Landscape Art: A Walk Through History

Landscape Art: A Walk Through History


As an established art form, landscape painting is often one of the first genres that people explore when developing an interest in art. From Monet’s Water Lily Pond to the ethereal works of Turner, these paintings are so ingrained in our culture that even non-art lovers will be familiar with many of them.

Landscape with St Jerome by Joachim Patinir

But it hasn’t always been that way – at least, not in Western Europe. Whilst landscapes featured in much of ancient Roman and Chinese artwork, it wasn’t until the end of the 15th century that Europeans embraced it as a genre in its own right. This was partly due to increasing popularity among the upper classes, but also advancements in painting techniques – most crucially, the World Landscape style created by Dutch painter Joachim Patinir (1480-1524), which portrays scenic views from a higher viewpoint, allowing the artist to create deeper and more idealistic vistas.

Even so, landscape painting still ranks only 4th place in the Hierarchy of Genres – beneath genre painting, portraiture and history painting. This classification system – created in the 17th century by the great European Academies, and based on ideas of classical art formed during the Italian Renaissance – suggests that because the genre features little or no human beings, it holds less moral influence and is therefore a lesser art form.


Pre-modernist landscapes tended to draw inspiration from either literature or exotic destinations, most likely because the travelling upper classes were the ones commissioning the work. Perhaps because of its classical associations, Italy was the most commonly-depicted destination in work from this era.

Weymouth Bay by John Constable

From the 17th century, landscape painting became more fashionable in Europe thanks to the Dutch Golden Age of painting; a time when the Dutch Republic was the leading nation on the continent for art, science and trade. This led to the creation of more sub-genres – such as forests, woodland and coastal scenes – and a greater focus on realism, which came as a refreshing contrast to the grandeur of the earlier Baroque period. Artists such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) were hailed as much for their landscape works as for their biblical and portrait paintings.

By the early 19th century this popularity spread to Britain, when the genre truly came into its own during the Golden Age of English landscape painting. This also being the Romantic period, there was a strong emphasis on isolated landscapes, stormy skies and the representation of the power of nature.Artists such as J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837) also rediscovered watercolour during this time, using it to create fleeting and atmospheric visual effects. Turner came up with new ways to make skies and clouds look incandescent and expressive, and became known as “the painter of light” – one look at Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus or The Fighting Temeraire will show you why. Meanwhile, Constable used his work to express his fondness for the Suffolk countryside in which he grew up – once telling his friend that “I should paint my own places best […] painting is but another word for feeling.”

Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Constable’s work was displayed at the Salon de Paris in 1824, where his Romantic rural depictions inspired French artists to make nature the key focus of their work – as opposed to merely a backdrop. As part of the Barbizon school for painters, members such as Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet expanded this idea into a more realist context, including peasant figures in their scenes.

With the introduction of photography in the 19th century, the realistic approach to landscape art that had been so prevalent began to suffer and many began to speculate if painting still had a place in culture. The Impressionistic movement addressed these concerns head on with use of unnaturally bold colours and abstract painting techniques, soon beginning to dominate 19th-century Europe. Taking clear influence from Turner and Constable’s style, artists such as Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) paved the way for impressionism in Paris. As well as his water lilies project, some of Monet’s most famous landscape works include Impression, Sunrise (1872) Poppy Fields Near Argenteuil (1875) and The Four Trees (1891). Van Gogh’s most influential work includes his wheat field series, as well Starry Night Over The River Rhone (1888) and The Starry Night (1889).

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

Said to bridge the gap between the late Impressionist era and the Modernism of the 20th century was France’s Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), whom Pablo Picasso referred to as “my one and only master (…) like the father of us all.” His work embraced bold colour, intelligent composition and an experimental use of brushstrokes that made it instantly recognisable. Like Constable, Cezanne held a deep love for the landscape of his country – the region of Province, in particular – and was inspired by the beauty of nature. His series of paintings depicting different views of Mont Sainte-Victoire clearly shows this love affair.


From the 20th century onwards, Impressionism gave way to more modernist styles; but in the postmodern era, landscape painting as a genre was put in the shade somewhat by the rise of American influences such as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and it fell slightly out of fashion in light of new technology and installation art. It is particularly telling that the Turner prize – named after the famous landscape artist – has never been awarded to a landscape artist since it began in 1984. However artists such as L. S. Lowry did gain notability in the 1950’s with urban landscapes such as ‘Industrial Landscape’ in 1955. These pieces created a stark contrast with the Romantic landscapes we had been used to seeing, making a statement about the drastic changes to our environment since the industrial revolution.

During the late 20th and early 21st centuries photography has become more accepted as an art form and artists have returned to use of realism, with contemporary painters such as Peter Doig using photographic elements as a reference for their landscape work. In 2003 Roy Lichtenstein featured a three landscapes video installation at The Tate which brought together elements of film, painting, billboard, comic strip and kinetics in his work. It seems that new media has given fresh interpretation to landscape art, and today’s artists continue to surprise and inspire us with their contemporary landscapes.

Why not take a look at our Art and Craft supplies to try out landscapes for yourself at home.

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