If you think of a stereotypical painting, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably a lush country-side scene. This was most likely also the sort of picture we all loved drawing in our childhood. And even if this were not the case, it cannot be denied that landscape, whether of a natural scene or a urban setting, has always constituted the starting point for the production of art.
Over the centuries, painters have approached the subject in all sorts of ways. History of Art has a development in the figurative conception of landscape. I had the chance to reflect on this when I went to the Italian exhibition ‘Verso Monet’ (‘Towards Monet’) over Easter. In the exhibition, the paintings were organised chronologically, to give the visitor a clear, albeit schematic and perhaps a bit too rigid, idea of the evolution of the role of landscape in painting. Such divisions are the very sort of thing that annoys a historian, and their boundaries are bound to raise doubts and debates. However, as artificial as it may be, such classification is precisely what allows us to draw the general trend that the depiction of landscape has had over the centuries.
If we start our (quick) tour with the 17th century, the typical scene back then was intimately related to mythology. Paintings like those by Claude Lorrain, for instance, have generally a subject derived from the Classical tradition, set in a fascinating landscape. Interestingly enough, in some of them the painter tends to give more importance to the background than to the characters, who sometimes seem too small to be significant. It looks like already at this stage landscape is influencing and charming the artists, who end up neglecting the mythological tale and its human characters in order to focus on nature. However, the landscape is stereotyped and somewhat detached from reality.
In the 18th century, with the Enlightenment and the triumph of Science, the most important artistic movement is Vedutism, namely the depiction of landscapes of urban scenes (‘vedute’), painted in greatest detail. One of the most famous examples of this artistic trend is Canaletto, a Venetian painter who specialised in ‘vedute’ of his natal city. The main aspect of his art is definitely realism, and its goal is to render the landscape as close to reality as possible. In order to do so, he uses the ‘camera oscura’, an optical device that projects an image on a smaller scale on a screen. In this way Canaletto was able to produce painting that (quite literally) mirrored reality.
In the 19th century, Romanticism starts spreading in Europe, and with it a completely different conception of landscape. The world of interiority acquires more and more importance, and accordingly, landscape is perceived not so much as a place to investigate scientifically, but as a source of emotions, of all kinds. The tempests of Turner, for instance, focus on the terrifying and shocking aspects of nature: the aim of his paintings is to instil awe and fear in the viewer. On the other hand, if we consider an example taken from poetry, we see that nature can originate emotions of a completely different kind. The daffodils of Wordsworth, for instance, when the poet recollects them, give him bliss and happiness; the feeling of joy is also given by the beautiful landscape to which the daffodils belong: ‘beside the lake, beneath the trees’, ‘stretched in never-ending line along the margin of a bay’.
A revolution in the artistic conception of landscape is brought about by Impressionism. To put it rather simply, Monet changes the way to see and experience landscape. He is interested in the impression of the moment, and his brush-strokes are directed at capturing the light, the atmosphere, the sensations he is feeling right at the time he is painting. And here is a thought I had after seeing the exhibition (which admittedly was very much focused on Monet). In order to depict landscape more carefully and realistically, Canaletto uses the ‘camera oscura’, namely something that ironically comes between himself and nature. On the other hand, Monet’s aim is to portray his own impressions arising from nature, but paradoxically enough, he paints indoors. The famous concept of painting ‘en plein air’ is in fact a lie: impressionist painters would make a rapid sketches of the landscape, specifying the colours and shadows they wanted to include, and then went to their studios to put everything on a canvas. If we think about it, the whole process makes sense: if you stay outdoors to finish your painting, you simply can’t capture the magic of the moment, but you end up portraying a ‘prolonged impression’. Monet, instead, is interested in what nature can give him in a unique moment, and this has to be captured outdoors, but materialised indoors.
The importance of the conveying the ‘impression of the moment’ adds a reflection on time to two-dimensional figurative art. Going beyond mythology, realism, and emotions, it constitutes one of the greatest innovations in History of Art.