Research point: Different artists’ depictions of landscape

Look at and research different artists’ depictions of landscape. For example, look at Durer’s landscapes, these are some of the earliest recordings of the northern Renaissance world, Claude Lorrain’s designed landscapes using classical proportions, the British artist Lowry’s images of industrial life.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
Born in Nuremburg, Germany, Durer was a naturally gifted artist of the Renaissance period. He was a  talented painter, draughtsman and printmaker, as well as a writer. His mastery of technique and imagination make him comparable to Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci. Durer is mostly known for his amazingly detailed and closely observed drawings, but he also pushed boundaries and was influential with his landscape paintings.

Durer’s landscapes (I can’t find many) are of particular interest because they seem to mark a point at which landscape scenes move beyond simply providing backgrounds to figures to becoming paintings in their own right. They also explore techniques to represent distance (such as detail in the foreground being sharp and mountains in the background being fainter and less distinct).


Albrecht Dürer, Landscape with a Woodland Pool, watercolour
Near Nuremberg, Germany, around AD 1496, British Museum

Landscape with a Woodland Pool
 To quote from the British Museum website: “This landscape drawing considered to be one of the most sensitive of Dürer’s portrayals of nature. It is painted with a brush in water and bodycolour. On the left we see the broken trunks of pine trees rising on a grassy bank. To the right are more pine trees, their deep green tops filling the paper. In between is deep blue water which disappears into the darkening distant horizon. As the sun sets, the clouds turn a deep blue which is mirrored in the blue of the lake. Similarly, the green branches of the pine trees are balanced by the green banks around the water. Dürer’s fluid brush and deep colours make it a very beautiful and harmonious depiction of restful nature.”

The continuity of the blue in the clouds and the pool seem to pull the picture together. The foreground detail of the grasses grounds the image. The background clouds and hills are less sharp. The  middle ground is the trees and the pool. The picture makes us ask ourselves what has happened to the trees on the left, were they battered by a great storm? The expanse of white light suggests distance and contributes to the picture’s sense of quietness and peace.


View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol, Durer, 1495
Pen, ink, watercolour
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

Durer’s use of watercolour in landscapes was also quite groundbreaking and helped to raise the profile and popularity of the medium.

View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol 
This watercolour has a very modern feel to it, perhaps because of the simplification of the landscape.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868‑1928) 

I can see a bit of Durer’s influence in Rennie Mackintosh’s work… in the rocks, the way the landscape is divided up and even in the limited colour palette.

The Fort, c. 1925–1926. Fort Mailly, a ruined 16th-century fortification on the outskirts of Port Vendres

The Fort, c. 1925–1926. Fort Mailly, a ruined 16th-century fortification on the outskirts of Port Vendres
Fetges, circa 1927, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868‑1928) Fetges Date c.1927 Medium Watercolour on paper

Fetges, circa 1927, Charles Rennie Mackintosh



Claude Lorrain (Gellée ), 1600 – 1682

French artist Claude Lorrain (often known simply as Claude, which says something about his fame) was one of the greatest masters of, ‘ideal landscape’, an art form that seeks to present a view of nature more beautiful and harmonious than nature itself. These landscapes usually contain classical ruins and pastoral figures in classical dress. The source of inspiration is the countryside around Rome (the Roman Campagna where Claude worked for most of his life) – a countryside haunted with the remains of antiquity.

Practitioners of ideal landscape during the 17th century, the key period of its development, were of many different nationalities and they congregated in Rome. Later the form spread to other countries. During his lifetime Claude was particularly influential for his use of light and also later in England, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century –  Turner and Constable for example.

Landscape of Apollo and Marsyas Flayed

Landscape of Apollo and Marsyas Flayed (1645-46), Claude Lorrain, oil on canvas Holkham Estate, Norfolk

Landscape of Apollo and Marsyas Flayed (1645-46), Claude Lorrain, oil on canvas
Holkham Estate, Norfolk

I got the chance to see this painting by Claude Lorrain at the weekend during a visit to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. It was part of the Masterpieces of East Anglia exhibition and was included because it is owned by the Holkham Estate in Norfolk.

Landscapes paintings like this were acquired during fashionable ‘grand tours’ by wealthy families around cultural hotspots of Europe, especially Italy. They influenced both architecture and landscaping of the grounds of English country houses. Holkham itself was conceived on the idea of a palatial ancient villa set in a landscape transformed to represent an ideal Roman Campagna.

(How fascinating it is to begin to understand these influences…)

I find the contrast between this and Durer’s landscapes interesting… Lorrain’s work is so very precise and detailed where as Durer’s landscapes are simplified, in a way I find much more pleasing,  but then I’m a product of our modernist, minimalist age!

The way the light suffuses the distant landscape is beautiful and this most certainly brings Turner’s work to mind. There is a sense of space and distance created by the use of a detailed foreground, a middle ground and a less distinct background using muted colours.

As in Durer’s landscape above, the artist has used a technique of bringing a tree (or another object) into the left or right hand side of the picture as a framing (or bracketing) device known as repoussoir, to lead the viewer into picture.

Art and East Anglia, edited by Ian Collins, published by Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2013
BBC Your Paintings

Lowry, Laurence Stephen (1887-1976)

Huddersfield, 1965, oil on canvas by L.S. Lowry

Huddersfield, 1965, oil on canvas by L.S. Lowry

One of the most popular and distinctive British 20th Century painters, Lowry lived almost all his life in Salford, an industrial area on the outskirts of Manchester.

His stylised, ‘matchstick’ figures are set against stark, almost monchromatic buildings forming industrial, urban landscapes. His best known paintings are bleak representations of people scurrying to their factory workplaces, with chimneys pumping out clouds of soot. He starting working in this style in the 1920s.

The Pond 1950, LS Lowry, oil on canvas

The Pond 1950, LS Lowry, oil on canvas

While his pictures may appear to be simple, Lowry was not a naive painter having studied art (he also painted some accomplished portraits). The art world has been a little ‘snooty’ about Lowry because of the stylised figures and lack of portrayal of weather in his industrial landscapes  but that view may be changing since a  major retrospective of his work at Tate Britain in 2013.

Looking at his landscapes, I can see that Lowry also employed the foreground, middle ground and background technique to create a sense of distance.

Hillside in Wales 1962 L.S. Lowry

Hillside in Wales, 1962, LS Lowry, Tate Britain

Lowry also painted landscape scenes without the figures being dominant, see Hillside in Wales.

Alfred Wallis (1855‑1942)

'The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach' ?circa 1932 Alfred Wallis 1855-1942 Presented by Dame Barbara Hepworth 1968

‘The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach’ circa 1932,  Alfred Wallis

These research projects are such a journey as now I am finding myself reminded of the naive landscapes of the English painter, fisherman and scrap merchant, Alfred Wallis. Wallis moved to St Ives in 1890  where he set up as a marine scrap merchant, after a life on the seas. In 1912 he retired. His wife died in 1922, whereupon he took up painting.

In 1928 Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson discovered Wallis in St Ives. Both artists were already working in a primitive style but were further encouraged by the discovery of Wallis. His principal subjects were ships at sea and shipwrecks. Other subjects were landscapes with trees and houses.  His landscapes use very few colours and take no account whatsoever of perspective, they adopt all kinds of strange viewpoints, buildings are often flattened and follow the contour of the land or street and turn upside down as the road loops.


So this  research project has taken me from the beginnings of landscape painting with Durer to the development of the controlled and sophisticated techniques of Claude Lorrain, that influenced Turner and Constable, to more simplified approaches by Rennie Mackintosh and Lowry, and on to the naive, untutored paintings of Wallis.

All use distinct foreground, middle ground and background with the exception of Wallis, whose works have a charm of their own because of their absolute lack of technique!

Tate Britain
A-Z of Art and Artists, David Piper, Mitchell Beazley Publishers, 1984


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 )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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 )


Connecting to %s