»For, truly, art is embedded in nature; whoever can draw it out, has it.« (Albrecht Dürer)
Reflection of human sensibilities or soulful rendering of nature: these were common aspects of landscape painting during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this genre of object-related painting did not always occupy such a highly respected position.
It seems elementary and logical that artists would want to explore their environment, both natural and cultivated. So it is all the more astonishing that painting from late antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages barely alluded to land formations—apart from the ubiquitous golden background. It was only upon the eve of the Renaissance that painters ceased to use the patterns handed down over the generations and began capturing their reality by observing it closely. In Flemish calendars and Books of Hours, landscapes were depicted as backgrounds for visual narratives from the Bible or history. The illustrations done by the Limburg Brothers for the Très Riches Heures, commissioned by the Duc du Berry, are famous. This was the first attempt at recreating both three-dimensional space and the light conditions observed at different times of the day. At first, book illustrations were far superior to panel painting, and it was only oil paint that finally made it possible to employ the most delicate changes in color and translucent glazes to capture space, atmosphere, and light phenomena.
In Italy, painter and architect Brunelleschi discovered linear perspective and thus opened up the possibility of portraying space on the two-dimensional surface. Around 1470 Piero della Francesca´s treatise De prospettiva pigendi contained the first mathematically precise description of one-point perspective. Leonardo da Vinci systematically investigated the phenomenon of aerial perspective. Dürer´s woodcuts attracted attention in Venice. There, it was typical to meld figure and landscape, light and color, in order to form a poetic visual whole, as can also be found in the works of Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian.
New standards were set in Rome in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Annibale Carracci´s exact studies of nature and use of color heralded the coming of the Baroque. Adam Elsheimer´s small, detailed landscapes on copper, featuring Biblical and mythological scenes, are distinguished by their brilliant color and virtuoso treatment of different sources of light. Paul Bril specialized in composing idealized landscapes. Elements recalling stage sets, or repoussoirs (exaggeratedly large objects in the foreground) of trees and buildings, directed the eye to the far distant horizon, while figures still simply served as window-dressing. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain also lived in Rome. Their idealized visual inventions were bathed in a gentle light and dotted with pieces of ancient architecture and figures from mythology or the Bible. They became the role models for the classicists and their heroic landscapes.
Copper etchings allowed the Italian influence to be felt in the Netherlands. There, in the mid-sixteenth century, the standards were set by Joachim Patinir, Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Brueghel. However, landscape became first became an independent theme in the seventeenth century. Increasing interest in natural research, as well as scientific and technological progress, contributed to this development, as did the growing wealth of the bourgeoisie, who began to purchase art. The genre soon fanned out into different themes, and individual painters concentrated upon them. There were specialists in imaginary landscapes, Italian landscapes, mountain, coastline, and river landscapes; topographical landscapes, waterscapes, winter scenes, et cetera. Jacob van Ruisdael´s gloomy landscapes, with their dramatic cloud formations, dying trees, and plunging waterfalls, expressed melancholy. Contrastingly, Aelbert Cuyps´s idealized scenes, many of them rural, were full of good cheer. Worth special mention here are Rembrandt´s experimental etchings, which he began making in 1640.
In the eighteenth century, the demand for topographically precise landscapes grew, and examples of these are the vedute by Venetian artists Bellotto, Canaletto, and Guardi. Characteristic of French painting in this period were the gentle, airy landscapes in paintings by Watteau and Fragonard.
At the start of the nineteenth century, Romantic poets and artists, inspired by the writings of Rousseau, saw in nature a source of passionate emotion, a metaphysical dimension. After religious beliefs had been brought into doubt during the Enlightenment, painters such as Caspar David Friedrich found a transcendental reference in nature. Academic principles of painting were abandoned. Interest passed from the motif to the technique. Paul Cézanne no longer attempted to portray three-dimensional space on a flat surface. The canvas was regarded as a two-dimensional field, where the order of form and color was relevant. The painting became a reality parallel to the reality of the world, not a portrayal of it.
Toward the end of the century, the tendency to interpret the environment from a subjective standpoint grew, and so did the importance of the artist´s own hand, as can be seen in Van Gogh´s expressive landscapes. The painters of the Barbizon School were the first to devote themselves to painting outdoors. Their goal was to depict nature and all of its various types of light in a realistic, objective manner. Impressionists such as Claude Monet also worked outside, but went even further: for them, the perception of things became more important than their meaning.
In the twentieth century, the interest in landscape as a phenomenon continued, although the forms of expression altered. They ranged from Impressionistic paintings by artists such as Liebermann and Slevogt, to the Fauves in France; from the search for genuine nature in exotic lands, as depicted by Gauguin, Pechstein, Nolde, and Kirchner, to the gray cloud paintings of Gerhard Richter, or works by Anselm Kiefer, whose painting, Märkisches Land, features names of towns from Theodor Fontane´s Walks in Brandenburg, etched into oil paints strewn with sand.
The relationship between painting and photography became obvious in the work of Eugène Atget, who documented Paris at the turn of the century. His photographs served as bases for the work of his painter friends. Ansel Adams made use of romantic painting in his black-and-white photography.
Jeff Wall makes occasional references to art history in his staged works. Others have creatively intervened in nature, as Beuys did in his project, 7000 Oaks, for documenta 7 in Kassel; or like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who altered the look of Central Park in New York with orange flags. Land Art artist Robert Smithson went one step further with his Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which he left to the processes of nature, thus dissolving the boundary between artwork and landscape.
01.10.2007 Monika Wolz