In the contemporary realm of painting, artists often dabble in styles inspired by past artistic movements. One genre that has particularly strong roots in the past is landscape painting. Today, contemporary artists who work in this style visually demonstrate the ways in which their work has been inspired by the age-old genre, which is characterized by an interest in portraying nature. To see these influences and learn about landscape art, it is important to understand the ways in which artists—both of the past and present—creatively approach it.
What is landscape painting?
Landscape painting (or landscape art) refers to an artistic genre defined by a focus on natural scenery as subject matter. Landscape paintings can depict a variety of settings, such as mountains, forests, rivers, and beaches. They often offer a wide view of the scene, and usually place some focus on the sky.
Artists choose landscapes as their subjects for a variety of reasons. In addition to wanting to represent or replicate their obvious beauty, some artists opt to create these depictions to study and explore various aesthetic elements, like light, color, and texture. Additionally, some artists also use scenes of nature as a way to tell a story, illustrate an idea, or conceptualize a metaphor.
Tracing the genre’s evolution and looking at well-known landscape paintings throughout history enables one to visually recognize these differences and understand where contemporary landscape painters may find their inspiration.
Famous Landscape Art Throughout History
Giorgione, The Tempest (c. 1505)In this Italian Renaissance painting, Giorgione places equal emphasis on the figures in the foreground and the stormy scene in which they are set. Even with such prominent characters, this piece is considered a prime example of early landscape painting.
EL Greco, View of Toledo (c. 1506-1600)Like much of El Greco’s work, View of Toledo offers an atmospheric study of the sky. Unlike his other pieces, however, this painting portrays a landscape—not a portrait—in the foreground.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Monthly Cycle, Scene: The Hunters in the Snow (1565)This Northern Renaissance painting is one in a series of works that conveys the different times of year. It demonstrates both the artist’s interest in capturing the changing seasons and his profound sense of perspective and depth.
Claude Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape (1648)Baroque painter Claude Lorrain is known for his idyllic portrayals of allegorical scenes rooted in either the bible or in classical mythology. Pastoral Landscape is one work that aptly conveys this interest. Notice the Roman ruins on the horizon!
Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews (1749-1750)
Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews presents the estate of a recently married couple. While the figures play a primary role in the piece, the landscape is also in focus. According to the National Gallery, “the emphasis on the landscape here allows Gainsborough to display his skills as a painter of convincingly changing weather and naturalistic scenery, still a novelty at this time.”
Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818)A key work from the Romantic period, this piece conveys the awe-inspiring and sublime characteristics of nature. Through the thick fog, jagged cliffs and rocky mountains topped with trees emerge in the distance. While a figure is featured in the center of the canvas, his back is to the viewer, redirecting his or her gaze to the backdrop.
John Constable, The Hay Wain (1821)Constable is renowned for his paintings of the English countryside. The Hay Wain—a piece often cited as “Constable’s most famous image”—conveys this favored subject matter. In the background, a cloudy sky is offset by bright green trees, while, in the foreground, horses are shown pulling a cart across a reflective river.
Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830)South Wind, Clear Sky is 1 in a series of 36. Like its counterparts, this woodblock presents a unique view of Mount Fuji. In each distinct portrayal, Hokusai plays with color and perspective to offer a one-of-a-kind vantage point of the mountain.
Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836)Often referred to simply as The Oxbow, this piece by American artist Thomas Cole juxtaposes wild nature with an idyllic, pastoral setting. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cole experimented with this contrast in order to “emphasize the possibilities of the national landscape, pointing to the future prospect of the American nation.”
J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844)Like many works by J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway acts as both a beautiful landscape and a study of light, movement, and color. While, in this particular piece, the artist’s focus is on capturing the speed of a train, the backdrop offers a show-stealing, nearly abstracted view of nature.
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1872)Painted by Claude Monet and showcased in the 1874 “Exhibition of the Impressionists,”, Impression, Sunrise gave name to the Impressionist movement. The oil painting is set in Le Havre, France, and offers the artist’s “impression” of the setting sun’s effect on the water.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire (1885-1887)Sainte-Victoire, a mountain in the South of France, remained Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne’s preferred subject matter for years. In his series of oil paintings portraying the landform, he experiments with different views, color palettes, and perspectives to produce a comprehensive look at the mountain and its surrounding landscape. In this depiction from 1837, he frames the scene with trees in the foreground and a village in the distance.
Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889)
Wheat Field with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh features several motifs often explored by the artists in his landscape depictions. These include towering trees, swirling clouds, and rolling hills. In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh describes the painting. “I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticelli’s, and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too.”
Contemporary Landscape Painting
Given the long and diverse history of landscape painting, it is not surprising that many artists still dabble in the genre today. As evident in this contemporary landscape painting collection, many creatives have taken cues from the past to create landscape art that is both evidently inspired and highly original.
See if you can spot any similarities between these pieces by contemporary landscape artists and those by key figures from the past.