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: The Development of Landscape in Institute Paintings


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The rise and growth of landscape in painting forms the basis for a small exhibition of paintings from the permanent collection which has been arranged in the East galleries for the month of December. Here one may observe that landscape, which is today taken as a matter of course in painting, has reached its present state only through gradual development. It is not possible, of course, to illustrate such development fully in an exhibition limited as this one is. Nevertheless, the paintings shown follow a definite trend from the early fourteenth century, when the influence of Giotto was making itself so widely felt in Italian painting, to the present day. In the course of that time man's feeling for nature becomes increasingly articulate until, now, we find the moods of nature expressed with all the variety of nature itself.The division between landscape and figure painting was at first so fine as to be almost non-existent. When Duccio, and then Giotto, introduced landscape detail into their compositions they did so only because it was essential to the subject. In those days men had eyes and thoughts only for the Church and its significance. In art they demanded pictures and sculpture illustrating biblical history. Occasionally, however, the theme treated necessitated a landscape background, and since subjects such as St. Jerome in the Wilderness, the Flight Into Egypt, and St. Francis were immensely popular, artists who had a leaning toward landscape made the most of their opportunities.The first painter to take even a superficial interest in the phenomena of nature was Giotto, and his naive attempt at reproducing natural forms marks the beginning of a landscape interest in painting. In the Institute's collection this preliminary stage is illustrated in a small panel of St. Francis receiving the Stigmata. It was painted about 1330, and is thought to be by Baronzio, one of Giotto's best-known followers. Here may be seen the jutting rock forms so closely associated with Giotto, and the funny little trees in which the artist strove to depict detail as well as mass. Trees and small shrub forms alike spring from the barren rock in a manner far removed from reality, but the ensemble goes to prove that an interest in nature was being aroused.Throughout the fourteenth century in Italy this timid and rather touching interest in nature is to be observed. In the fifteenth century, thanks to the impetus provided by Giotto, and also to the gradual growth of humanism, painters became somewhat more daring in introducing landscape into their pictures. In the Institute's Squarcione panel of the Virgin and Child with Saints the artist has set the figures in a landscape in which hills and towered castles make up the background. The trees are scrawny and precise, but some attempt at drawing their anatomy has been made.Perugino's landscape in the panel of the Nativity is more successful. Perspective and a sense of space have been achieved, and the trees have a feathery appearance that is a great advance on the forms of Giotto and his followers. This picture sounds two new notes in landscape painting: the depiction of an actual, local scene, and the personal feeling of an artist toward nature. Perugino's landscapes all portray the Umbrian countryside, which is of so individual a nature that it is immediately recognized by everyone who has ever seen it. Perugino loved the hazy, soft light of his native plain, and painted it with a loving care that introduces a new element into landscape painting.Other Italian artists, not represented in the Institute's collection, made further studies in painting landscape in this century, but it was in northern Europe, under the influence of the Van Eycks, that it had first come to flower.That landscape painting matured more rapidly in the north than in the south seems somewhat paradoxical. One would think that in a sunny country such as Italy nature would force itself on the consciousness even of a people whose minds were bound so closely to the Church. Possibly it was the very prevalence of beauty that conspired toward its concealment. In the north, on the other hand, smiling landscapes were more seldom seen, and it may be that painters wished to perpetuate them in pictures, as the Persians perpetuated their rare gardens in rugs.Whatever the reason, it was in the Van Eyck altarpiece of The Adoration of the Lambs that landscape was first most sympathetically and knowingly depicted. Many miniaturists of the period also painted landscape lovingly, and this tendency was reflected in the panel paintings of other Flemish artists. In the Institute's collection an elaboration of the landscape background of Perugino is seen in the Crucifixion by a follower of Van der Goes, and in the Triptych by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend. The figures are still the main interest in the composition, but the landscape is treated with increasing interest and detail.Figures became almost incidental for the first time in Patinir's Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Here the landscape is of major importance, and here, in this exhibition, one first encounters what might truthfully be designated as a landscape. The suave and sunny countryside, with its rolling hills and winding river, unmistakably the Meuse, is executed with a definite feeling for composition in space. It is a charming painting, and an indication of the part landscape is to play henceforth.With the beginning of the sixteenth century this open interest in nature becomes marked in Italy. The first great Italian masters of landscape, Giorgione and Titian, are not represented in the exhibition, but an idea of Giorgione's sumptuous treatment of nature can be had from the painting of the Madonna with Saints by Palma Vecchio, and artist who reveals the influence of Giorgione. There is light and shade here, a consciousness of the depth of the sky, and a fine treatment of trees and perspective.A lesser artist, but one of the pioneers in landscape painting, was Jacopo Bassano, two of whose pictures are in the permanent collection. He loved the fields and the animals that wandered over them, and his paintings show that he was interested in light and atmosphere as well as in the land they flooded.In France and in Holland, in the seventeenth century, the schools of landscape painting that were later to develop so magnificently were being heralded by Poussin and Van Goyen. In the Institute's painting of Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro, not a true landscape but one in which Poussin's style is well illustrated, the artist shows himself to be rather an architect than an interpreter of landscape. His style is modeled after the antique, and he is more interested in the structure of trees and ground than in the total natural effect of his scene. Yet he pointed the way that Lorrain was to follow.Van Goyen was just the opposite, as may be seen in his Scene in the Meuse. Rural life in all its aspects fascinated him, and he liked to depict the countryside in which villagers went about their daily tasks and pleasures. In his paintings the sky becomes an important feature, with majestic cloud effects. In point of time this is the first landscape as we know it in this exhibition.Claude Lorrain, like Poussin, had a liking for the antique, but in his paintings figures are so subordinated to landscape that they might as well be left out. Lorrain was one of the first to paint suffused light, and to create in his pictures a sense of vast distances. His landscapes have aerial perspective as well as illumination, and in these respects he illustrates one more advance in landscape painting.Van Ruisdael, who is considered one of the best of Dutch landscape painters, was more keenly aware of the sky than Van Goyen. His paintings are imbued with a sort of melancholy grandeur that was beginning to have a great vogue in the seventeenth century. They reveal, too, a sense of tonal values that is not hitherto apparent in this exhibition.Landscape painting in the eighteenth century is represented in the Institute's collection only by Canaletto, Hubert Robert, and the little-known William Hannan. Three trends in landscape may nevertheless be observed in the paintings by this group: the predilection for minute detail, especially in architecture; the popularity of the romantic landscape; and the English fashion of depicting great landed estates and quiet streams. In the latter two styles nature is treated with sympathy and charm, and in the English paintings, at least, the observer begins to feel that the artist no longer considers landscape as an unusual subject.With the nineteenth century it becomes the subject preferred above all others. The earliest paintings shown of this century are from our own Hudson River School: simple, spacious, and full of reverence for nature. They are particularly important because they represent the first attempt in this country to depict the native landscape. The French School is represented by Jules Dupré's Fontainebleau Oaks, which shows the influence of Constable, unfortunately not included in the Institute's collection; by Daubigny's sensitive and romantic River Scene; and Courbet's Deer in the Forest, rich and somber in its tonal harmonies.With the end of the first period in the nineteenth century landscape painting was fully established, and there remained, in its development, only different methods of treatment. First and most important of these was Impressionism, illustrated by Monet's Morning on the Seine. And though, before this, landscape may have become established, with the Impressionist school it took on a new and fascinating beauty. This beauty of light and color pervades Monet's painting and Renoir's canvas of Young Girls at Battledore and Shuttlecock. The latter is not in fact a landscape, but the charm of the wooded glade in which the girls are grouped is so great that it, and not the figures, gives the picture its meaning.In this country Impressionism influenced Twachtman, whose White Bridge is included in the exhibition, and Bredin, whose Midsummer is closely related to the Monet. Sargent, in his Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight, departs from his more usual direct and vivid style, and presents a dreamy picture of extraordinary charm. Latest of the nineteenth-century paintings is Arthur B. Davies' Night's Overture, which conveys as well as any picture in this group the spirit of nature.The twentieth century brings another approach: the bold, vigorous, slashing treatment of Vlaminck and Bellows; the graphic stripped qualities of Rockwell Kent. In paintings such as these, effect is dependent on manner rather than on matter. They mark an end to the development begun with the little Giottesque panel, illustrating the fact that man has not only become aware of nature, but that he has come to understand it so well that he can meet it on its own terms.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael, Dutch, 1628-1682
  2. St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Italian, School of Giotto, about 1330.
  3. Rest on the Flight Into Egypt by Joachim Patinir, a pioneer in landscape painting. Flemish, 1475-1524
  4. Europa and the Bull. A romantic landscape by Claude Lorrain, French, 1600-1682
  5. Snowfields by Rockwell Kent, American, contemporary
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Source: "The Development of Landscape in Institute Paintings," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 27, no. 33 (December, 1938): 166-171.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009