Cityscape Art: A Walk Through History

Cityscape Art: A Walk Through History

Ancient world

There’s no precision when it comes to the exact date that the first city was born; as such, it is difficult to establish a precise date when it comes to the start of the history of cityscapes. Some early works date back to ancient Rome; The Baths of Trajan, for example, depict a bird’s-eye view of the city.

Middle Ages

Cityscapes were also prevalent during the Middle Ages, but usually as backdrops to portraits rather than achieving a special role in the composition. However, in the late 13th and 14th century, Western art started to revive, largely thanks to Duccio da Buonisegna and Giotto di Bondone. It is often thought that Ambrogio Lorenzetti may have painted the first true cityscape in 1335 with his ‘City by the Sea’, followed by ‘The Effects of Good Government in the City’ (1338). Lorenzetti’s cityscape paintings did not, however, spark a remarkable tradition in Italy or northern Europe; they continued to be in the background of many famous paintings; for example, Albrecht Altdorfer’s spectacular ‘Battle of Alexander at Issus’ (1529).

City by the Sea - Ambrogio Lorenzetti

17th and 18th century

Halfway through the 17th century, cityscape became a genre in its own right in the Netherlands. The city of Delft, in western Holland, has received special recognition for its painters following the Renaissance. The most famous artist of the time was Jan Vermeer and his ‘View of Delft’ (1660-1661). Cities such as Amsterdam, Haarlem and The Hague were very popular subjects for cityscape painters. Artists from other European countries – including England, France and Germany – soon followed the example set by the Dutch. At the start of the 18th century, Venice had a flourishing period for cityscape painting. Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, was at the pinnacle – said to be an artist who could “make the sun shine in his paintings”. His popularity with British businessmen brought him to England, where he painted cityscapes of London. His two most talented followers included Francesco Guardi and Bernardo Bellotto.

View of Delft - Jan Vermeer


Towards the end of the 19th century, impressionists began to focus on the ambience and dynamics of everyday urban life, and building sites, industrial areas and railway yards also became subjects for cityscapes. Paris was one of the most sought-after subjects for impressionist artists – it was the ultimate source of inspiration for painters including Gustave Caillebotte (‘Paris Street, Rainy Day’) and Camille Pissarro (‘Boulevard Montmartre at Night’), to name but a few.

Boulevard Montmartre at Night - Camille Pissarro

Contemporary cityscape painting

Cityscape painting declined in popularity somewhat during the 20th century, as attention became focused on conceptual and abstract art. However, there was a revival of figurative art towards the end of the 20th century, which brought with it a revisit to cityscape painting. Photorealist and hyperrealist painters have made an important contribution to cityscape painting in more recent times. Richard Estes is one of the most famous New York painters since George Bellows, and the works of Rackstraw Downes and Yvonne Jacquette (with her speciality in aerial cityscapes) deserve a mention. Another recent painter to emerge is Stephen Wiltshire, born in London in 1974. An autistic artist who paints cityscapes entirely from memory after seeing a city view only once, his work has gained him international fame within the art world, and he received an MBE for his services to art in 2006.

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