August 28, 2019

What is landscape art?

The term “landscape,”  from the Dutch “lantscap” meaning  “a picture of scenery,” entered the English language in the 17th century.

Attempts to represent animals and people dates to the cave drawings of the stone age, about 14,000 years ago. But, it was not until 1500 B.C. that we find the land itself portrayed in frescoes of Minoan Greece. In this blog, we will track the evolution of landscape art from these early frescoes to the brilliant canvas paintings of the 19th century.

Greek fresco of dolphins swimming. Early phase in evolution of landscape art.
Minoan Fresco

The Greek and Roman contributions

Between 323 and 30 B.C. the Greeks developed a system of perspective that produced realistic panoramas. The Romans also made use of this in frescoes found in sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The adoption of Grecian technique by the Romans was not surprising, as they admired Greek art and used many of its innovations in their own works.  But, although the amount of surviving Greek sculpture and paintings is significant, there remains virtually no signed Roman artwork. Further, while Greeks honored their major artists, the Romans considered their painters as mere tradesmen and kept the artwork they produced anonymous.

A reproduction of a Roman fresco borrowing the Greek perspective technique is shown below.

Roman fresco using perspective to depict depth.
Roman Fresco from Pompeii utilizing perspective

Art of the Middle Ages (500-1500 A.D.)

Large panoramas appear often in both Roman and Chinese art of this period. But until the 19th century there was a distinct difference in the subject matter in Eastern and Western art. Western art used landscapes to allow depiction of mythology, famous battles, and religious events. However, waterfalls and mountains dominated the art of the East.

But the 15th century canvas paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, and Fra Bartolomeo were exceptions to these generalizations. Indeed, their use of perspective, shading, and more natural treatment of the human figure became the art of the renaissance.

Roman art of religious content
14th Century Roman Art Featuring Religious Content
Mountainous terrain in Chinese ink painting.
14th Century Chinese Ink Painting Featuring Mountainous Landscape

Renaissance Art (1300-1700 A.D.)

 The renaissance was distinguished by a rebirth of interest in the classical values of philosophy, science, art and politics. It originated in Florence, spread quickly through Italy and then to the rest of Europe. What took place in the arts was typical of the advances that occurred in every field. The portrayal of perspective had been perfected and was widely used. Canvas paintings became the common mode of presentation. Artwork by Titian and Reubens in Italy and by Rembrandt and van Ruisdael in Holland were the standards of excellence. In fact, the 17th century is termed the Dutch Golden Age because of the large number of Dutch artists then creating beautiful canvas paintings of the natural world. See the following link for a sampling of their works: http://www.theartwolf.comturner_biography.htm.

Further, as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, a sharp decline in the use of religious themes occurred. And when romanticism appeared in the 18th century, the stage was set for the rise of landscape art to a more prominent position.

Canvas painting of ships in harbor by von Ruisdael
von Ruisdael Painting of Ships in Dutch Harbor
Landscape drawing on postage stamp, designed by Rembrandt
Rembrandt-Designed Postage Stamp

The Perfection of Landscape Art in the 19th Century

Since my appreciation of nature led me to develop a website devoted to the display of art that celebrates it (, I feel it is fitting to highlight the work of a few 19th century artists whose genius brought landscape painting to a distinguished level.

Canvas painting of farmhand crossing stream with horse and haywagon with beautiful countryside in distance. Landscape art revealing Constable's attention to detail.
The Hay Wein, 1821, National Gallery of Art, London

John Constable and the Industrial Revolution

John Constable grew up in 19th century England on his father’s farm. Aware of the overcrowding and poverty in the cities of Great Britain during the ongoing Industrial Revolution, he found beauty in humble, pastoral settings.

In “The Hay Wein,” probably his most famous work, we see a farmhand fording a stream with his horse and wagon. But while this adds foreground interest, the real subject of the painting is the landscape itself. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this, since later in the same century the landscape dominated the paintings of the impressionists. Further, Constable was also known for his attention to detail. In this work we can see it in his rendering of clouds, trees, and even the tack and harness on the horse. Moreover, it was this element of realism in his paintings that was later attractive to Courbet and Monet. 

A canvas painting of a waterfall. Landscape art by the founder of the Hudson School of art, Thomas Cole.
Falls of the Kaaterskill, 1826

Thomas Cole and The Hudson River School

Thomas Cole, whose work, “Falls of the Kaaterskill,” is shown above, founded the Hudson River School in 1825.  This was not so much a school as it was a movement that included many American painters. The purpose of this “school” was to spotlight in canvas paintings the beauty of the American landscape as viewed through a realistic lens.

While many drew inspiration from the Catskill region, through which the Hudson River flows, other members painted in nearby New England or on the west coast. Edward Moran and Albert Bierstadt, prominent contributors to this movement, captured in their work both the harshness and the joy of lives that depended on the river for trade and pleasure. Their radiant style dramatized the beauty of the region and the light reflected in its changing waters. This is elegantly shown in the examples of their art, below:

Autumn on Saco River, with cows enjoying its water. Landscape art by Albert Bierstadt that is an example of the Hudson River School of art.
On the Saco
Sailboat sailing at night under a low moon by Edward Moran. Canvas painting that is an example of the Hudson School of art.
Sailing By Moonlight, NY Harbor

Albert Bierstadt

Edward Moran

Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet, the French Contribution

Courbet's canvas painting showing himself hiking, meeting a patron and his servant on the trail. This is Courbet's celebration of the outdoors over a mannered city life.
The Meeting (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet) 1854

Gustave Courbet

This work portrays a chance meeting between the artist, one of his patrons, and a servant. The patron has removed his right glove, presumably to shake hands. The man and his servant have probably walked from the coach shown in the background, but the artist, traveling on foot, has a backpack that includes an easel he will need to paint en plein air. So, in “The meeting” Courbet appears to salute the simple vitality of the countryside over a mannered city life. This was an important artistic statement, coming as it did in the middle of the Industrial Revolution.

Painting of small church perched on huge precipice. Canvas painting by Monet documenting beauty of nature.
L'Église de Varengeville, effet matinal, 1882. Private Collection

Claude Monet

As mentioned, Monet was also drawn to realism. However, the portrayal of the beauty of nature was his dominant theme. “L’Eglise de Varengeville” was completed in the summer of 1882 while he was in Normandy. In it, the height of the cliff face is dramatized by the minute human figures on the beach below. Bold, upward strokes of color enhance this effect, as does the modest church perched atop the massive rocky promontory. The feeling we get looking at this painting is not that Monet sees peril in the natural world; rather, he is showcasing its beauty and vast dimensions while bathing it in a welcoming morning light.

Winslow Homer, Pre-eminent American Landscape Artist

Moonlit sea, breaking waves on shoreline rocks. Barely visible red light of lighthouse on horizon.
Moonlight, Wood Island Light, 1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Winslow Homer

This masterpiece, painted in 1894, uses moonlight as its sole source of illumination. A distant lighthouse near the right edge of the canvas gives the work its title. The inspiration for the work apparently came suddenly one evening, causing the artist to grab his painting gear, head down to the shoreline, and remain there until he completed it 4 or 5 hours later. The play of the moonlight on the few visible clouds, the sea, the breaking waves, and the eddies between the rocks is the strength of the composition. However, unlike Monet, Homer reveals not only the raw beauty of rocks awash in the night sea, but also their potential danger, which he portrays subtly with a red dot on the horizon representing the lighthouse.

Further detail regarding these and other works is available at, and

Please comment on whether this discussion was of value to you.


3 Responses

  1. I found your blog very informative. I think you showed very well how the industrial revolution and the Protestant Reformation influenced the subject matter of painting.

  2. Bob
    Terrific reminder of the origins of landscape and perspective. Wish I had something this concise when I was taking “Art in The Dark” in college.

  3. Bob, what a delightful and educational journey. I benefited greatly. Very interesting contrast between Eastern and Western landscapes in the middle Ages. Thank you!

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