So far in this series on the composition of landscapes, I’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the landscape itself. Relatively few paintings are completely devoid of human figures, and many contain substantial groups, animals and birds, and movable objects such as carts and ships. Collectively those are known by the term staffage, accessories used by the artist to decorate the view and increase its appeal to other humans.
Landscapes empty of living creatures like Paul Nash’s The Shore (1923) look bleak and unnatural, particularly when expressed in such geometrical terms.
From the earliest beginnings of Giorgione’s revolutionary The Tempest, from just after 1500, figures have had a prominent role in many landscapes.
In The Harvesters from 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder tells the full story of harvest activities in the figures dotted around this section of countryside. The figures in many of Nicolas Poussin’s landscapes are drawn from classical myths, and others suggest hidden narratives which extend well beyond mere staffage.
Although it can be hard to decide when figures are really narrative, and when they’re just staffage, in many cases it’s quite easy.
In Canaletto’s fine view of Alnwick Castle, painted in about 1750, figures are dotted fairly evenly across its very green grass. Only one group appears to be working at any real activity: the two men in the foreground, at the lower left corner, who seem to be using a crowbar on something in the riverbank. Around the castle, there is a shepherd and companion with an unrealistically tiny flock of sheep, and three small groups of people talking, looking, or just present. These all seem remarkably everyday, even humdrum, thus staffage.
These figures can serve other compositional purposes too.
Pissarro painted this woodland view of an Avenue in the Parc de Marly in the autumn of 1871. It looks towards the village of Marly-le-Roi from the Port du Phare, inside the grounds of the Château de Marly. His skilful use of staffage draws the eye towards the far end of the avenue, and emphasises depth with the contrasting sizes of the figures.
In Eilert Adelsteen Normann’s view of Romsdal Fjord from 1877, not only does his staffage transform what might otherwise have been a desolate scene, but the figures and distant steamer indicate the scale of the fjord.
Foreground figures can be vital for instilling a sense of scale to the whole view. James Ward’s vast and imposing painting of Gordale Scar (1812–15) benefits greatly from the herds of cattle and deer at its foot. Without them it would be easy to misjudge the scale of the cliff faces and the huge cleft in them.
Some staffage figures have developed into characters in their own right, most famously the Wanderer. He’s normally seen alone, dressed to roam the more remote landscapes of Europe, and usually facing away, contemplating the same view from within it.
Thomas Fearnley was an early enthusiast for the Wanderer, seen here with scattered sheep for company, as he studies the ice wall of the Grindelwald Glacier in 1838.
The Wanderer also appears in some surprising places. Martín Rico’s early landscape painted Near Azañón (1859) places him in arid country in his native Spain. Unusually, this Wanderer faces the viewer rather than looking away.
The zenith of staffage, its tour de force, comes in the huge landscapes painted in the middle of the nineteenth century by Frederic Edwin Church, in particular The Heart of the Andes from 1859.
Tucked away among the brightly-coloured birds and rich plant life, at the very heart of The Heart of the Andes, is a cross, with two figures by it. Dressed as locals, one sits, facing the cross, while the other stands just behind the seated figure, looking in the same direction. The cross is made simply of wood, and appears to have been decorated with a floral garland. It is partly obscured by the luxuriant wayside plants.
Over its five square metres of canvas, these are the only visible humans.
They are part of a complex passage. The cross stands just off a path, which winds its way past a dead tree-trunk, seen at the left here, on which the artist has ‘carved’ the year and his name. The path then curves to the left, along the bottom of a small gully, where it disappears into the trees and undergrowth.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the staffage in Pissarro’s cityscapes started to take over their paintings.
Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Spring (1897) is a landscape composed primarily of buildings and streets, a plethora of figures, and countless carriages to move those people around.
Colin Campbell Cooper’s approach to cityscapes is quite different to Pissarro’s. The buildings – which at first seem to dominate his paintings – provide backdrop, rhythm, and vertical form. All the finer details, over which he must have lavished such care and attention, are in the figures, vehicles, and the action in the street. The figures may be Lilliputian in scale, thanks largely to his elevated and distant viewpoints, but they are essential to the image, so much more than just a finishing touch.