Home Magazine Landscape across the centuries

Landscape paintings are one of the most captivating and compelling artistic forms of expression. They are able to create a certain atmosphere, mood, drawing the viewer inside the scene. 

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Landscape paintings or landscape art refers to a particular artistic genre that is defined by a focus on natural scenery – such as field, mountain, forest, and valley – as a subject matter. Some landscape paintings can also present some figures other than natural elements, but the landscape still remains a prominent part of the composition. The sky is an important element of the painting, and the weather is often included in the view. Landscape art has a quite long tradition in Western art history. In the seventeenth-century, landscapes went from being confined as background of portraits or of religious and mythological subjects to acquiring more and more relevance in compositions. Throughout history, artists choose to depict landscapes as their subject in very different ways as well as for different reasons. Some painters wanted to replicate the beauty and power of nature as a sort of appreciation; others used landscapes to explore and experiment with various aesthetic elements such as light, colour, texture; and some artists exploited natural scenery to conceptualise a metaphor or illustrate a story. Moreover, some landscape views may be, with varying degrees of accuracy, copied from reality. In particular, if the intent is to accurately depict a specific place they are called topographical views, while other representations of landscapes could be entirely imaginary. 

Landscape paintings across the centuries

In the seventeenth century, landscape was officially recognised as a genre of art by the French Academy. The works of Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin began to give prominence to landscape, in a highly stylised and artificial way they evoke classical imagery of landscape. In the following century, landscape art started to gain more popularity, despite the fact that the classical idea of landscape as background predominated. The nineteenth century witnessed an explosion of naturalistic landscape paintings, motivated partly by the idea of nature as a manifestation of God, and partly by the increasing process of industrialisation and urbanisation that left many people alienated from nature. Two famous contributors of this period are the English John Constable and J.M.W Turner, who inspired the works of the French Impressionists. With the advent of Impressionism, landscape painting became the driving force of the revolution in Western modern art. After the 1950s, the definition of landscape was expanded, including urban and industrial landscapes. The genre has also started to use less traditional media and to create artworks directly on the landscape. 

15 famous landscape paintings 

Through a selection of fifteen iconic landscape paintings from various periods, we will trace the genre’s evolution.  

1. Springs or Earthly Paradise (1660-64) by Nicolas Poussin

Some of the first examples of landscape paintings are the ones produced by the classical painter Nicolas Poussin. In “Spring or Earthly Paradise”, the artist portrays Adam and Eve naked in the middle of a meadow and surrounded by trees, including the apple tree from Genesis. The two figures are really small compared to space given to the landscape. Nature is the main subject of the composition. With the depiction of the landscape, Poussin is able to convey the dramatic outcome.


Nicolas Poussin, Springs or Earthly Paradise, 1660-64.


2. The Hunter in the Snow (1565) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The well-known oil painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts a wintry scene, capturing three hunters with their dogs returning home after an unsuccessful hunt. “The Hunters in the Snow” belongs to a series of paintings representing different rural activities during the year. The landscape is highly realistic, even the mountains in the background are full of details. The scene is captured from an elevated point, so that the viewer’s gaze is directed onto the wide-open landscape. Through this painting, Bruegel captured the melancholy and the overwhelming power of winter.   


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunter in the Snow, 1565.


3. View of Toledo (1596-1600) by El Greco

In this landscape, El Greco depicts Toledo, the city where he worked and lived for most of his life. The painting is not a truthful representation of the city, as some buildings have been imaginatively moved by the artist. The painting vibrates with colours such as blue, black, white and green. While the sky is stormy and gloomy and permeated by darkness, the hills are alive with the green of the lush vegetation. The city occupies a small portion of the composition, which is dominated instead by the natural elements. El Greco juxtaposes the stillness of the city sitting on top of a hill to the dynamism of the natural world.


El Greco, View of Toledo,1596-1600.


4. The Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute towards the Riva degli Schiavoni (1729-30) Giovanni Antonio Canal (aka Canaletto)

In this painting, part of a series of twelve, Canaletto portrays the world renowned Grand Canal in Venice. In his work, Canaletto strived to give an exact representation of the landscape. This is therefore a topographical view, a “Veduta” in Italian, of the subject. Here, it is possible to observe Canaletto’s mature style: liquid paint is handled both with a brush and with incisions. The colour range is exploited to clearly define the various elements in the view, such as the architectural details. 


Giovanni Antonio Canal (aka Canaletto), The Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute towards the Riva degli Schiavoni, 1729-30.


5. Monk by the Sea (1808-10) by Caspar David Friedrich

In sharp contrast with the well-defined details found in Canaletto's Vedute, the landscape portrayed by Caspar David Friedrich is elusive. The painter is able to convey a remarkable representation of the immensity and power of nature. The Capuchin monk walking on the seaside is no more than a simple element in the composition. More than three quarters of the canvas are devoted to the sky. The representation is such that the viewer is not able to clearly determine in which part of the day the scene is taking place. As the monk, the viewer is left in a state of contemplation typical of art at the time of Romanticism.  


Caspar David Friedrich, The monk by the sea, 1808-10.


6. The Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable

John Constable is perhaps one of the most famous English landscape painters, and this is one of the most iconic English paintings in the history of art. Here, the artist portrays a suggestive rustic English setting. The hay wain is depicted crossing a shallow ford towards the field. Constable’s skies are known to be of great effect, something that the artist achieved thanks to repeated studies. In this painting, he does not shy away from giving a truthful and majestic representation of a sky filled with clouds. It is also noticeable that the artist depicted the scene, in particular the grass and the trees, in bright colours: this was not usual in England at the time. 


John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821.


7. Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by Joseph Mallord William Turner 

JMW Turner is well known for his enthralling marine paintings, capturing extreme weather at sea. The artist portrays here a steam-boat, that is hardly recognisable, at the centre of a storm. The viewer is left, as the ship, subject to the powerful atmospheric elements. This can be seen as a symbol of the human’s attempt to fight the powerful forces of nature. 


Joseph Mallord William Turner, T Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,1942.


8. Impression, sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet

In this painting, Monet portrays the port of Le Havre from the window of his hotel. The red sun is rising, brightening the port by casting rays over the docklands, ships and boats. The brushstrokes capture with immediacy the artist’s perception of the way in which the light permeates the scene. The paint, applied in washes in-situ (on the spot, and not in the artist’s studio), attempts to capture the effect of a particular atmospheric condition before it vanishes. The fact that Monet included the word ‘Impression’ in the title should not be overlooked. The term indicates that the painting had been created en plein air (outdoors) and with speed. After it was exposed at an exhibition organised in Paris by a group of young artists to avoid the tyranny of the French Salon, the painting became famous and influenced the name later given to Impressionism.  


Claude Monet, Impression, sunrise, 1872.


9. Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh

This artwork is one of three similar oil paintings by Vincent Van Gogh portraying a golden field of ripe wheat, light green olive trees in the middle distance, darker towering cypresses on the right side, and hills and mountains behind. A large part of the painting is then dedicated to the azure sky with swirling white clouds. This version of the series is likely to have been painted en plein air, close to the subject. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, a description of the painting: “I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticelli's, and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too”. This well describes the artist’s effort to not only depict a natural scenery but also to capture other physical sensation of the place, like the heat of the wheat.   


Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889.


10. Mont Sainte-Victoire (1904-06) by Paul Cézanne

It would be reductive to say that Paul Cézanne was fascinated by Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain overlooking Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Mont Sainte-Victoire was of particular significance both in the artist’s personal and artistic life and in local lore. Cézanne painted it more than 30 times over the course of his life. In a departure from the Impressionist effort to depict a subject quickly in order to capture a fleeting experience, Cézanne set out to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire over multiple sessions and years. The effort to capture the landscape in its atemporal existence is pursued by the painter alongside the aim of capturing the depth and forms of the subject in the artwork. Through the use of overlapping planes, the artist is able to build dimension and draw the viewer into the landscape.


Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1904-06.


11. Landscape at Collioure (1905) by Henri Matisse

In “Landscape at Collioure”, Henri Matisse depicted a natural scenery that the artist encountered in the summer of 1905. What is really peculiar about this work is the instinctive and spontaneous way of using colours, a way previously unknown in Western art. The colours reflect the immediate and direct emotional response to the contemplation of nature, thus, they are required to change accordingly to changes in emotions. The oil paint is applied with quick brushstrokes, sometimes even directly from the tube, to an unprimed canvas. As a result, the parts that remain unpainted are raw, unwoven surfaces.  


Henri Matisse, Landscape at Collioure, 1905.


12. L’Estaque (1905) by André Derain 

André Derain portrays here a village scene observed in L’Estaque, a small port in the South of France. As Matisse, Derain belonged to the group of artists named les Fauves. The way in which the subject is portrayed makes clear that the artist, inspired by his predecessors in the Impressionist (such as Monet) and Post-Impressionist (such as Cézanne) movements, has rejected realism. Colours are distorted in a chromatic research that goes beyond the truthful representation of the observed landscape. The energetic and bright colours are often used in complementary pairs from the color wheel. The field of colours further serve the purpose of delimiting the geometrical forms that make up the elements of the landscape. The interplay of colour and form gives materiality to the subject. The aesthetic in Derain’s landscapes was key in defining the style that characterised Fauvism. 


André Derain, L’Estaque, 1905.


13. The Dream (1910) by Henri Rousseau 

In this painting, Rousseau depicts a lush jungle with various hidden animals such as lions, elephants, and birds. At the centre of the vegetation, a naked woman lying down listens to the music played by a flute charmer. The pose is a clear reference of the classical representation of female nudes in art history. The painting is characterised by the voluntary absence of perspective, and it does not follow the reality of dimensions. Rousseau used many shades of green, at least twenty, to recreate a perfect and harmonious depiction of vegetation. He was a great connoisseur of plants thanks to his numerous visits to the Natural History Museum and the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris. The result is a dreamy-like landscape that captures the viewers, inviting them to travel inside. 


Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910.


14. Lighthouse Hill (1927) by Edward Hopper

In this landscape painting, the American realist Edward Hopper depicts the quiet stillness of a winding valley, a house, and a lighthouse. It is interesting to notice that the artist decided to exclude the sea from the composition. While the scene is bathed in crisp sunlight, long shadows take shape in front of the viewer and cover the deserted scene. The power of the painting lies precisely in the contrast between a sense of calmness and reassurance and a feeling of solitude, melancholy, anguish and boredom. 


Edward Hopper, Hill with Lighthouse, 1927. Courtesy of the Artist.


15. View of Agrigento (1954) by Nicolas de Staël

A completely different take on landscape painting is given by Nicolas de Stael. The artist used geometric forms, thick impasto, and vivid colours to create an abstract landscape. “View of Agrigento” is part of a series of paintings depicting different landscapes of Sicily, a region that the artists loved so much. De Staël uses forms, lines and bright strident colours to capture the essence of a landscape.The ochre and red of the arid landscape burnt by the heat are perfectly balanced with the purple and green. Such colours represent the emotions and the sensations of the artist’s experience in the landscape. 


View of Agrigento (1955) by Nicolas de Stael. Courtesy of Christie’s.


Cover image: Edward Hopper, Hill with Lighthouse, 1927. Courtesy of the Artist.

Written by Francesca Allievi

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