Landscapes are a pretty popular form of art nowadays. Many people proudly display landscape paintings or prints in their homes, trying to bring a bit of nature indoors. This wasn’t always the case, however. Landscapes as an artistic genre are a fairly recent development.
Before the 17th century, artists depicted the natural world as a background for their primary subjects. The landscape was just a setting for a figure or event that the artist wanted to portray. Look, for instance, at Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation. The landscape in the background is quite beautiful with its trees, hills, mountains, water, and little village, but it is still merely a background for the main event of the painting, namely, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel.
In a true landscape, the natural world is central. It is the real subject of the painting and if there are any human beings or events depicted at all, they are minor and of secondary importance.
The advent of the landscape art came in the 17th century in the Netherlands. Artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan van Goyen, Ludolf Bakhuizen, and Salomon van Ruysdael began to view and paint the natural world in a realistic way and through a Baroque lens. They longed to capture the drama of the reality that surrounded them. They wanted to portray the details of the land, sea, and sky in all their beauty and complexity. They desired to depict the movement of the world with its swirling colors, intense interaction between light and shadow, and constant energy. They delved into the mysteries of nature, both revealing some of the world’s secrets and leaving others in obscurity. Their work is emotional, even passionate, as they sought to bring the forests, villages, clouds, roads, seas, windmills, hills, castles, and meadows to life on their canvases.
Landscape paintings were a huge success from the very beginning. Many people in the Netherlands were prospering in the 17th century and they were hungry for works of art. Everyone from merchants and shopkeepers to sailors and shoemakers appreciated and bought the landscapes that brought the natural world into their homes.
A Gallery of Landscapes
Now let’s examine a few of those landscapes. We’ll begin with Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Mill. A windmill stands at the center under an increasingly stormy sky. Darkness creeps across the painting as the storm moves in, contrasting with the brightness of the lighter sky that is reflected in the water and the windmill’s blades. The artist has deliberately blurred his lines to capture the fading light, and viewers can scarcely make out the activities of the figures in the foreground and the trees across the water. We can almost see the clouds moving as they roll in, and the effect makes us wanna dash for cover before we get drenched by a sudden downpour.
The weather seems much better in Jacob van Ruisdael’s painting River Landscape with a Castle on a High Cliff. The artist focuses on realistic detail here. Notice the puffy clouds, birds in flight, tall trees with distinct leaves and branches, rocky cliff walls, and slightly rippling water. The human-built elements seem to be almost one with the natural world. The rutted paths meander off the canvas. The little, half-timbered cottage on the right seems to have grown up as naturally as one of the trees. Even the castle blends nicely into the trees and hills. Ruisdael chose muted colors that still express a wealth of light and shadow, and he blurred his lines a bit so as to make the scene more indistinct and thus more natural.
Let’s look at one more painting from Jacob van Ruisdael. A Waterfall is a highly dramatic work. The trees in the background seems like they might sway in the wind at any moment. The water appears to move as it cascades over the rocks. The white foam of the rapids contrasts sharply with the dark rocks, and viewers can almost feel the spray of the water crashing down.
Our next painting is River Scene by Jan van Goyen. The half-light of dusk or dawn falls on the water and the clouds, illuminating them as well as the church steeple and sailboat in the background, the large tree in the center, and the fishermen with their net in the left foreground. Much of the rest of the painting is shrouded in mystery. Viewers can just make out the houses lining the shore, the horses and wagons traveling along the road, and a few boats either returning to shore or just getting ready to leave. We feel like if we just wait long enough, perhaps light will flood the scene and we will be able to see more clearly.