From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, most landscape painters tried to depict views with some degree of truth to nature, even if those views never existed in any single place but were composite or idealised. Indeed, Brunelleschi’s first semi-legendary demonstration of correct perspective projection compared his painted views of churches in Florence with reality. Distortions of that were thus considered to be aberrations, although not always.
We also know that many painters viewed the world through a camera obscura, well-documented long before the Renaissance, although whether any used those images as the basis for paintings is considerably more controversial. It was the evolution of the World View painting into panoramas which first marked the introduction of optical manipulation in landscape painting.
Caspar Wolf’s Panorama of Grindelwald with the Wetterhorn, Mettenberg and Eiger which he painted in 1774 is a relatively early example which shows the distortion needed to include the whole of this view on a single canvas, with an aspect ratio of 2.75:1. Today we’d envisage this as being painted through a wide-angle lens, although it was a century before such camera lenses came into use.
A little later, Giovanni Battista Lusieri attained high aspect ratios by assembling multiple supports, in his case sheets of paper, as he worked in watercolour on this View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southwest from the Pizzofalcone Toward Capo di Posilippo (1791).
The panorama itself was pure spectacle and entertainment. The word was coined by Robert Barker for an invention of his which he patented in 1787, the original depicting Edinburgh. This panorama was painted on a large roll of paper, which was first exhibited in Leicester Square, London, an area now known for its leading movie theatres. Baker either stuck the painted roll on the inside of a large cylinder, for rotation about the viewer (also known as a cyclorama), or later he scrolled the roll past the eyes of the viewers.
But 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.
By about 1830, Théodore Rousseau’s Panoramic View of the Ile-de-France attained the highest aspect ratio yet, of just over 3.7:1, which may have been driven by the growing popularity of panoramas as entertainment. He 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 used a camera obscura to draw in the view, although I’m not aware of any evidence that was the case.
Even the meticulously realist Jean-Léon Gérôme used this optical effect, here in his Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant from 1859. Its wide-angle view has a lower aspect ratio of 1.6:1, but was so wide that it attracted criticism when it was exhibited. Gérôme became a pioneer photographer, and a defender of photography as a new art in its own right, but he can’t have projected this view using an early wide-angle lens even if he had been able to, as they are spherical in their effect, so would have shown more of the top and bottom of the image.
Instead, Gérôme’s image much more closely resembles widescreen movies, which of course didn’t start to appear until the 1920s, and weren’t commonplace until the 1950s. If anything, Gérôme’s panoramic spectacles were the precursor to widescreen cinema, and continued to be an influence on them. His paintings were important to Ridley Scott when he was making Gladiator (2000), for example.
Although optical effects are often attributed to the French Impressionists, their great exponent was another pioneer photographer (with his brother Martial), Gustave Caillebotte.
Caillebotte’s Pont de l’Europe (1876) shows a roadbridge over the railway yards at Gare Saint-Lazare, with an unusual perspective projection which may well have been derived from photography.
Of the visual artists of the late nineteenth century, it wasn’t the Impressionists who developed optical effects most, but Naturalists led by Jules Bastien-Lepage.
Bastien’s Haymakers was painted in 1877 and exhibited at the Salon the following year. It was a pioneer composition with its high horizon and fine detail in the foreground. Together these give the visual impression that the whole canvas is meticulously realist, although in fact much of its surface consists of visible brushstrokes and other more painterly marks. At the same time, its deep recession and broad inclusion of land gives it the illusion of a very wide-angle panorama, despite its low aspect ratio of 1.2:1, which enhances the exhaustion and desolation of its figures.
Other Naturalists used the same compositional devices. Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s Worn Out from 1889 follows suit: the horizon is high, the view appears wide-angle despite its aspect ratio of only 1.3:1, and in the foreground the detail is meticulous. The two figures form a triangle, a classically strong compositional geometry.
Other photographic effects beyond wide-angle views were used in landscape painting.
Eugène Burnand’s magnificent painting of Bull in the Alps from 1884 combines depth-of-field with extreme aerial perspective. There are marked contrasts between the foreground and background in terms of chroma, hue and lightness, and Burnand has reinforced these with defocussing in a photographic manner. The crisp edges of the bull stand proud of the softer edges and forms in the mountains behind. Burnand was a pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme, although I suspect that he didn’t learn these effects in his teacher’s studio.
Telescopes had been invented in the early seventeenth century, and were used by many landscape painters to acquire the fine details they needed for very precise paintings. The Pre-Raphaelite landscape artist John Brett is thought to have used them when painting in the Alps, and for his breathtakingly detailed view of Florence. What Brett didn’t do, though, was use the optical effects of a telescope in the composition of his views.
It was Gustav Klimt who painted this view of the Church in Cassone (1913), when on holiday on Lake Garda. Its flattened perspective is characteristic of the use of a lens with long focal length, as in a telescope or camera. Another good indicator is the very small difference in scale between the houses at the water’s edge and those behind the church, even though in reality the latter must have been a significant distance from the shore. These flattened views are distinctive of many of Klimt’s landscapes, and different again from landscapes of Paul Cézanne in which he has deliberately removed depth effects from what would otherwise be a normal view.