.
The similarities in his composition with that from nearly twenty years earlier are remarkable. However, there’s one major difference: while undoubtedly idealised, this painting is based on a real and known geographical location just outside the city of Antwerp.
In this and the previous landscape, Rubens places the horizon rather higher than halfway up the painting, and provides abundant detail in the land filling the lower section.
In A Landscape with a Shepherd and his Flock (c 1638), his horizon has dropped to divide the view into halves, the upper being equally interesting and worthy of close attention.
Landscape painting then flourished, becoming a genre in its own right, instead of supplying eye candy in figurative works. It did so in one of the most challenging parts of Europe for the landscape artist: the Low Countries, where the land is almost completely flat and horizons can be drawn with a ruler.
Dutch landscape artists quickly realised that, even if they had relatively little earth and water to depict, the heavens above could be equally interesting. Horizons fell rapidly down their paintings, as seen in Jan van Goyen’s View of Dordrecht with the Grote Kirk Across the Maas from 1644.
At about the same time, Jacob van Ruisdael painted his first panoramic landscape, View of Naarden and the Church of Muiderberg (1647). Still working on a very wide support orientated conventionally in ‘landscape’ mode, his immense sky is no passive backdrop to the land, but the scene of intriguing cloud formations.
Coastal views also became popular during the Dutch Golden Age. Unless backed by elevated dunes, there was no way that the artist could expand thin strips of beach and sea. The dominant towers of cumulus clouds in Adriaen van de Velde’s View of a Beach from 1663-65 became his subjects.
Some painters, including Jacob van Ruisdael, turned their canvases to make portraits of towering clouds, as in his View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields from about 1665. The distant town of Haarlem with its monumentally large church of Saint Bavo – works of man – is dwarfed by these high cumulus clouds, the works of God. This motif proved so popular that Van Ruisdael painted many variants of the same view, making it now one of the most widespread landscapes across the galleries of Europe.
Landscape composition had broken free of the constraints imposed by topography by making the sky the subject of the painting. No longer were landscapes purely secular, as they had developed a religious interpretation as celebrations of the magnificence of God’s creation, rather than being tied to man’s buildings and fields on the ground below.