Research Point: landscapes across the eras

Landscapes: A consideration from the Song Dynasty to the present day.

I realise that a history lesson is not what is required in these research exercises, however, as I know so little about the history of art and, I am rather ashamed to say, the work of individual artists, I can not escape the ‘art timeline’ format. My reflections on the images are included.

The coursework brief suggests considering artists using landscape as their main subject within the Western World, from their emergence in the Renaissance period. However I would like to start early and briefly contemplate artists from China around 900 – 1000 a.d. landscapes have played a very important part in Chinese art from a much earlier age compared to western art. For instance Li Cheng’s “Buddhist temple in Mountain” (c.960 a.d) shows remarkable drawing skill and dramatic compositional effects. There is clearly a fore- and back-ground with the temple nestled in the mid-ground. The composition is vertical displaying the massiveness of the mountain. A sense of depth is provided with areas of the back-ground depicted in less detail (the sides of the mountains for instance).

It wasn’t until the 13th and 14th Century that landscape became more familiar to western cultures. Landscapes started to be featured as backgrounds for narratives. One of the earliest forays into such landscapes was Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-1340) with his panoramic frescos. His ‘Effects of Good Government in the City and Country’ (1338-39) shows an expanse of hills dotted with people working the land. There is a sense of depth to the painting facilitated by the cooler, receding colours of the background. Although this is undoubtabley a landscape it was done as part of a series of frescos depicting towns and countrymen at times of contentment and (with his Bad Governance series) strife. The landscape here serves a purpose – to carry the message of the human condition.

It was not until the 15th Century and the Northern Renaissance and Albrecht Durer that we see further development of landscapes as art images in their own right. Durer’s beautifully rendered watercolours depict scenes without necessarily a human narrative to accompany them, such as his ‘View to Arco’ (1495)

Throughout the late 15th and 16th Centuries landscape art increases in popularity. Pieter Brueghel often used landscapes to display a narrative. In ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565) he offers us an almost birds eye view of a valley scene. With clear fore-, mid- and backgrounds. His mark making becomes less defined in the background and the colours slightly less saturated allowing the scenery to recede into the distance.

In the Baroque period the classical landscape tradition starts. Atmosphere becomes very important along with the depiction of scenes of harmony and idealism. For instance, Annibale Carracci creates an image of harmony in ‘The Flight into Egypt‘ by composition (trees at the flanks, figures central, distant hills) and lighting (figures bathed in sunshine; darker trees, set against great tonal contrasts of the sky). similar themes are continued into the Rococo period such as with Claude Lorrain’s ‘Pastoral Landscape with a Mill (1634). Here the light on the figures is very important in creating atmosphere (contrasting with the dark trees). There is a wonderful sense of depth in the picture provided by the purple distant hill. His use of tall trees to guide you around the painting takes you into the distance too. This is seen in many of this landscape paintings such as in `Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Silvia‘ (1682).

In the 18th Century the British School used landscapes to create dramatic effects for settings of figurative work. Thomas Gainsborough used very dramatic skies to create atmosphere in his landscapes, such as “River Landscape with Rustic Lovers‘ (1754) or ‘Drinkstone Park (Cornard Woodland)‘ (1747).

Atmosphere was especially important to the Romantic landscape artists for the 19th Century, such as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. In Turners ‘Boscastle, Cornwall‘ the expressive mark making depicting both the turbulent sea and the sky create drama. The light areas of the sky provide tonal contras to the more dramatic storm clouds, which in turn contrast with the light falling on the land. It is dramatic tonal contrasts that provide the drama in a more sedate scene in ‘Mortlake Terrace’ (1826) where the strong shadows cast by the silhouetted trees conflict with the calm boating scene behind them. The background recedes into the bright sun. You can feel the glare coming out of the canvas. Casper David Friedrich  strips out all but the basics in his ‘Monk by the Shore’ (1810). As such this painting, whilst of a vast open vista of the sea, no longer becomes about the landscape, but about the lone-figure on the shore.

The impressionism movement of the late 19th Century was all about achieving greater naturalism in art. Claude Monet in particular was interested in the same scene changes in different light / weather conditions. His work has a sense of immediacy about it, achieved by undefined use of brushwork and bright colours. His ‘Poplars on the Epte‘ (1891) show all these elements. Money painted a series of these poplars in different weather conditions, exploring how the colours, light and forms changed although the ultimate subject remained the same. Poplars (Autumn), 1891 and Poplars (Wind effect) 1891 show this very well.

Artists with a large landscape repertoire from the Post-impressionism era include Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne both of whom use colour and texture to depict landscapes. In Cezanne’s ‘Montagne Sainte-Victoire series (1882-1906) we can see that the artist is exploring his subject in different light conditions but also in different states of realism. Cezanne takes the essential forms that make up his composition and plays around with them creating images still recognisable as the subject but in a mass of tonal values loosely defined by simple marks. In a way many of Van Gogh’s landscapes also break down the various landscape elements to simple forms, but he them represents those forms with and exaggerated, almost textured approach using coloured swirls to enhance lines and curves, for instance ‘Les Alpilles‘ (1889) or ‘The Fields’ (1890).

Moving into the 20th Century T.S. Lowry painted mostly industrial landscapes. His painting ‘Industrial Landscape‘ (1953) shows the general elements of fore- mid- and background, with a sense of depth provided by use of perspective and the loss of color and tonal differences in the distance. Amongst contemporary artists, George Shaw also depicts urban landscapes in paintings that are full of realism of modern life including much of the urban landscape that is deemed un-pretty, un-loved and boring.  I particularly like his ‘Ash Wednesday‘ (2004/5) series.There is nothing romantic about his work and much of what he paints is in some state of dilapidation. But but judicious use of light and tone Shaw brings out the beauty in such urban areas.

Sarah Woodfine is not an artist I have previously heard of. Amongst her work she creates 2d images of landscapes and turns them into 3d images by way of their support. For instance in ‘Somewhere’ (2007) she has mounted on 3 sides of a perspex box allowing the viewer to explore the drawing in 3-dimensions. This is a similar process used to produce ‘Alfred’s story‘ 2007. I particular like her 2003 winning Jerwood Prize for Drawing ‘Wyoming‘ which shows that landscapes need not be full of detail to evoke an atmospheric response. I look at this diptych and instantly feel a sense of open space and vastness even though I haven’t actually been to Wyoming).

David Hockney is another contemporary artist renowned for his landscapes. His work is quite stylised, he is not too concerned with fine detail. His use of lines reminds me of Van Gogh’s style (with out the swirls) for instance ‘The Road Across the Wolds’ 1997. In ‘Yorkshire Landscape’ he uses cooler colours to recede the background. He is not too concerned with perspective in the foreground, with exaggerated camber in the winding road. The whole landscape is made very powerful by the use of strong red lines to emphasis shape aspects of the curves, plough lines and tree trunks.


The following sources were used to provide me with a time-line and suggested artists to consider within each era.

All websites were accessed on 15th December 2015

Beckett, W. (1994). Story of Painting. Dorling Kindersley: London.

The online art magazine:






Research Point: landscapes across the eras

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