landscape painting

landscape painting

landscape painting, portrayal of scenes found in the natural world; these scenes are treated as the subject of the work of art rather than as an element in another kind of painting.

Early Landscapes

In the West, the concept of landscape grew very slowly. Nature was traditionally viewed as consisting of isolated objects long before it was appreciated as scene or environment. As a result landscape painting as an independent art was a late development in the West. Many scenes, from the Hellenistic pastoral paintings of antiquity to the religious works of the 16th cent. A.D., contained expansive landscape backgrounds, but they were usually subordinated within a narrative context.

The Renaissance and the Sixteenth Century

In Renaissance Italy the study of perspective gave rise to a careful rendering of scenery according to conventional formulas. Giorgione and the Venetian painters excelled at pastoral vistas that recalled scenes from classical literature. Flemish works enhanced by meticulous landscape detail became popular in Italy and encouraged Patinir and others to cater to this taste. Altdorfer, the Danube painter of the early 16th cent., created some of the first works devoted entirely to landscape.

During and after the Reformation the use of religious subject matter was restricted and numerous artists in the north became specialists in the landscape genre at which, when painting backgrounds of religious works, they had become proficient. These artists, among whom Pieter Bruegel the elder was most notable, were devoted to fantastic scenes painted according to established convention in tones of brown for the foreground, green for the middle ground, and blue for the background panorama. In Rome, Dutch artists, led by Coninxloo, initiated the concept of the ideal landscape.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Claude Lorrain was supreme master of this genre. His serene pastoral works and the heroic compositions of Poussin contrasted with the concurrent Dutch tendency toward realism. The great 17th-century Dutch landscape masters from van Goyen to Ruisdael, Hobbema, and Rembrandt transformed into paint what they saw in the Dutch countryside (see Dutch art). The Rococo saw a revival of ideal pastoral scenes in the works of Watteau and Gainsborough. The 18th-century Englishman Thomas Girtin was an important influence on future landscape painting.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

England produced the major late 19th-century landscape masters: the visionary Turner and the poetic Constable. Constable, who greatly influenced the French Romantics, also served as an important inspiration to the Barbizon school in France, whose members returned to the serene pastoral mood. In Germany, C. D. Friedrich sustained the poetic tradition of landscape, as did the luminists of the American Hudson River school. Turner's exploration of the atmospheric effects of light interested Monet, whose plein-air works, forming the basis of impressionism, elevated landscape to the highest position in artists' esteem that it had yet held.

Landscape also became a principal source material of postimpressionism. The exponents of surrealism revealed the fearful power of imaginary landscape. In addition, many of the 20th-century artists working in the abstract idiom have employed both landscape and still life as basic sources for their widely differing work.

Landscape Art in the East

In China landscape art reached extraordinary perfection as early as the 8th cent. It engaged the highest talents during the T'ang, Sung, and Ming dynasties (see Chinese art). The prominence accorded landscape in both Chinese and Japanese art reflects the esteem for nature characteristic of East Asian religions.


See K. Clark, Landscape into Art (1949, repr. 1961); Z. Szabo, Landscape Painting in Watercolor (1971); P. Monahan, Landscape Painting (1985); J. Arthur, Spirit of Place: Contemporary Landscape Painting and the American Tradition (1989); A. Wilton and T. Barringer, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880 (2002).

The Tempest (Italian La Tempesta) is a famous Renaissance painting by Italian master Giorgione dated between 1506 and 1508. Originally commissioned by the Venetian noble Gabriele Vendramin, the painting is housed in the Gallerie dell'Accademia of Venice, Italy.


The Tempest is considered an enigmatic work. It depicts an arcadian landscape outside a city, with a river, trees and ruins. The darkly clouded sky is lit by a flash of lightning, announcing an imminent storm. A woman, sitting on the right, breastfeeds a baby. She is nude except for a white sheet, suggestive of purity and innocence, which covers her shoulders. The round belly, full breasts and act of lactation, all suggest that she may symbolize fertility. To some commentators, however, she represents charity. The possible association with the Virgin Mary is evident.

A man, possibly a soldier, holding a long staff or pike, stands in contrapposto on the left. He smiles and glances to the right, but does not appear to be looking at the woman. Art historians have identified the man alternatively as a soldier, a shepherd, a gypsy, or a member of a club of unmarried men. X-rays of the painting have revealed that in the place of the man, Giorgione originally painted another female nude. To some, he represents steadfastness; they point to the pillars behind him, which often symbolize force or strength. These pillars, however, are broken—a classic symbol of death. One may also note the stork on the rooftop on the right. Storks sometimes represent the love of parents for their children.

The painting's features seem to anticipate the storm. The colors are subdued and the lighting soft; greens and blues dominate. The landscape is a not a mere backdrop, but forms a notable contribution to early landscape painting. The painting has a 'silent' atmosphere which continues to fascinate modern viewers.

There is no contemporary textual explanation for The Tempest, and ultimately, no definitive reading or interpretation. To some it represents the flight into Egypt; to others, a scene from classical mythology (Paris and Oenone) or from an ancient Greek pastoral novel. According to the Italian scholar Salvatore Settis, the desert city would represent the Paradise, the two characters being Adam and Eve with their son Cain: the lightning, as in ancient Greek and Hebrew times, would represent God who has just ousted them from Eden. Others have proposed a moral allegorical reading, or concluded that Giorgione had no particular subject in mind.

Scholars have cited The Tempest as having influenced Manet's Luncheon on the Grass.


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