There are several themes in painting that are used to display technical brilliance, including collections of polished metalware and glass, but for the landscape painter there are few challenges greater than reflections on water. This weekend I show a small selection of paintings that have risen to that challenge, both in the depiction of landscapes and that of figures.
Painting reflections wasn’t one of the greater achievements of the Renaissance. Although a few artists had success in smaller vignettes, limited insight into the optics of reflections made more substantial views more tricky.
Albrecht Dürer was one of the first landscape painters to recognise their challenge, and to take the time and care to get them right, here in his watercolour View of Innsbruck from about 1495.
Just over a hundred and fifty years later, Nicolas Poussin used them to augment the placid atmosphere in his idealised Landscape with a Calm (c 1651). The upper parts of the Italianate mansion, together with the livestock on the far bank of the lake, are painstakingly reflected on the lake’s surface, telling the viewer that there isn’t a breath of breeze to bring ripples to disturb those reflections.
With improved understanding of the optics of reflections, they still retained their challenge, and even the greatest of landscape artists made mistakes.
JMW Turner was less consistent in his reflections, but at his most faithful remains accurate in this view of Campo Santo, Venice from 1842, where reflected sails appear angelic in form.
Claude Monet’s masterwork Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil from 1873 is an excellent example from high Impressionism, with its finely broken and rippled reflections.
Alfred Sisley made good use of reflections in this more realist view of Moret Bridge in the Sunlight from 1892, one of a series of over ten similar views of the town of Moret-sur-Loing, where he lived his later years.
Alder Trunks from 1893 is one of Laurits Andersen Ring’s finest landscapes, and has earned it place in the Danish Royal Collection. He shows these old coppiced alders mainly in reflection. Although their details are quite painterly, the overall effect is that of precise realism.
Eilert Adelsteen Normann’s views of Norway include many fine examples of reflections, including this unspecified and undated Norwegian Fjord, which may well be a view of Sognefjord with its slightly rippled mirror surface.
Frits Thaulow, another Norwegian, came to specialise in painting reflections. Soon after settling at Beaulieu, he found form with the magnificent river surface and lighting of La Dordogne (1903), in which the precise detail in the foreground quickly yields to a more sketchy background.
Reflections also found favour with the Neo-Impressionists, whose Pointillist technique lends itself to optical effects.
Of Paul Signac’s many reflections, my favourite is Sunset, Herblay, painted in September 1889, showing one of the wooded islands on the River Seine.
Théo van Rysselberghe used a different approach in his Neo-Impressionist landscapes. While the eyecatching geometry of his Canal in Flanders (1894) combines radical perspective projection, intense rhythm and meticulous reflections, it’s quite different in style from contemporary paintings of Seurat.