Research point: Evolution of landscape painting

Updated on 12 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

27 September 2016. How weird, starting Part 4 of Painting 1 makes me look back on the past eight months and I realise that I have lost my feeling for time. It feels as if I had just started this course and I have not yet made a working connection. No wonder, this recent past belongs to the most demanding periods of time I have ever experienced in my life and what we do is to try and survive from one day to the next. Part 4 probably comes at an awkward time, when I should be looking out from the inside, while I am mostly inside (mentally and physically). Also, autumn is coming and I hope to be able to complete my plein air paintings before the weather turns cold and wet.

9 October 2016. A bit more settled now into the new daily routine I feel fit to start Part 4 with researching the evolution of landscape painting, which, rather surprisingly at first, took as long as the 18th century to develop as a separate genre. On the other hand, the painting of landscapes with no other intention or purpose, religious or mundane, might be seen as a somewhat luxurious side-effect of increasing overall wealth. Landscapes as we are free to see them now used to be mainly dangerous grounds, on which the survival of the local population depended. Their delicate agricultural properties together with the effects of weather and climate, all of which make spectacular and dramatic elements of landscape painting, were then, understandably, rarely valued for their aesthetic qualities. Even I remember from my own 1960s’ childhood in Austria that the farmers we knew were extremely keen to set right, with admirable brutality, the romanticist view my artist parents held about a rural life in beautiful landscapes.

Landscape painting evolved nevertheless and since its beginnings has come up with a great wealth of the most wonderful and intriguing works of art. As with other new genres it was first developed by Dutch painters and as with the painting of interiors it was the rise of the merchant middle classes and their demand for affordable good quality paintings for their own homes, which sped its evolution. Pioneering landscape artist Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665, France) (Fig. 2) shifted his interest from historic to landscape painting, because he believed that it was possible to express emotion with similar effect via the properties of a landscape and prepared the grounds for an only slowly rising acceptance of this genre by the leading teaching institutions in the 18th century. His landscapes, as far as I could find out, were still always populated, following the long tradition of historical painting, but it can be felt that the landscape did no longer serve as a backdrop to some historical event. Roles appear reversed – people move in and use a landscape in a more or less natural way, but are not necessarily the main subject (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.):

Figure 1. Nicholas Poussin: “Landscape with a Calm”, 1650, oil on canvas. Source: Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Still, it was only when the term “historic landscape” was promoted by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819, France), serving as a safety mark for official recognition of quality in the transition from historic to landscape painting, that academe came to change its hitherto rigid stance (The National Gallery, n.d.; The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.). De Valenciennes was among the first to ask students to sketch and paint outside as an essential element of their training (Oakley, 2015;  The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.). Plein air oil painting requires thorough preparation, though, and a fast, bold stroke in order to capture a mood or atmosphere before it changes. This is visible in an oil sketch by de Valenciennes (Fig. 2), which to me feels very modern and indeed his plein air paintings proved groundbreaking on the way to Impressionism (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.):

Figure 2. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes: “Rome: Houses and a Domed Church”, ca. 1783, oil on cardboard. Source: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
This development occurred at a time, when on the one hand the whole hitherto agriculturally dominated social landscape was being reformed by the full-blown Industrial Revolution, and on the other, photography began to exert a strong influence on landscape painting. It is not surprising then that the young genre changed and diversified rapidly. Idealized rural landscapes were gradually, but not completely, replaced by increasingly innovative and critical compositions and choices of subject. Groundbreaking among these was French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), eagerly studied at a later point by the Impressionist painters, especially Cézanne and Van Gogh, but also artists far into the 20th century (Galitz, 2009), see e.g. “The Stone Breakers” in Fig. 3 below in comparison with Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906, France) “The House with the Cracked Walls” (Fig. 4):

Figure 3. Gustave Courbet: “The Stone Breakers”, 1849, oil on canvas. Source: Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 4. Paul Cézanne: “The House with the Cracked Walls”, 1892-1894, oil on canvas. Source: Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
With the rise of photography landscape painters learned to adopt previously unthought-of viewpoints, e.g. by cropping the landscape, providing unusual viewing angles or introducing novel types of brushmark, such as in the wonderfully fresh paintings of Canadian Tom Thomson (1877-1917, who died prematurely by drowning in one of the lakes he used to paint, University of Victoria, n.d.) (Fig. 5):

Figure 5. Tom Thomson: Study for “Northern River”, gouache, brush and ink over graphite on illustration board, 1914-15. Source: Tom Thomson (1877-1917) [Public domain] via Art Canada Institute
Throughout the 20th century and up to now this process of diversification has been continuing, giving rise to a number of specialized categories such as “urban”, “cultural” and “industrial landscape” as well as landscape architecture (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.), and with the advent of new media with an increasing cross-over of subject and technical approaches.
Below, for example, Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866-1944, Russia) famous blue rider (Fig. 6), allegedly eponymous for the rebellious “Blauer Reiter” expressionist movement, which was in existence for only three years from 1911 to 1914 but of huge influence (The Art Story, n.d.). For Kandinsky the colour blue was the colour of spirituality (The Art Story, n.d.), and the appearance of blue in both the rider and the landscape appears to me as a sign that Kandinsky may not have made a difference between the spirituality of man and that of nature, but that both are one, and that he may not have made a distinction at all between the rider and the landscape he moves in:

Figure 6. Wassily Kandinsky: “The Blue Rider”, 1903, oil on canvas. Source: Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Hopper (1882-1967), an American realist painter, on the other hand, explained that his main interest in choosing the subject below was no more than the wonderful distribution of light in the spectacular rocky landscape and that he paid no separate attention to the intrusion of man into and exertion of possible negative influences on that valley (14), as e.g. in “Road in Maine” painted in 1914 (Fig. 7):

Figure 7. Edward Hopper: “Road in Maine”, 1914, oil on canvas. Source: Edward Hopper (1882-1967) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
One of the most accomplished 21th century Austrian watercolour landscape and cityscape painters is Bernhard Vogel (*1961). For a comprehensive overview over his work see his website (Vogel, 2017). From personal encounters (participating in one of his watercolour courses many years ago) I know that his incentive for choosing a subject is a pure aesthetic pleasure in what he sees. When surfing the web, I gained the impression that he appears to share his approach with the overwhelming majority of landscape painters working today (enter “urban landscape painting” in your browser and see for yourself). It was thus difficult to find a mainstream of artistic voices uttering a mild concern about, say, climate change, social decline in our megacities or the destruction of our rainforests. If they want to share their opinion, they do it with all their might and, of course, with the advent of powerful graphics engines the critical voices among the contemporary painters received an impressive tool to utter their concerns. The power of modern computers has been allowing the creation of hyperrealistic, overwhelming apocalyptic worlds (Qu, 2013) for some time, whose impact is probably hard to top by mainstream painting. To me, interestingly, the composition of these worlds appears to tie in with the origins of landscape painting. People surviving the desaster, i.e. after having been kicked out of Paradise, appear to operate before a backdrop of destroyed landscape.

Of course in our century anything has become possible, including the landscape itself serving as canvas for the relatively new phenomenon of “land art”, where artists express themselves in exchange with an existing landscape, from the very simple to highly elaborate pieces, as in Fig. 8 and Fig. 9 below:

Figure 8. Zeevveez: “Spiral With Anemon”. Source: Zeeveez (n.d.) [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic] via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 9. Patche99z: “Land art in one of the show gardens, Chelsea Flower Show 2006”. Source: Patche99z (2006) [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported] via Wikimedia Commons

For a visual overview over the development of landscape painting also see a slideshow provided by the Tate gallery (Tate, n.d.).


Cézanne, P. (1892-94) The House with the Cracked Walls [oil on canvas] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Courbet, G. (1849) The Stone Breakers [oil on canvas] [online]. New Masters Gallery, Dresden. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

de Valenciennes, P.-H. (c.1783) Rome: Houses and a Domed Church [oil on cardboard] [online]. Louvre, Paris. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Galitz, K. C. (2009) Gustave Courbet [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2017]

Hopper, E. (1914) Road in Maine [oil on canvas] [online]. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Kandinsky, W. (1903) Der Blaue Reiter [oil on canvas] [online]. Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Bührle, Zurich. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2017]

Oakley, H. (2015) Favourite Paintings 5: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Thomas Jones, Plein Air, c 1782 [blog] [online]. The Eclectic Light Company, n.k., 18 February 2015. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Patche99z (2006) Land art in one of the show gardens, Chelsea Flower Show 2006 [photograph][online]. Patche99z, n.k.. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Poussin, N. (1650) Landscape With a Calm [oil on canvas] [online].Getty Centre, Los Angeles. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Qu, James (2013) “Oblivion” – 20 Epic Examples of City Destruction Matt Paintings
[image gallery] [online]. James Qu, n.k., 29 July 2013. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Tate (n.d.) Landscape [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.) Der Blaue Reiter [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2017]

The J. Paul Getty Museum (n.d.) Brief History of the Landscape Genre [online]. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

The National Gallery (n.d.) Pierre Henri de Valenciennes [online]. The National Gallery, London. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Thomson, T. (1914-15) Study for “Northern River” [gouache, brush and ink over graphite on illustration board] [online]. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

University of Victoria (n.d.) Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. Death on a Painted Lake. The Tom Thomson Tragedy [online]. University of Victoria. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Vogel Bernhard (2017) Works [image gallery] [online]. Bernhard Vogel, Salzburg. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]

Zeevveez (2013) Spiral With Anemone [landart] [online]. Zeevveez, n.k.. Available at: [Accessed 27 September 2016]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s