Thursday, April 19, 2018

Landscape as a Tool for Artistic Meaning

Being immersed in a scene is not the same thing as taking a step back and analyzing the scene you are in.
20th century American aviator Charles Lindbergh once said that “life is like a landscape.
You live in the midst of it but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance.”
Artists throughout certain eras of history have used the theme of landscapes to make
meaning in a way that invites the viewer to participate in the setting and contemplate it
as a whole.
In 18th century Europe, the Baroque movement of art was followed by the Rococo period,
characterized by asymmetrical, light-hearted, detailed ornamentation. Neoclassicism proceeded
next, focusing on reviving the values emphasized in classicism. A dramatic shift from reason to
emotion was characterized by the Romantic movement in through the 19th century. Around the
time of the Romantic movement, American artists in the Hudson School were highly influenced
by the work taking place in Europe. All of these ways feature breathtaking and beautifully
depicted landscapes. Some were intended for narrative, others for grandeur, and still some
for emotional response. This show exhibits different landscapes across these movements, in
an effort to examine and emphasize the meanings of the individual paintings, as well as survey
the versatility of landscape as a subject matter.

The Embarkation for Cythera, Jean Antoine Watteau, 1717, oil on canvas, The Louvre
For brevity in the timeline of Landscape painting history, we begin by looking at an
example of landscape featured by Watteau in the 18th century. Watteau was known
for pioneering the Rococo movement. This movement's subject matter tended to be
aristocrats in France, due to those commissioning them. Here, Watteau uses a fantastic
landscape setting to display the large, strung out group of ballroom-dressed, aristocratic
figures on the path to Cythera, known to be the birthplace of the goddess, Aphrodite,
and consequently associated with love. In terms of form, the Rococo period was known
for its break from intense, symmetrical features of the Baroque period to a more vibrant
and colorful, asymmetrical type of composition, which is evident in the rich color and
lightheartedness in this piece. Watteau uses the setting of a landscape here for
geographical and mythical purposes, elevating the subject matter and audience,
the aristocrats of the time.   

Classical Landscape with Figures and Sculpture, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1788, oil
on panel, Getty Center, 2004.145
Moving to Neoclassical notions, we find the work of Valenciennes. Valenciennes was
passionate about thorough natural observation for the artistic depiction of landscapes.
This piece in particular exhibits an ancient, natural world, in harmony with classically
dressed figures, a marble sculpture, and stone buildings. Valenciennes’ work with large
landscapes, “representing imaginary visions of the classical past, earned [him] the title,
‘the David of landscape,’” referencing leading neoclassicist painter, Jacques-Louis
David. This idyllic, natural science was used by Valenciennes to idealize the compatibility
of architecture, and more generally humanity, and nature.

Italian Landscape, John Robert Cozens, c. 1790-92, watercolor over graphite, Cleveland

Museum of Art, 1997.137

Moving towards the era of Romanticism in art, landscapes actually became

the subject matter rather than just the setting of paintings. British painter, John

Robert Cozens, gives us a starting point with this piece, in which he depicts mountains,

bodies of water, and an overcast sky. Landscapes of Italy were in high demand at the

time, and Cozens embarked on multiple trips across Europe during his time as an artist,

giving reason for the location of this natural scene. With nature as the subject matter,

Cozens employs limited, subdued tones with watercolor to emphasize simplicity.

Cozens uses landscape to embrace the real, massive, yet plain grandeur of nature and

the infinitesimal role of the viewer as a human, a pure piece of Romantic art.  

Evening: Landscape with Aqueducts, Theodore Gericault, 1818, oil on canvas, 1989.183
In the French vein of Romanticism, Theodore Gericault’s work is actually a
precursor to the greater manifestation of the movement. It emphasizes the brilliance
of nature while using depth and range of light along with stormy clouds to elicit an
unstable feeling. This nod to the sublime is very characteristic of Romanticism. Even
though romantic themes can be seen in this image, there are also classical elements,
characteristic of the previous Neoclassical movement. The central aqueducts, nude
figures, and brick ruins all reference antiquity. Gericault uses landscape as a subject
and a setting in this piece, fusing Neoclassical and Romantic themes together.  

Heroic Landscape with Rainbow, Joseph Anton Koch, 1824, oil on canvas, 2008.420

Austrian artist, Joseph Koch, also displayed this transitional period between

Neoclassicism and Romanticism, engaging the viewer to see a classical city with

a temple in the middle of a greater, natural setting. His purposeful depiction of

classical figures in the foreground also make this landscape neoclassical. Though

the setting is a magnificent view of nature, it is not simply observational. Koch

uses natural elements to symbolize its turbulence through the passing storm clouds

and the assuring, peaceful rainbow. Koch uses the setting of a landscape to both

allude to the past and exalt nature.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—

The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836, oil on canvas, 08.228

As Romanticism in Europe continued on, American painters were influenced

by the movement as well. The Hudson River School of artists included America’s

talented landscape painters who exemplified Romanticism in their work.

Thomas Cole produced this piece as one in the wave of imitative, realistic
landscape paintings. He actually used elements in this piece to give more than
just natural, observational meaning. His subject matter was the landscape itself,
but the specific landscape he painted was a combination of uninhabited,
violent nature, and the Americanized, developed land on the right as a result
of westward expansion. Cole used landscape in this instance to make a
political statement, using romantic elements.

Among the Sierra and Nevada Mountains, California, Albert Bierstadt, 1868, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1977.107.1
This breathtaking work by German-born Hudson River School artist,
Albert Bierstadt, is an overwhelming, idealized scene of America.
He uses the sunlight, the stillness of the water, and the dream-like
clouds to elicit a feeling of peace, hope, and maybe even a desire to be in
America. This work first circulated through England, encouraging emigration
to America and promoting the expanse taking place in America. This piece
displays the excellence of ideal nature, and it also should be noted that
there are no humans pictured- just animals. All of these characteristics
show how the Hudson River School, by definition, was collectively Romantic.
Being a member of this individualist group, Bierstadt used landscape to
point to the glory and excitement of nature.

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