Landscape as a genre is the depiction of a natural scene not subordinated to the description of a story. Artists have painted nature since ancient times, but in Western art, this subject was considered a minor one until the Dutch Golden Age.
Over the centuries, artists have used diverse techniques to represent landscape to meet the most varied communicative needs. In Egyptian and then in Greek art there were examples of landscape or elements taken from it, like in the Nilotic landscape on Papyrus found in Tomb of Menna (c. 1420 BC), or the frescoes of Akrotiri, (c. 1500 BC) also with a river theme.
In Roman art, this genre began to acquire autonomous character. The Romans painted landscapes to decorate the walls of the domus (the type of houses occupied by the upper class) with vivid colors and scenes full of realistic details, as in the frescoes of Villa of Livia (before 79 AD), situated in Pompei, which represents a thriving garden.
In early Christian art, until the Middle Ages, there were no examples of autonomous landscapes. In Eastern and Byzantine art the natural elements were almost eliminated, replaced by the gold leaf as the backdrop of the scenes, and in Western art, landscapes became an unrealistic background. Nature was considered only from a symbolic point of view; landscapes were abstract, flat and lacking in perspective space, as can be seen in the mosaics of Sant'Apollinare in Classe (mid-6th century), in Ravenna.
The evolution of the landscape in the East took another path. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, in Chinese painting, the theme of the landscape developed into a real genre: mountains, valleys, rivers were painted frequently, on different materials and with different formats, from decorative rolls to actual painting, as we can see in Clearing Autumn Skies over Mountains and Valleys (1072) by Guo Xi.
In the West, during the 14th century, in Tuscany the representation of landscape began to become realistic again, influenced by the figure of St. Francis and his poem Il Cantico delle Creature (1224). This poem was an ode to God, in which the Saint praised him for all that he has created, like natural elements, animals, plants, fruits of the earth. This poem was so famous that it influenced Italian and Western art, bringing back the reality of nature to the eyes of the painters, who began to represent it more realistically.
In the International Gothic, this trend spread in Europe. The landscape remained a background, but it was rich in detail and consistent in dimensions. It assumed a fundamental role of showing the work of man and his dominion over nature, the image of the creative activity of God who, at the beginning of Genesis, created the natural reality and the garden of Eden. Medieval landscapes represented life in the cities and work in the countryside, as in Effects of Good Government in the City (1338-39) and Effects of Good Government in the Countryside (1338-39) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
During the Renaissance, the representation of landscape acquired new technical and formal characteristics. The artists improved in a realistic depiction of nature using technological innovation. The invention of the linear geometric perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi made landscapes closer to the real world, as in the frescoes painted by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel (1424-28). The landscape became an integral part of paintings. It was used by artists as a place for a symbolic language: Piero della Francesca, in the Resurrection of San Sepolcro, (1450-63) communicates Christ's victory over death with the passage between bare trees and flowering trees.
Then, the aerial perspective studied by Leonardo da Vinci, introduced into art the perception of the atmosphere, of the humidity of the air and of the progressive moving away and blurring of colors. His Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c.1503) is one of the masterpieces where he excellently applied this technique, to paint the mountain range in the background. With Giorgione and his The Tempest (c.1506), Italian art discovered the possibility of "representing living and natural things without drawing perspective," as Giorgio Vasari wrote.
At the same time, in central and northern Europe such Flemish masters as Jan Van Eyck (Adoration of the Lamb, 1432) or Joachim Patinir (Landscape with Saint Christopher, c. 1520), took a new course in the representation of landscape. They could capture in a minute the details with brilliant colors, using a new invention: oil painting.
In the 16th century, the landscape gradually became the main protagonist of representations, but it was only in the 17th century that it turned into an autonomous genre. The strict rules of the Counter-Reformation influenced art, condemning its decorative and anti-moral aspects. The great astronomical discoveries, from Galileo onwards, changed the vision of man and his relationship with the world and the universe, showing the majesty of the cosmos. Landscape painting then exploded: this genre was neutral in its content, and it served to show new knowledge. Even in biblical scenes, the sacred plot became a small portion of the paintings, giving space to the representation of nature and the universe, observed and painted in its vivid details, as in the artwork of Adam Elsheimer, that in The Flight into Egypt (c. 1609), impressed on canvas the first vision of the Milky Way.
However, the official acceptance of landscape painting in the Academy of Art happened because of the Frenchman Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. In 1800, he published the book Elements de perspective practique, which pursued the aesthetic ideal of the historical landscape, which had to be based on the study of real nature. Next generations of French painters dedicated their art to the landscape: the most significant example was Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Among his prominent landscapes are The Bridge at Narni (1826) or Ville d'Avray, (c. 1828).
At the beginning of the 19th century, with the spread of Romanticism, the genre of landscape transmitted the Romantic vision of nature, captured according to the idea of the natural "sublime." It saw nature as a force superior to a man, caught in all his majesty, which generates wonder, awe, and attraction to its power. We can observe it in Caspar David Friedrich's paintings, such as The Abbey in the Oakwood, (1809), as Chalk Cliffs on Rugen (1818).
At the same time, in England, William Turner exhibited his paintings and presented them at the Royal Academy. In canvasses like Snow Storm, (c. 1842), or The Lake, Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study (c. 1827-28) Turner's approach to the light and the color was so revolutionary, that the artist is now remembered as "Painter of Light."
In the last 30 years of the 19th century, inventions made by the industrial revolution were reflected in the cultural movements of the time. The birth of photography allowed for the faithful reproduction of reality and joined painting as a new artistic technique. The invention of color in a tube enabled painters to work en plein air. Urban development changed the landscape, creating new views. Landscape painting thus became one of the most popular genres, especially among Impressionists, such as Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley. They professed direct observation of the landscape, and used fast techniques to capture the changing of the light during the day and the night. One of the most famous landscapes of the group was Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Monet, which became the source of the movement's name. Their works opened the way for the revolutionary Post-Impressionist landscape visions of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne.
At the beginning of the 20th century, depiction of the landscape in art changed again with the Avant-garde movements, which sought to break with tradition and technical rules. In Cubism, landscape was one of the main subjects. Along with still life and portraiture, the landscape was subjected to a process of visual analysis and synthesis. Artists like Braque in his Landscape with a house, (1908-1909) or Picasso in his Landscape with a bridge (1909), simultaneously depicted all angles from which they observed the object of the painting. The concept of time as a chronology of events had also been overcome. The images were therefore structured and geometric, the artist's attention focused on the form. Colors were generally not very lively, and the perspective of observation was free and not portrayed directly.
Abstract art stepped further away from the representation of objective reality and communicated through elementary shapes and colors. Some artists, however, brought out memories of a nature that can be seen among shapes and colors, like in Paul Klee's Landscape with flag (c. 1915) or in Wassily Kandinsky's Improvisation 9 (1910).
With Surrealism, landscape detached itself from what is observable, and became a place of meanings linked to a vision of the world of the unconscious, where everything seems suspended in time, like in Magritte's painting The Domain of Arnheim (1962) or Salvator Dali's Without title. Landscape (1948).
Within contemporary art, the most landscape-oriented movement is Land Art, where nature became the only protagonist, a work of art itself. It is treated in a new and unconventional way: artists as Christo in The Floating Piers (2016) or Robert Smithson in Spiral Jetty (1970) intervene directly into the landscape, modifying it permanently or temporarily, with enormous installations. These works cannot be considered landscape in the traditional sense of the term, but they are certainly the beginning of a new look at it.
By Maddalena Mongera