The late nineteenth century brought many changes in the composition of landscape paintings. I’ve already shown how some defaced their views with trees, which marked a complete departure from the longstanding rules which had first been codified by Karel van Mander in 1604, although they had been used in practice for longer. This article looks at another major departure from tradition, how views became reduced in scope and content, eventually resulting in bands of colour which many have assumed was the antecedent for abstract art.
Early in the Impressionist movement, their landscapes were composed relatively conventionally.
Auguste Renoir’s famous views of La Grenouillère painted in the summer of 1869 are good examples. While he has applied paint in a modern and painterly manner, there’s a distinct foreground populated with boats, figures and structures, and the eye is led into the distance in a clear break at the upper right. Although it appears spontaneous and has a different look, its composition is more conservative than its facture.
Camille Pissarro’s Avenue in the Parc de Marly from 1871 follows a long tradition in the painting of avenues of trees.
The following year, Alfred Sisley’s view of The Canal Saint-Martin, Paris is also conventional in its composition.
Claude Monet’s masterwork Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil from 1873 is almost a textbook example of a river landscape in autumn.
Paul Cézanne was more experimental in his paintings. When he was painting alongside Pissarro in the 1870s, he usually worked away from the others, and evolved compositions which were quite different. By 1879-80, when he painted The Bridge at Maincy, not only had he developed his ‘constructive stroke’ as seen in the foliage here, but many of his paintings had reduced compositions. Here there’s no real foreground, and almost everything lies in a single plane.
During the late 1870s, Renoir too moved on from conventional composition to views like his In the Woods (c 1880), which is all light and colour, and form has dissolved into a myriad of small touches of paint.
Renoir’s Field of Banana Trees, from 1881, shows a grove of banana palms and little else apart from the suggestion of chalk sea cliffs in the background.
Renoir followed a succession of artists, many inspired by the ukiyo-e print of Hokusai’s Great Wave, in painting The Wave on the Normandy coast in the summer of 1882.
In 1891, when Pissarro’s style was still making the journey back from Neo-Impressionism, he painted this bank of fog at the edge of a wood near Éragny, in Meadow at Éragny with Cows, Fog, Sunset.
Monet’s series of paintings of grainstacks which he made during 1890-91 are further reduced.
Grainstack, Sun in the Mist, numbered 1286, is thought to be one of the later paintings in the series, apparently showing the sole remaining grainstack in the Spring of 1891. He followed those with a series of more than thirty paintings of a small section of the exterior of Rouen Cathedral, in 1892-93, which many claim are verging on the abstract.
In the twentieth century, it was claimed that Cézanne’s constructive strokes were a direct precedent to Cubism and abstract art. This painting, at least, appears to be thoroughly representational, and was almost certainly painted mostly in front of the motif. Its composition is far removed from anything prior to 1870.
Those who came after the heyday of Impressionism moved even further away from conventional composition.
Egon Schiele’s Autumn Sun and Trees from 1912 reduces its landscape to zones of colour and texture, with two minimal trees to remind us of what repoussoir used to be.
Ferdinand Hodler’s view of Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc in the (Red) Dawn Light, which he painted a few months before he died, completes the reduction into bands consisting of water coloured by the sky, a zone of blue reflections of the far bank, the merged distant shore and mountains, and the sky.