Research point: The evolution of landscape painting

From my early reading on this topic I can see that in European art the development of landscape painting shared a path similar to that of still life (see earlier research point). Landscape, gardenscapes and still life featured in ancient Greek and Roman murals but both declined in favour of paintings featuring religious figures and iconography contributing to Christian culture.

Up until the 16th Century symbolic still life objects featured only occasionally in religious works, such as a vase of lilies representing the purity of the Virgin Mary and landscapes were painted as backdrops to religious and figurative scenes.

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist, Pintoricchio 1490-1495, The Fitzwilliam Museum

The work of Italian painter Bernardino di Betto,  called Pintoricchio or Pinturicchio (1454–1513) illustrates the background landscapes very well. Pintoricchio means ‘little painter’ and was a comment on his small stature!


I remember seeing some of his paintings and in Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia and being struck by the backgrounds – the memory might be triggered by the fridge magnet I bought for my Dad!

During the 16th Century landscape starts to feature in European art in its own right probably due to a growing interest in the natural world and the Renaissance.


Landscape with a Woodland Pool, a drawing, Albrecht Durer, 1496, British Museum

German born Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) deserves a mention as an early pioneer of landscape paintingt. As well as remarkably detailed and realistic studies of nature, he produced paintings which explored techniques to represent distance in which detail in the foreground is sharp and mountains in the background are less distinct – aerial perspective as we would call it today. Read more about Durer in another of my blog postings here.



Esaias van de Velde, Winter Landscape (1623

The word ‘landscape’ comes from the Dutch landschap meaning region or tract of land. And it is in the Netherlands that landscape painting first became really popular because of demand from a rising Protestant middle class seeking secular art for their homes. There is another parallel here with the golden age of still life painting also centred in the Netherlands and popular with the merchant classes.


Outside of the Netherlands, landscape (and still life) continued to be considered lowly in an art hierarchy which placed history, including classical religious and mythological themes at the top, and had yet to gain acceptance with the all-powerful art academies of Italy and France.


The Roman Campagna (1639), Claude Lorrain

Landscapes gradually became more accepted but they were still usually settings for biblical and mythological scenes. The classical landscapes of the 17th Century portrayed the pastoral beauty of Arcadia, a legendary place in ancient Greece. The position of every rock, tree and animal was considered in order to create a harmonious, timeless balance. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain are notable.


Pastorale landscape, Nicolas Poussin, 1650

Claude and Poussin drew their inspiration from the Roman countryside and Italy continued to be a popular destination for many artists during the 18th Century as they travelled on the Grand Tour with the support of their patrons. Incidentally, many of the works that adorn the walls of our stately homes were purchased on these Grand Tours and of course classical architecture was influential too.

Interest in the Grand Tour peaked in the latter half of the 18th Century and France and England became the new centres of landscape art although the classical model remained popular. Landscape was still considered a lowly form of art.



At the villa Farnèse : two poplars  c1777. How surprisingly modern this picture looks…

Finally there was a breakthrough with the stuffy old French Academy. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) impressed the Academie  Royale with his groundbreaking book on aesthetic landscape painting based on the study of real nature: Elements de Perspective Practique published in 1800.  In 1817 the Academy created a prize for ‘historic landscape’.


I’m fascinated to discover that that this is yet another parallel with the evolution of still life which also had to battle to be acknowledged by the French Academy – but succeeded nearly a century earlier when Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin’s work  was accepted in 1728.


Souvenir of Mortefontaine, John-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1864

The next generation of French painters benefited greatly from de Valenciennes achievements, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot  a pivotal figure in landscape painting and an influential and prolific artist, producing over 3,000 works during his lifetime, and inspiring countless  forgeries and copies.



Souvenir of Mortefontaine (above) is one of Corot’s most successful works and can be viewed as a bridge between Realism and Impressionism.

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Hampstead Heath, John Constable (1820)

Living in Suffolk I can’t not mention John Constable (1782-1842) but just to be fickle I’m including a painting of Hampstead Heath for the interesting viewpoint and to note the absence of the urban sprawl and high rise developments. What a historical resource these landscape paintings are!  I’ve just learnt from BBC Your paintings that while Constable is one of our most loved British painters today, in his life time his work was more popular in France.



Brignall Banks on the Greta, John Sell Cotman (watercolour) – about 1830??

A while back I visited Norwich Castle and saw John Sell Cotman’s enchanting watercolour landscapes. Winsor & Newton’s Cotman range of watercolours is named after him so he had to be up to the mark! His paintings are very free flowing and impressionistic – definitely an artist ahead of his time and a good artist to feature in this lightning tour of landscape painting.

Oil sketches

In the mid 18th century, the practice of making outdoors oil sketches had became widespread, especially among the large international community of artists working in Italy. By the 19th century it had become a normal part of artistic training, and for the next fifty years or more almost every landscape painter in Europe, whether travelling in Italy or working at home, made  simple direct oil studies in the open air. These sketches were rarely intended to be seen in public but now I think we value them for their freshness and spontaneity.

There is a lovely collection of Constable’s oil sketches on the Victoria and Albert website – they are bursting with vitality.

I have just realised that I’ve made a lot of extra work for myself by researching landscape paintings from before the 18th Century. I did think that this seemed to be a rather boundless research project! The lesson is of course that I should have read the brief carefully. But I’ve enjoyed looking back further and  and  this enabled me to draw comparisons with the evolution of still life which I enjoyed. Of course I’m not yet finished as this research projects continues until the present day and I’ve only just made it to the 19th Century!

See part two






The J Paul Getty museum


The British Museum

The National Gallery

Victoria and Albert Museum

BBC Your Paintings



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