When we think of landscape art there are a few artists who spring to mind, Turner, Monet, Van Gogh and we might think of green fields or haystacks. Surprisingly this genre wasn’t taken seriously for many years, only emerging from the background in the seventeenth century. Today it is a major theme and takes all forms, with a variety of subject matter, and media.
One of the first European landscape artists was fifteenth century artist Albrecht Dürer, as well as painting he is also known for his woodcut prints, and his writings on perspective.
He introduced classical motifs into Northern Art through his travels and knowledge of Italian artists such as Raphael, Bellini and da Vinci. He is one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance not only for his art but also his treaties on maths, perspective and ideal proportions. Before Dürer’s ideas, painters would have worked on instinct alone, by using mathematical systems, advances were made in portraying human proportions, linear perspective and space.
His first known painting is The Wire -Drawing Mill, c1489, clearly he has established foreground, middle-ground and background through a combination of perspective and colour. It seems a little unreal in ways and somehow modern at the same time, his precision probably deriving from his goldsmith training.
He painted the same scene again,The Willow Mill, c1496/8 this time with more expression and less precision, with the landscape playing a less important role.
His travels in Italy had a huge and direct influence on his art, his watercolours from his time in the Alps were described as some of his most beautiful creations, “depicting segments of landscape scenery cleverly chosen for their compositional values, painted with broad strokes, in places roughly sketched in, with amazing harmonisation of detail. He used predominantly unmixed, cool, sombre colours, which, despite his failure to contrast light and dark adequately, still suggest depth and atmosphere¹.”
Though he moved to portraiture he often kept landscape in the background, in the style of Venetian and Florentine paintings of that era. His later works became more expressive and more detailed. He also spent time observing nature at close hand, animals and plants in particular, see his young hare.
His eye for detail led to the exploration of perspective and proportion, resulting in several publications, among them a treatise on fortifications, the first printed book of its kind, using advanced perspective ideas such as bird’s eye views. His woodcuts revolutionised printmaking, elevating it to an independent art form. His tonal range added a dramatic element to the previously flat lacking texture and tone.
In the seventeenth century Lorrain became known for his idyllic landscapes based on classical proportions and references to mythology. He extended the concept of landscape by adding biblical and mythological characters thereby giving it historical significance and raising its importance. His figures are classically dressed, set in pastoral settings, representing man in harmony with nature.
This is one of his most famous works, The Father of Psyche sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo, the landscape clearly dominates the scene, the huge trees overshadowing the picture.
He travelled from his native France, spending time in Italy in the hills around Rome. He was noted for his draughtsmanship, showing an eye for detail and carefully planned composition, yet his sketchbooks were filled with realistic detail.
He was meticulous in his work, making copies of all his paintings into a ‘liber veritatas’, in order to defeat forgers, but also as a personal reference and source book. He inspired Turner, Constable and Keats and even influenced the design of many English gardens.
Whilst his style and subject matter are consistent his compositions become increasingly complex. His earlier works are described as charming and picturesque, yet as he matured they become more classical in tone and theme.
His work reflects his appreciation of light and its many effects, almost all of his work shows dawn and twilight, the most poetic times of day. Like Durer he observed nature closely showing a naturalistic style and yet his vision is nostalgic, almost dreamlike, and serene.
L. S. LOWRY
Known for his industrial landscapes, Lowry’s works are very familiar to those who grew up in the North of England. I certainly was aware of Lowry’s ‘matchstick men’ before I understood the concept of landscape painting. See Industrial Landscape, 1955
Although his works were imaginary, they showed panoramic cityscapes, which contained recognisable places such as Stockport Viaduct. He gave a generalised impression of urban environments, dominated by the less attractive city elements such as smoking chimneys, and industrial wastelands.
His earlier work was similar to the Impressionists but without the light which made them brooding in atmosphere, the people like worker ants, faceless, almost non-human. Often described as ‘lonely landscapes’, they were empty, desolate views of Cumbrian hills, grey and bleak landscape.
He said “my ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map, because nobobdy had done it – nobody had done it seriously²”. His pictures unsettle the myth of the land of hope and glory, it’s a commentary on how the wealthy depend on the ceaseless labour of the poor, the human condition of repeated work until death. This is shown through the rigid, faceless figures, the huge dominating factories, drab housing and bleak atmosphere. Yet throughout the bleak imagery there are flashes of detail, bright colour, flowers in a window, or someone waving or whistling, a sudden break in the routine.
Born in the Midlands, he is known for painting the urban estate where he grew up in 1970’s Britain. His style is highly detailed and naturalistic, but his subject matter is one of English suburbia, the mundane and the overlooked. It’s a nostalgic view, looking back on a simpler time, no people are present but we somehow still feel their presence. “To me, they are teeming with human presences. The people I grew up with, family, passersby, they are all in there somewhere, embedded in the paintings³.”
It’s a landscape most are familiar with, evoking a remembered experience of what it is to be a working class teenager, waiting around. His works captures memories and moments from adolescent life.
He reinforces this feeling of nostalgia with his choice of paint, his favourite medium is Humbrol enamel paint, the very thought of which conjures up images of teens concentrating on getting that Airfix plane just so, sitting in their bedroom of a terraced house. Almost photographic in style, the enamel paint gives the paintings a unique flavour of a particular era yet raises it from a purely representational state, its old fashioned but somehow timeless at the same time. He elevates this bland suburban places into something more important, in the same way that Lorrain elevated beautiful landscapes from the background of historical genre paintings.
For the exhibition “George Shaw: My Back to Nature”, Shaw spent a lot of time in the National Gallery studying the old masters. He studied the clash of cultures, linking classical stories to the modern world and religion.
Painting his home town of Coventry he said, “the work came out of an abandonment of plans. It was not just about going back to a place physically, it was a return to a metaphorical place where I existed as a positive, passionate adolescent, unhampered by the history of my ideas or other people’s, a place where I did what I did because it grew from me – and didn’t question it. If you can’t find yourself in your own backyard, you’re not going to find yourself in the Serengeti, are you? So for me, it was taking those clichés of epiphany and the sublime and putting them in a place where great thoughts aren’t rumoured to happen³.”
His work is often described as sentimental, but are devoid of people, perhaps they are more nostalgic, although as he says “I don’t know why sentimentality has to be a negative quality. What I look for in art are the qualities I admire or don’t admire in human beings. And very rarely do I meet people who aren’t sentimental.” (4)
In his exhibition My Back to Nature, he painted a series of woodland landscapes, described as scenes of intense human drama. the moment has just passed, is about to happen or is happening now. Even though we don’t see any signs of people there, they have clearly been there, marks made on the ground, a page left behind, red paint dripping on a tree trunk. Shaw’s woods are like scenes from a movie, with the possibility hinted that maybe you are not alone, the feeling of anticipation that anything could happen.
The tree is humanised, cut down, lying on the ground, one end charred by matches as if tortured. His trees almost have faces.
Trained as a scupltor, Woodfine’s landscapes are imaginary worlds, evocative of familiar childhood memories and fantasies. Her drawings are monochromatic and very precise and carefully considered, lending an almost sinister atmosphere. Everything might appear to be magical and dreamy but there is a slight apprehension evoked by the lack of colour.
Drawings form the main body of work but, extending the miniature worlds she has also created 3D scenes housed in cases and glass domes. She considers drawing a form of scuplture, creating the illusion of three dimensions, worlds that exist on their own.
Even some of her pencil drawings look like miniature scenes, and slightly foreboding in mood, The Crypt, 2010, perhaps because of the subject matter.
Whilst creating realistic worlds, she has also created surreal, dreamlike ones, always depicted in moonlight, reinforcing that other-worldly feel, with a sense of threat.
In conclusion, landscape is a huge and diverse topic, which will take you on many winding pathways but all of them manage to convey a sense of place and time, which is pretty remarkable.
1. Britannica website
2. Winterson, Jeanetter, June 13, 2013, L.S. Lowry’s Rage Against the Machine, The Guardian, accessed 20th June 2017
3. O’Hagan, Sean, February 13th 2011, Sometimes I Look at My Work and its Conservatism Shocks Me, The Guardian, accessed 20th June 2017
4 and 5. Kellaway, Kate, November 15, 2015 George Shaw, 49, Every Second, Every Ounce of Time has to be Accounted For, The Guardian, accessed 20th June 2017
Farthing, Stephen, 2010, Art: The Whole Story, 2016 edition, London, Thames and Hudson
Gombrich, E.H., 1950, The Story of Art, 2016 edition, London, Phaidon Press
Suchin, Peter, Sarah Woodine CV, Exhibition Press Info, 2015, London, accessed 21st June 2017
Robinson, Fiona, Interview with Strange Worlds artist Sarah Woodfine, 2017, London, accessed 21st June 2017
Victoria and Albert museum website, Newfoundland by Sarah Woodfine, 2005, London, accessed 21st June 2017