A Quick History of Landscape Painting in Western Art—

The First 3500 Years

More often than not, the paintings that really grab my attention are landscapes, and I like to think I’m a somewhat knowledgeable about them in terms of art history. So, I was surprised to learn recently that the word “landscape” — an anglicization of the Dutch landschap — was only introduced into the language — purely as a term for works of art — around the start of the 17th century. That is not to say that landscapes didn’t exist in art before then … apparently there just wasn’t a word for them.

In Western art, the earliest extant example of a painted landscape is a fresco in Akrotiri, an Aegean Bronze Age settlement on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini. It was beautifully preserved under volcanic ash from 1627 BC until about 50 years ago.

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The “Spring fresco” of Akrotiri, Santorini

Elements of landscape were also depicted in Ancient Egypt, often as a backdrop for hunting scenes set in the reeds of the Nile Delta. In both cases, the emphasis was on individual plant forms and figures on a flat plane, rather than the broad landscape. A rough system of scaling, to convey a sense of distance, evolved as time went on and as the decorating of rooms with frescos of landscapes and mosaics continued through the Hellenistic and ancient Roman periods.

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Virgin and Child, Petrus Christus, mid-15th century

It wasn’t until the 14th century, though, that it became common for the focal action of a narrative painting to be placed against a natural setting, and by the following century, landscape-as-setting had become an accepted genre in European painting. The landscape often became more prominent, the figures less so.

The Renaissance brought significant breakthroughs with the development of a system of graphical perspective, which allowed expansive views to be represented convincingly, with a natural-seeming progression from the foreground to the distant view. The word perspective comes from the Latin perspicere, meaning “to see through”; the application of perspective comes from mathematics. The basic geometry: 1) objects are smaller as their distance from the observer increases; and 2) an object’s dimensions along the line of sight are shorter than its dimensions across the line of sight, a phenomenon known as foreshortening.

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Paolo Uccello, Battle of San Romano, 1440. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Despite artists having learned to render exemplary middle- and far-distance panoramas, until the 19th century landscape painting was relegated to a low position in the accepted hierarchy of genres in Western art. However, Narrative painting — typically biblical or mythological stories — was highly prestigious, and for several centuries Italian and French artists promoted landscapes into history paintings by adding figures to make a narrative scene. In England, landscapes mostly figured as backgrounds to portraits, suggesting the parks or estates of a landowner.

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Camille Corot, Hagar in the Wilderness, 1835

In the Netherlands, pure landscape painting was more quickly accepted, largely due to the repudiation of religious painting in Calvinist society. Many Dutch artists of the 17th century specialized in landscape painting, developing subtle techniques for realistically depicting light and weather. Certain types of scenes repeatedly appear in inventories of the period, including “moonlight,” “woodland,” “farm,” and “village” scenes. Most Dutch landscapes were relatively small: smaller paintings for smaller houses.

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Aert van der Neer, Moonlit Landscape with Bridge, c. 1650. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Subsequently, religious painting declined throughout the rest of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. That fact, combined with a new Romanticism — which emphasized emotion, individualism, and the glorification of nature — promoted landscapes to the well-loved place in art which they continue to hold today.

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Caspar David Friedrich, Morning in the Riesengebirge, c. 1810. Schloß Charlottenburg, Berlin

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