All of the following artists worked in series which suggests an investigate spirit or pursuit of perfection. They’re not creating pretty landscapes for the sake of creation but looking for answers in their observations.
Monet 1840 – 1926
Monet is often credited with being one of the founders of Impressionism, he was influenced by Turner’s work and his quest to paint light and colour, trying to capture the changing light and seasons. His emphasis was to create an ‘impression’ of a transitory moment, an atmosphere or essence rather than a detailed representation. He painted the same subject at different times of day and in different weather conditions, observing the light.
Monet convinced his fellow artists to get out of the studio and paint outside. He insisted that painting should take place whilst outside looking at the chosen subject matter and not finished in the studio. This resulted in changing methods and techniques, with the sun passing, there was not time to paint in a leisurely, layered way, artists had to be faster, less precise, with less focus on detail. It led to a looser, more expressive style that did not appeal to the critics at the time.
It clearly preceded modernist abstract art of the twentieth century, whilst moving away from the traditional academic style. The Impressionists, although they were rejected by the French Salon, are generally accepted as the forerunners of Modern Art.
His Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe, 1865-66, is painted after Manet’s original but his version depicts the light falling on the leaves and people, and his people lounge comfortably amidst the landscape. The focus was on the moment of the picnic, rather than the landscape or people.
His work Impression: Sunrise, Le Havre, 1872, is the source of the term Impressionism and was ridiculed by critics. It shows a hazy, diffuse light with indistinct background shapes, the brushstrokes are longer, starting to move away from his more detailed works.
Wild Poppies near Argenteuil, 1873, is a vibrant work that shows his growing interest in colour, with the use of complementary colours, contrasting red and greens, blues and yellows. He had become aware that colours contained other colours, e.g. browns could be represented by red, yellow and blue.
Whilst the work may often give the ‘impression’ of an event or moment in time, Monet’s works were very considered, great thought and planning were given to the placement of colours. Instead of being accurate representations, he was preoccupied with reflections, water and the enveloppe, the ‘envelope’ of light surrounding everything.
Monet spent decades studying his garden at Giverny, recording it and the seasons and painting waterlilies. The clouds are reflected in the water, amongst the lilies, which adds depth and also a dream-like quality. These paintings got bigger in size, so big he got rid of the frames so as not to distract the view from the lilies and his fabulous pond.
From 1890 to 1891 he painted nearly thirty paintings of haystacks, Haystack (Effect of Snow and Sun), studying the changing light and the changing season and the effects of these on the stacks. Originally he thought that two canvases would be able to express the light but soon realised he needed many more due to the subtleties caused by the changing weather and seasonal light. By using the repeated image of the haystack, he could depict the light in every way.
Cézanne (1839 – 1906)
Cézanne was also a member of the Impressionists but after criticism and rejection from the Salon he returned to his native Aix-en-Provence. He had some funds so was able to paint at leisure and pursue his own interests. He was particularly concerned with the true forms of nature, especially structure. He spent many hours studying light on surfaces. He noted that the three fundamental shapes were geometrical, namely cylinder, cone and sphere and decided the fundamental colours were the primary and secondary colours with which the Impressionists had experimented.
He was aiming for artistic perfection, which he described as painting ‘Poussin from nature’. He was looking for the harmony and balance of shapes that Poussin so successfully created, and looking for new ways in which to do it. Cézanne believed that the old rules were contrary to nature and painting from nature was now paramount. The problem was how to achieve the solidity of form using Impressionist strokes and dots, without creating blurriness and disharmony, and in colour was problematic. Attempting to bring the bright colours of nature seemed unrealistic and flat. Cézanne seemed somehow to master the challenge.
One of his obsessions was Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain just outside Aix, which he painted over sixty times. The summer light is obvious yet the landscape is firm and rooted, patterns of lines are repeated and the overall effects show space and expanse, giving structure and harmony. Everything is considered, from the vertical and horizontal lines, to colour, to direction of brushstrokes.
Often called the father of ‘modern art’ because of his efforts to create harmony through composition and colour, Cézanne was later known as a Post-Impressionist as his work moved on from the original group’s preoccupation with light. He progressed from the small spots of colour instead using larger patches, stripping down the detail to focus on structure. This ‘flat depth’ utilised blocks of colour to represent space and depth. His later work became more abstract and was of major influence to the Cubists.
Hockney (1937 – )
A contributor to the Pop Art movement, Hockney may be better known for his California landscapes of the 1960s, vivid, stylised paintings depicting the relaxed lifestyles of American, with their swimming pools. He painted many pools, attempting to capture transient moments, and the changing movement of water. He used fast-drying acrylic paint which matched the colourful sunny climate of California.
Painted in 1967, A Bigger Splash seemed to perfectly embody the British sentiment that the war was behind us and the outlook was optimistic for the future. There is no visible human presence but the suggestion is there, beneath the surface, what is left is just the splash and ripple of the water.
Moving Focus (1984-7) is a series made after travelling in Mexico. Hockney became interested in printing and lithographs which allowed him to work in layers. These panaromic works were large in size, which allowed him to show different viewpoints as if someone was walking along, taking in different views from many angles. The fixed viewpoint is intermingled with the multiple viewpoint to give an interesting effect. He plays around with composition and perspective, examining how we see and the role that memory plays.
His next period of work involved making collages with polaroids. He used a camera to draw with, using multiple images to create a larger image called ‘joiners’, see Pearlblossom Highway. They allowed him to represent time and movement, and showed multiple viewpoints to give a three dimensional effect. The ‘joiners’ permits a view closer to the way we really see things.
Initially the polaroids were arranged in a grid before he progressed to collages, using 35mm prints, making the image more abstract.
More recently Hockney returned to his Yorkshire roots to paint outdoors, painting a series from one spot in Woldgate Woods. These paintings show the landscape through the changing seasons, repeating motifs. Some are made in watercolour which allowed him to work quickly to capture the changing light. He first sits for a few hours to observe before working quickly to put it down on paper. They are very colourful, vivid works which seem to elevate the woods in an idealised way. They are also very large in scale, one even bigger than Monet’s waterlilies. His version of landscape has become bigger, brighter and bolder, a celebration of Northern landscape. It’s not too everyone’s taste, some critics have called them repetitive and gaudy, like Matisse meets Disney¹.
Nevertheless, what Hockney has done is similar to Cézanne and his beloved mountain. He is clearly enamoured with the region and his works demonstrate this if nothing else.
Peter Doig (1959- )
Doig is a contemporary artist who paints imagined landscapes, they are enchanted and simultaneously unsettling. He uses photographs as source material to create a land that combines real life and fantasy, often picturing water and canoes, sometimes populated with figures that have hidden features, i.e. hats and glasses, blinds are pulled down putting a veil over everything. They are not quite approachable, there is mystery here amongst the paradise, he questions reality yet with an over-riding sense of serenity.
His painting Swamped, sold for £16 million in 2015. He is reputed to have brought beauty back to painting landscapes, his works are full of colour yet show the paint marks and blobs which are part of the works. They are sometimes described as magic realism, meaning he brings beauty to the most ordinary scene, they do seem almost other worldly, almost dreamlike. This effect is achieved through unusual colour combinations and interesting angles, this is not realism.
The Architects Home in the Ravine, shows an almost inaccessible house, blocked by tree branches, which themselves become the focus of the piece. Instead of the house in the background being the subject, in spite of the title, the viewer is held back from entering by the scene-grabbing trees which demand our attention.
Some of his work refers to Canada where he lived for some years when younger, in White Creep, we see a forbidding mass of snow, it is not the mountain or the sky that dominates but the enormous density of snow. He’s turning traditional focus from the land towards the elements and nature.
Another series concentrated on Le Corbusier’s apartments in France, Concrete Cabin, there’s an attractive designer building, with all that living there suggests, yet the huge trees dominate and overshadow the otherwise idyllic scene. It shows a glimpse as if we were walking through the woods to suddenly come upon the buildings. Our view is hindered which creates tension and drama.
Gillian Carnegie (1971-)
Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2005, Carnegie is an acclaimed painter in the traditional categories of landscape, portrait and still life but her approach questions them. Often challenging the accepted norms for composition, light, colour and technique, she has created a number of series, including woodlands and cats. They appear to be traditional but on a second glance there is more to consider, they raise many questions. The thickness of the paint stops the viewer from getting too close.
Black Square, 2008 is one of a series of monochrome landscapes depicted in darkness; painting in such dark colours raises questions about light and visibility and puts an emphasis on the texture. The painting becomes the focus, the texture and materiality are clearly of importance. It questions the very act of painting itself and through this Carnegie is examining the concept of art and traditions of landscape painting.
Carnegie also use photographs as source material. Her work is said to be lacking in narrative and colour but her works are very considered and significant. Whilst many of the artists mentioned here have focused on light and representing light, Carnegie has examined darkness and representing the lack of light in muted or monochrome tones, an interesting departure from the quest for light.
- Cumming, Laura, 22nd January 2012, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture Review, The Guardian
Pickeral, Tamsin, 2005, Turner, Whistler, Monet, London, Flame Tree Publishing
Gombrich, E.H., 2016, The Story of Art, London, Phaidon Press
Swinglehurt, 1994, Edmund, The Life and Works of Cézanne, Parragon
Farthing, Stephen, 2010, Art: The Whole Story, London, Thames and Hudson
Tate Gallery Website
Searle, Adrian, 16th January 2012, David Hockney Landscapes: The Wold is not Enough, The Guardian
Jones, Jonathan, 16th May 2015, Stroke of Genius: Peter Doig’s Eerie Art Whisks the Mind to Enchanted Places, The Guardian
Gottam, F.G., 31st January 2008, Peter Doig, A Perfectionist in Paradise, The Independent
Jeffries, Stuart, 5th September 2012, Peter Doig: The Outsider Comes Home, The Guardian
Buck, Louisa, 23rd June 2017, The Quietly Transfixing Artist Gillian Carnegie Puts on Her First London Show for Eight Years, The Telegraph