Introduction to Landscape Painting and my assessment of influential artworks:
Landscape painting depicts the physical world that surrounds us and includes features such as mountains, valleys, vegetation, and bodies of water. The sky is another important element shaping the mood of landscape paintings. Landscape art ranges from highly detailed and realistic to impressionistic, romantic and idealized. While oil landscape painting predominates, acrylic, and even mixed media are common mediums. One can trace early representations of landscape to the Minoan period. In many ancient cultures landscape frescoes and seccoes served as an extension of nature. Dutch painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that landscape painting became established as an independent genre. Partially inspired by Transcendentalism and the Naturalist movement, landscape painting became an even more important art form in the 1800s. The impact landscape painting had during this time period was so powerful it required people “to assume that the appreciation of natural beauty and the painting of landscape is a normal and enduring part of our spiritual activity.” Contemporary landscapes often feature the human hand; buildings, roads, fences. One of the popular trends in contemporary landscape painting is plain air painting, said to convey nature in a fuller way than studio painting.
Although older than Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand became interested in landscape painting after accompanying Cole on a sketching expedition, so he is often considered Cole’s most faithful follower. His most famous work, “Kindred Spirits”, is actually a posthumous tribute to Thomas Cole, who had died the year before this work was completed.
Durand has represented his mentor in the company of his friend and poet William Cullen Bryant. The two men are standing on a rock, contemplating a fabulous river landscape that includes geographical features (the waterfall that can be seen in the background is a fairly accurate representation of the Kaaterskill Falls, one of Cole’s favourite subjects), but it is not a literal record of a specific place, but an idealized vision of nature.
This painting, perhaps the most famous work from the Hudson River School, was donated to the New York Public Library in 1904, and it was sold in 2005 in a silent auction at Sotheby’s to the Walton Foundation for $35 million, the highest price ever paid for an American painting.
Thomas Cole is often considered the founder of the Hudson River School, and therefore the “father” of American landscape painting. Born in England, he emigrated to Ohio with his family when he was 17, and after a brief and unsuccessful career as a portraitist he began to show interest in the landscape of his adopted country, especially that of the Hudson River. Cole’s works inspired many famous American landscape painters of the following decades, such as Asher Brown Durand or Frederick Edwin Church.
In the mid 1830’s, Thomas Cole was given the important commission of painting “The Course of Empire”, a large series of five canvases for his patron Luman Reed. The second work in the series, “Pastoral State” or “Arcadian State”, was enthusiastically received by Reed, who encouraged Cole to create a second version of the painting, but based on real landscapes known by the artist. Thomas Cole agreed, and told Reed that he had already commenced a view from Mt. Holyoke, the finest scene he has in his sketchbook.
The painting places the viewer on a high point of Mount Holyoke, enjoying a panoramic view of “The Oxbow”, an extension of the Connecticut River. The left side of the composition shows the mountainside, with its wild vegetation under threatening storm clouds. The right side of the painting shows the cultivated land on the banks of the river, a peaceful American Arcadia where man and nature coexist in harmony. The artist has depicted himself painting the scene, sitting quietly on a rock.
Joseph Mallord William Turner is arguably the best landscape painter of all time. A child prodigy, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art in 1789, when he was only 14 years old, and he exhibited his first oil painting in 1796. His early works – executed in a classic style- were well received by critics, who later turned against him when Turner developed his later and freer style. His latest, almost abstract works inspired later generations of artists, and were much admired by the Impressionists.
Located on the border between England and Scotland, Norham Castle is one of the most spectacular ruined fortress in North England. Turner knew the place quite well, as he had visited the castle in 1797, 1801 and 1831, and he had painted several watercolours showing the castle at sunrise. “Norham Castle: Sunrise” is one of the culmination points of the process of artistic liberation undertaken by Turner in the 1830’s, and that resulted in the great masterpieces of the following decade, such as the famous “Rain, Steam and Speed” (National Gallery, London) and the nearly abstract “Sunrise with sea monsters” or “Mountain Landscape”(both in the Tate Gallery in London).
On one occasion, a critic described Turner as “that artist who paints atmospheres”. In this painting, landscape and architecture have merged, and almost any recognizable form has been diluted by the omnipresent light of the sunrise.
America’s greatest landscape painter, Frederic Edwin Church, represents the culmination of the Hudson River School: he had Thomas Cole’s love for the landscape, Asher Brown Durand’s romantic lyricism, and Albert Bierstadt’s grandiloquence, but was definitely braver and technically more gifted than anyone of them.
Church’s early works (such as “Home by the Lake”, 1852) were clearly inspired by his master Thomas Cole, but then Church, inspired by the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, travelled to South America searching new landscapes to paint. After returning to New York, Church painted “The Heart of the Andes”, possibly his most famous work.
“The Heart of the Andes” does not depict a specific place in South America, but an idealized landscape, a compendium of memories from the artist’s journey to the South. At the background we can see the snow-capped Mount Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador that Church painted in several works. In the midst of the vegetation in the foreground a wooden cross can be spotted. Despite the enormous size of the canvas, the level of detail is spectacular, and Church has paid special attention to the flowers and exotic birds.
Church exhibited “The Heart of the Andes” at his studio in early 1859. The work was enthusiastically received, and more than 12,000 people paid the admission fee to admire the painting. Mark Twain said that “The Heart of the Andes” was “in my mind now, and the smallest feature could not be removed without my detecting it”. After the exhibition, Church sold the painting for $10,000 (then the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist) to Margaret Dows, who in 1909 bequeathed the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Born in Germany, Albert Bierstadt emigrated from Europe to Massachusetts with his family when he was just 3 years old. Originally he was part of the Hudson River School, but after several journeys to the American West he became the most representative painter of the so-called Rocky Mountain School, along with Thomas Moran. Bierstadt is the most prolific and possibly the most grandiloquent of all the American painters of his time.
In 1859, Bierstadt was part of an expedition to the Rocky Mountains led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander. The artist was deeply impressed by the landscape of the American West, and after returning to New York, he painted “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak”, often considered his most famous work.
The work depicts Lander’s Peak in Wyoming, although the landscape in the foreground is rather an idealized landscape, a silent ode to the life of Native Americans, represented as the essence of the American West. The contrast between the strong light of the background and the relative obscurity of the area in the foreground strangely reminds René Magritte’s “The Empire of Lights”.
Like Church did with his “The Heart of the Andes“, Bierstadt successfully exhibited “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak” shortly after its completion. The painting was sold for $25,000 to James McHenry, but Bierstadt later bought back the work, which passed to his brother Edward. The painting is owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York since 1907, and hangs right in front of Church 0s “The Heart of the Andes”, acquired two years later.
“There is only one master: Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing” Claude Monet
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot is one of the great landscape painters of the nineteenth century and, along with Jean-François Millet, the most prominent member of the Barbizon School. This school drew inspiration directly from nature, with influences of John Constable, whose work was exhibited in Paris in 1824.
In his early works, Corot showed a clearly Realist style, but throughout his career his style evolved into a more poetic one. “Souvenir de Mortefontaine (Recollection of Mortefontaine)” is widely considered the great masterpiece of his late period. The painting, exhibited at the Louvre since 1889, was very admired by the Impressionists.
As the title indicates, the painting does not depict a specific landscape, but is the result of the idealized memories that the artist kept of the town of Mortefontaine (northern France), a place Corot frequently visited in the 1850s. A few years later, Corot painted a similar work, “The Boatman of Mortefontaine”.
“Souvenir de Mortefontaine” was well received among the critics, and the proof is that the work was acquired by the French state the same year of its creation.
Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov was one of the most important -arguably the most important- of all the 19th century Russian landscape painters, famous for his lyrical style and melancholic compositions. He was a strong influence for several later Russian landscape painters, such as Isaac Levitan and Konstantin Korovin.
Unlike other Russian artists of the time, Savrasov made several journeys to Europe, attending art fairs and exhibitions. In one of his journeys he met the work of John Constable, whose naturalistic style had a great influence in his works. His most famous work is “The rooks have returned”, an ode to the nature of his native Russia. But as a pure landscape, his ‘Sundown over a marsh’ is an unsurpassed example of his typical ‘lyrical landscape’ style.
The landscape is simple but yet very strong: there is no trace of human life, there is nothing but sad and endless marshes, illuminated by the gloomy evening light. The same year that this painting was completed, Savrasov’s daughter died, and the artist fell into depression and alcoholism. Therefore, the pessimistic and melancholic aspect of the work seems a reflection of the artist’s own emotions.
After the arrival of the first European settlements in Australia in 1788, several young artists from the Old Continent moved to Australia and began to paint the landscapes of their new homeland. These include John Glover, S. T. Gill (both born in England) and Johann Joseph Eugene von Guérard, born in Austria.
Having studied at the Düsseldorf Academy, von Guerard knew the art of the European landscape painters, from Claude Lorrain to Caspar David Friedrich. He moved to Australia in 1852 and after an unsuccessful experience as a gold-digger, von Guerard decided to apply his knowledge to the Australian landscape. His early works include a view of Mount Kosciusko that was one of the first works acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Later, Eugene von Guérard visited New Zealand in search of new landscapes, and “Milford Sound” is the peak of his achievements.
Milford Sound is one of the most Impressive locations in New Zealand, a fjord that runs 15 kilometres inland surrounded by peaks over 1,000 meters high. Von Guérard represents the geology and vegetation of the place with scientific accuracy. The only human presence is a small boat approaching the shore. This representation of the human figure as almost insignificant when compared to nature is reminiscent of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.
A French-born English artist, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) is, along with Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, the most “pure” representative of Impressionism. He was above all a landscape painter. Less gifted than Monet and less versatile than Pissarro, he is particularly remarkable for his excellent use of colour and his strong representations of the sky.
The 1870s were a complicated decade for Alfred Sisley, without any financial support after the collapse of his family business as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. But it was also during this period when the artist created his best works, such as the “Chemin de la Machine, Louveciennes” or his famous series of “Flood at Port-Marly”.
“Meadow” is the quintessential Impressionist landscape: spontaneous, free, and apparently unfinished. The composition is simple, divided into three different planes separated by the fence and the horizon. The foreground is dominated by grasses and flowers, created with loose brush strokes. Behind these we see a rural landscape, and above it a magnificent sky, reminiscent of the cloud studies of the English painter John Constable.
“They are endless Wheatfield’s under a cloudy sky, and I have not hesitated to attempt to express sadness and the deepest loneliness” Vincent van Gogh
This is one of the most famous works of Vincent van Gogh, a somewhat dramatic painting commonly associated with the artist’s suicide, which happened a few weeks later. Contrary to what is commonly thought, it is almost sure that this was not Van Gogh’s last painting.
The representation of the wheat fields of Auvers-sur-Oise under different atmospheric conditions was one of Van Gogh’s favourite subjects during the last months of his life. In addition to the famous painting “of the crows”, the artist painted “Wheatfield under a stormy sky”, in a canvas of the same dimensions as this one, as well as several smaller pictures. But “Wheatfield with Crows” is unique for its vigorous strokes, its dark stormy sky -accentuating the contrast with the yellow wheat- and the presence of the crows, which has given rise to numerous interpretations.
Are the crows a symbol of death? This interpretation is quite accepted today. But in his letters, Van Gogh always spoke of the birds as a symbol of freedom (“please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds!”, he had written in 1880) In this painting, none of the roads seem to lead to an exit from the infinite Wheatfield’s, from where it seems that only the crows can escape. But once again, we must remember that trying to find “symbolic interpretations” in Van Gogh’s paintings is a practice that, although attractive, can lead to unfounded conclusions.
Claude Monet is the impressionist painter par excellence and as such one of the best landscape painters of all time. Among his many contributions to modern Western art was the “series” of paintings, similar to those of Hokusai and Hiroshige, which influenced later painters like Andy Warhol. Monet’s most famous series are the “Haystacks” and the “Rouen Cathedral” series. Somewhat less known are his “Poplars” series, which nevertheless are an excellent example of Monet’s talent for painting nature.
In 1891, Monet was already a well-known and well-paid painter. That allowed him not only to rent a boat in order to paint the poplars from the river, but also to convince (via previous payment) the owner of the trees (a lumber merchant) not to chop the poplars down until the painter had finished painting the entire series. It includes examples with simple compositions (such as “The Four Trees” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which reminds Mondrian’s neoplasticist paintings; as well as other pictures with more complex composition, of which “Poplars on the banks of the Epte” is the best example.
The composition so beautifully resembles the beauty of a Japanese haiku, asymmetric and touching, while the poplars’ leaves sing in red, purple, and finally in a blue that would make Yves Klein green with envy. It’s Monet in his full bloom, the artist who once told his family that he wanted “to paint as the bird sings”.
Monet exhibited this painting along with the rest of “poplars” at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1892. It was the second consecutive success for artist, following the exhibition of the “haystacks” series the previous year. After finishing this series, Monet focused his efforts on the most important series he ever created, the “Rouen Cathedral” series, often considered the “climax” of Impressionism.
Henri Matisse is one of the most important painters of the early twentieth century. Alma mater of Fauvism, he was the creator of an expressive pictorial language based on the arbitrary use of colour that influenced many of the major avant-gardes of the first half of the 20th century.
In 1904 Matisse met Paul Signac, and incorporated the pointillism language to his works, which is evident in paintings such as “Luxe, calme et volupte” (1904, Paris, Orsay). The following year, 1905, was a highpoint in Matisse’s career. In a group exhibition at the Salon d’Automne –an event considered to be the birth of Fauvism- Matisse shows a series of paintings in which the arbitrary use of colour (colours that differ from the real ones, such as the green and yellow face of the woman in “Woman with a Hat”) caused a shock among the art critics.
“Landscape at Collioure” is halfway between the artist’s brief “pointillist period” and his more characteristic fauvist language. It depicts the Mediterranean landscape surrounding Collioure, a small coastal town in the Languedoc-Roussillon province, where Matisse had been established to work with his friend and rival André Derain. In other landscapes created in Collioure, such as “The open window”, Matisse uses other elements to create a certain feeling of depth. But in this landscape there is nothing but patches of wild and uninhibited colour, free and fully fauvist.
“In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, and the colours fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.” Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter is without a doubt one of the most famous artists of recent times, perhaps best known for his “photo-paintings” depicting candles, skulls, and even landscapes, such as his “Corsica” series (1968-69) or his view of “Barn” (1984). However, he also developed an abstract style of painting -completely opposite to his “photo-paintings”- that played an important role in his career since the late 70’s.
In this abstract style, Richter created two series of paintings entitled “Forest”. The first of them, painted in 1990, consists of four large canvases (340 cm x 260 cm). In 2005, Richter created a second series of 12 paintings of slightly smaller format (197 cm x 132 cm). The rhythm created by the vertical lines is reminiscent of the inside of a dense forest. In the same year, Richter began to take photographs of the forests near his home in Cologne, and then collected in his book “Wald”, published in 2008.
“I like to meditate before the landscape. That gives me a different perspective when I finally sit down to paint one. While other painters begin by intellectualizing nature, I think of myself recreating it” Tomás Sánchez
Born in 1948 in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba, Tomas Sanchez is probably the most famous Cuban contemporary painter. Although he is often considered a hyperrealist painter, Sanchez’s tropical forests come from inside his mind. Just like Henri Rousseau said that he was “in a dream“every time he went to the tropical gardens in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, Sánchez declared in an interview that “when I enter a state of meditation it is as if I’m in a jungle or a forest”.
“Oir las aguas” is one of Sánchez’s most famous paintings. The influence of Caspar David Friedrich -or even the painters of the Hudson River School- is evident in the idea of the insignificance of the human figure when compared with nature. This ideal landscape, almost perfectly symmetrical, is the visual image of how the mind of the artist imagines Cuba before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers.
Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most original American artists of the early twentieth century. Born in Wisconsin, in 1918 she moved to New York to live with her partner, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. There she came into contact with the artists from the circle of Stieglitz, such as Arthur Dove or Edward Steichen. Then she became one of the first artists to represent the landscape of the American Southwest. Just like Suffolk is sometimes called the “Constable country”, the northern New Mexico is known as “O’Keeffe country”.
Between 1915 and 1930, O’Keeffe created a very personal style of abstract painting, without entirely abandoning figuration. Abstraction was for O’Keeffe “the most definite form for the intangible thing in me that I can only clarify in paint”, she wrote in 1976. However, tired of reading some interpretations of her abstract works, she occasionally returned to a more figurative style.
“Spring” is a great example of her style, halfway between abstraction and representation. In 1922 Georgia O’Keeffe was already a well-respected figure in the American art scene, to the point that her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, tried to sell 6 of her paintings for $25,000, then a record for a group of paintings by a living American artist.
“Cézanne was my one and only master (…) He was like the father of us all” Pablo Picasso
The many views of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire that Paul Cézanne painted between 1882 and 1906 rank among the greatest landscapes ever painted, and they had a great importance in the development of modern art
Cézanne moved to Provence in the early 1880’s and, disillusioned with Impressionism, he decided to follow his own path, finding inspiration in the landscape. His soon became interested in the representation of Mount Sainte-Victoire, a 1011 meter (3,317 ft) high near Aix-en-Provence.
Like Hokusai in his “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”, Cézanne used different points of view in his “Montagne Sainte-Victoire” paintings, allowing the representation of the environs of the mountain. This diversity is key to understanding the evolution of Cezanne’s late style. In the first views of the mountain, of which the most famous example is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1882-1885), Cézanne gives importance to the drawing, highlighting the presence of the trees in the foreground. In the later works, like the ones belonging to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Kunsthaus Zurich, line has virtually disappeared and there are only colour planes representing different volumes.
“Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective”, Cézanne wrote in 1904. The art of Cézanne, “cubist before the cubism”, set the basis of the 20th century avant-garde.