Over the last few months, I have looked at different aspects of the composition of landscape paintings. This article is a first attempt to draw those topics together into a short history.
From the earliest landscape paintings, their composition followed traditional principles first codified in 1604, in Karel van Mander’s Foundation of the Noble Free Art of Painting (Den Grondt der edel vry Schilder-Const). Intended primarily for figurative works, van Mander distinguished between a figurative foreground and a landscape background. He advised filling corners but keeping the middle of the image as free as possible to allow a more distant view far into the depth of the landscape, with its pictorial content in harmony.
Giorgione’s pioneering painting of The Tempest in about 1504-8 follows this tradition, and anticipates the use of foreground trees to create repoussoir, which coupled with his linear perspective in buildings, give this view depth.
Albrecht Dürer was another innovative landscape painter, whose View of Innsbruck from about 1495 is an early example of the use of reflections on the surface of the river. The horizon is also low, allowing the space for development of a cloudscape.
Landscape of the Danube near Regensburg is one of Albrecht Altdorfer’s five known pure landscape paintings, and was made between about 1528-30. This further develops repoussoir, and establishes the distinction of foreground, middle distance and far distance, with a low horizon to accommodate the framing trees and allow a dramatic cloudscape.
Diego Velázquez’s pioneering paintings made in front of the motif when he was in Rome in 1630 show a new challenge to landscape composition. If an artist is going to depict what they see in front of them, composition takes place in the selection of the point of view relative to the landscape to be painted. Once the artist has chosen where and what to paint, its composition is largely fixed. These paintings were also probably the first oil sketches made en plein air, a technique which was to be developed later by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, then to form the central tenet of Impressionism.
Developments later in the seventeenth century were dominated by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain.
Poussin’s Landscape with a Calm from about 1651 is one of his late pure landscape paintings, of an idealised 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 staffage in 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’.
Claude is best-known for his contre-jour views, straight into the setting sun. Embarkation of St Paula is typical of these with its towering classical buildings giving it great depth and drawing the eye from its foreground figures to the low sun.
The Dutch Golden Age saw strong demand for landscape paintings of the flat terrain in the Low Countries, which brought further innovation.
Some artists, 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 – the work of man – is dwarfed by these high cumulus clouds, the work of God. This proved so popular that he painted many variants of the same view, making it one of the most widespread landscapes across the galleries of Europe.
Just over a century later, the landscape painter’s supports were returned to the ‘landscape’ orientation and extended for another solution to the compositional problem: the panorama, distinguished by its high aspect ratio.
In the late eighteenth century, 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 was originally intended as pure spectacle and entertainment. The word was coined by Robert Barker for an invention of his which he patented in 1787, the original depicting the city of Edinburgh. 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 from its elevated position.
In time, wide angle panoramas were complemented by those painted through telescopes, which lost depth, and eventually by other optical effects employed in photography.
Compositional control now encompassed depth, breadth, height, and the direction of sunlight. Painting by moonlight had enjoyed brief popularity during the Dutch Golden Age, and had been developed further in the middle of the eighteenth century by Claude-Joseph Vernet, when it matured during the nineteenth century.
JMW Turner’s first notably successful ‘fine art’ painting was this nocturne of Fishermen at Sea from 1796. In compositional terms, it follows van Mander’s principles in concentrating interest in the centre of the canvas. Its horizon is slightly lower than halfway, to give ample room for his romantic sky.
In his late paintings, Turner moved further away from those traditions. For example, in The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842) it’s the clearly-defined mass of the Rigi which blocks any more distant view. Most other forms have become vague and diffuse, apart from those of birds and fishermen in the foreground.
The late nineteenth century brought further departures from tradition.
In his early landscapes, Camille Pissarro had used trees to frame his motifs in repoussouir, but during the late 1860s they started to invade more central areas of his canvas. In about 1869, in his Winter Landscape at Louveciennes, tree trunks and branches came to divide the landscape beyond into small strips, hiding that motif.
Claude Monet’s Poplars on the Bank of the Epte (1892) remains one of the quintessential Impressionist paintings of trees, with its flowing rhythms.
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. This process of reduction continued into the twentieth century, by which time Ferdinand Holder had distilled views over Lake Geneva into strips of colour.