By Richard Reitzell
Among the most recognizable forms of art for many, landscape paintings in their simplest form are efforts to capture and represent the natural world around us on canvas or other mediums. The beauty of our natural surroundings offers both a comfort based on our own experiences and yet provides a wide range of subject possibilities including mountains, valleys, hills, rivers, forests, and the coastline and other familiar natural settings. What brings a special uniqueness to landscape paintings and why the viewer may enjoy some works more than others, is that each artist views a scene differently, provides a different interpretation of what may be a common scene or object, and ultimately conveys that version into their creative process and final work of art. While simple in thought – representing scenes of nature and our surroundings - landscapes can express and evoke a wide range of emotions. They can peaceful, pastoral scenes that convey a calm, relaxing mood or they can display a sense of motion and a kinetic activity that activates the senses as in the whirl of a passing storm or the pounding of waves at the ocean’s edge. The warm tones captured in a landscape at sunset can allow for contemplation, a sense of time passing, and deep reflection while others can fascinate and stimulate us with the play of changing light on familiar surroundings.
Historically, the landscape genre is virtually as old as art itself. Early landscapes created for the church, wealthy, or nobles were often paintings where the natural settings of the countryside acted as a stage for parables from the bible or stories and scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. Later landscapes stood on their own with natural settings as the sole subject of paintings. The development of tubes of paint that could be carried into the countryside freed artists from the confines of their studios and led to painting “en plein aire” or outdoors. The history of art shows that nothing remains the same over time as artists stretch their techniques and styles and the progression of landscape art has proved no different. In the late 1800s, the impressionists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro shifted their focus from tonal, soft blended painting styles of the Barbizon school to brash dabs of heavy paint that emphasized the play and contrasts of light. Later Paul Cezanne led a movement that broke a landscape’s features into geometric blocks that flattened the
viewer’s perspective and created a new visual sense of nature. Vincent Van Gogh created his unique style of exaggerated, undulating, agitated landscapes that blended external scenes with his internal turmoil. Others like George Seurat and Paul Signac espoused “pointillism” that introduced landscapes that consisted of tiny paint dots of complementary colors that created an entirely different visual effect and feel. Later, a group of artists called the Fauvists began painting landscapes using bright, over-saturated, and unnaturally loud colors to great effect and controversy.
These artistic styles made their way to America with varying levels of acceptance and longevity and our love of landscapes actually helped shape our national identity. The Hudson River School painters depicted romanticized views of the rural areas outside of metropolitan New York helping to stimulate exploration and settlement, while artists Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt and others, traveled west returning with dramatic paintings of stunning western scenes that helped fuel western migration and supported America’s sense of pride and importance as a country. In southern California, the impressionist movement would give rise to the region’s first major art movement – California impressionism. This Plein Air style dominated the early Twentieth Century as Los Angeles artists portrayed with a certain reverence the unspoiled scenery and climate that attracted so many to southern California at that time. Later, during and after the depression, American landscapes evolved to include the footprint of man and examine and reflect on the many aspects of the intersection of the natural and developing industrial worlds.
This experimentation and adaptation has continued and one can find interesting landscapes in dozens and dozens of different styles. Even today, artists’ styles vary greatly in how they present their interpretations of the world around them. Approaches can be classical, realistic, impressionistic, interpretive, mystical, or fanciful which keeps the genre fresh and ever changing. When viewing an artist’s work, take a moment to consider how effectively the artist conveys a sense of depth or three-dimensionality, which is not easy to do on a flat canvas. Does the artist draw your attention to any part of a painting and how? Does the painting suggest a mood or spark an emotion? What is the artist’s style and artistic approach? And finally and importantly, did you enjoy your moment with the artist’s creation?
RICHARD REITZELL is an avid art collector and author of From a Versatile Brush the Life and Art of Jean Mannheim. He is a member of the CMATO Board of Directors.