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Landscape Painting

  Landscape painting is the representation of Nature in art, with or without the depiction of human or animal figures. In European art, landscapes are present, often in a very stylized or idealized form, in the background to many paintings of the Renaissance and earlier. In Asian art, landscape painting existed much earlier.

As a genre in its own right, worthy of a painter\'s attention, pure landscape painting in Europe cannot be traced back much earlier than the 16th century, specifically to Aldorfer\'s Landscape with a Footbridge (c.1520). This painting differs from its predecessors in that there is no subject matter other than Nature, a factor which was negatively to influence critical reaction to the genre until the end of the 19th century. Thus while landscape was important for later European pastoral painters such as Giorgione, or in the narrative painting of Brueghel and the reveries of Watteau, none of these artists may be said to embody the true landscape tradition. In the same way, the ideal landscapes of Claude in the 17th century are properly speaking a variant on history painting (known as Historical Landscape). On the other hand both the Picturesque movement in the later 18th century and Romantic painting placed the representation of landscape at the centre of their philosophy.

In the art of ancient Greece and Rome, landscape painting was not an independent genre, but formed part of the representation of the pastoral myths of literature. As such it may properly be described as background to narrative painting, as an essential yet subservient part of the representation. Yet within Roman art in particular, there emerged in the decoration of villas wall painting whose primary function can be interpreted as enjoyment of depictions of the countryside for their own sake. (A favourite idea was to juxtapose a wall-painting of (say) a garden with a window opening on to a real garden: the juxtaposition made the art.)

In Post-Imperial Europe the development of landscape was an essentially northern phenomenon—in Germany in the 16th century, the Netherlands in the 17th century, and Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries; the 19th century saw the development away from studio painting (perhaps after sketching direct from nature) to plein air painting in the Barbizon School. In Holland, in the 17th century in particular, the taste for landscape knew no limits. This was due in part to the influence of Protestantism, which proscribed ‘idolatory’ (hence dethroning the Scriptures from the pinnacle of the hierarchy of genres) and in part perhaps to the Dutch taste for describing the world around them.

In China, the representation of landscape has always been central to its art, rendered in a non-scientific form of perspective which attempts to reconcile distance and foreground through the judicious use of devices such as meandering rivers. While this tradition continued for centuries, it fell into academicism and sterility which was broken when China was rudely confronted by the economic and cultural power of the West at the beginning of the 20th century. During the height of Communist power in China traditional landscape painting fell victim to the imposition of socialist realism, a genre which focused on the human figure. In Indian and Persian painting, landscape tended to be ‘idealized’, showing the perfect idyllic background to human activity, creating mood and atmosphere rather than making statements of its own. Islamic art, by and large, has eschewed landscape art (in favour of real landscapes, for example beautiful gardens); this is due partly to the prohibition against creating images, and partly to the vigorous and elaborate traditions of abstract and geometric art.

Landscape has played an important part not just in giving identity to societies such as that of 17th-century Holland, but also to those parts of the globe which Europeans colonized in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both in North America and Australia, the visual appropriation of the land by white settlers (whose art opposed the abstract, non-representational imagery of the native peoples) was accomplished largely through the genre of landscape painting, and interesting if not always successful confrontations between, for example, European Romanticism and the Australian bush gave landscape a political as well as aesthetic importance during the 19th century.

In Europe, in the later 19th century, the Impressionists finally succeeded in winning acceptance for landscape as a genre worthy of critical attention. This was accomplished less by confronting the bankrupt genre of narrative painting than by simply ignoring it, and by building up a constituency of patrons and critics who appreciated the directness and freshness of Impressionism after the stultifying and rule-bound productions of the academies. For a time, landscape painting was central to the modernist endeavour, in part at least because its subject matter was seen to be value free, and thus open to the development of stylistic innovation denied to more traditional genres. Within modernism, landscape has continued to play a significant role from the formal analysis of Cézanne to the fauves, expressionism and surrealism, though its importance to the modernist project has naturally tended to decline in the face of Abstraction. MG PD KMcL

Further reading K. Clark, Landscape into Art; , W. Stechow, Dutch Landscape Painting in the Seventeenth Century; , M. Sullivan, The Birth of Landscape Painting in China.



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