For this exercise I tried to choose a wide range of landscape paintings, from those depicting daytime scenes to nocturnal ones, most were oils but at least one was watercolour. I also tried to select from across traditions from romantic landscapes to impressionism. These are my comments on the 12 paintings:
Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris, by Richard Wilson (1714–1782)
oil on canvas, 1774, 511 x 73 cm, Tate Britain Image: Richard Wilson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a painting of Llyn-y-Cau on Cader Idris in North Wales. It is painted in landscape format with a strong composition (according to The Tate website Wilson “heightened the precipice at the rear of the composition (Craig-y-Cau) to create a more simplified and balanced composition”.
There is a pale blue sky behind and the landscape is lit overall with little shadow. The horizon is placed on the centre line of the scene.
There are several figures within the scene but they are very small scale emphasising the mass of the mountain.
The Tate website states that “The ‘discovery’ of such rugged and uncultivated scenery was greatly stimulated by the taste for the sublime: previously it would have seemed only raw and disorderly”.
Landscape in Suffolk by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)
Oil on Canvas, c1746 and 1750, 660 mm x 950 mm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna Image: Thomas Gainsborough [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The clouds formations form a strong part of the landscape which is generally lit overall but with some strong shadow. The horizon is placed on the centre line of the scene.
There are figures on the lower right third of the scene, again they are very small scale emphasising the breadth of the landscape. The painting is also a study of light and how it plays on the scene.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum website describe the “loose brush strokes, swinging shapes, light scattered in irregular spots, and gently coordinated color” of the scene.
To me this painting conveys a peaceful rural scene with hints of danger from the dark shadows and clouds.
Fishermen at Sea by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851)
oil on canvas, 1796, 914 x 1,222 mm, Tate Britain Image: J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Another painting presented in landscape format with the horizon placed on the centre line of the scene.
This is an image of a seascape at night, strongly lit by a full moon. The fishing boat is placed on the lower third of the scene, its scale and fragility emphasised by the size and actions of the waves, that it is set at night enhances the sense of danger within the image. The power of nature is illustrated by the expanse of sea, action of the waves and the mysterious shapes of the rocks in the background. The Tate website describes this as “The sense of the overwhelming power of nature is a key theme of the Sublime. The potency of the moonlight contrasts with the delicate vulnerability of the flickering lantern, emphasising nature’s power over mankind and the fishermen’s fate in particular. The jagged silhouettes on the left are the treacherous rocks called ‘the Needles’ off the Isle of Wight.”
Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)
oil on canvas, c1887, 670 × 920 mm, Courtauld Institute of Art Image: Paul Cézanne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Again, presented in landscape format, but with no figures in the scene only countryside, buildings and a bridge. This is one of many studies Cezanne made of Mt Ste Victoire. In this image, the mountain view is framed by the tree, the shape of the branches following the contours of the mountain beyond. The undulating horizon is placed mostly on the centre line of the scene.
The Courtauld website states that Cezanne “turns this landscape into a study of form and colour” and that “Cézanne’s simplification of the landscape could be interpreted as a return to an era of balanced, harmonious form rather than complex ornamentation”.
Whilst the painting is a study of form and colour, I think that the overall impression left by the image is of calm and the celebration of the beauty of nature.
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Oil on canvas, 1889, 737 x 921 mm, MoMA, New York Image: Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A painting in a very different style and with a different impact to the previous images. It is still presented in landscape format and has no figures in the scene only countryside, buildings and a mass of sky. There is a Cypress Tree placed on the left third of the and an horizon placed mostly on the lower part of the image. There is a huge sense of power and movement in the way that the sky has been painted, whereas the village below looks small and simple.
Van Gogh has included symbolism within this image, the MoMA website describing the Cypress tree ”as a bridge between life, as represented by the earth, and death, as represented by the sky, commonly associated with heaven. Cypresses were also regarded as trees of the graveyard and mourning”. It describes how the sky takes up almost three quarters of the scene and appears “turbulent, even agitated, with intensely swirling patterns that seem to roll across its surface like waves”.
The composition is described as “structured by his ordered placement of the cypress, steeple, and central nebulae”.
To me the whole image is a portrayal of the sheer power of nature and the fragility of human existence.
Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
oil on panel, 1875, 603 × 466 mm, Detroit Institute of Arts Image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Another nocturnal image, and unusually, painted in portrait format. The details are very difficult to make out and it is clear that this is not just a simple representation of a scene. The horizon seems very low in the painting and you can just make out shapes of figures at the bottom of the image.
This is a portrayal of a firework display in London in 1875, Floryan (2015) states that “the intangibility, both in appearance and theme, of the oil on panel was deliberate. The questions it conjures, the emotions it evokes, may differ from one viewer to another, and frankly, that’s the point”.
The painting was heavily criticised at the time, not least by John Ruskin who described it as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. But, according to Floryan (2015) “Whistler saw his paintings as musical compositions illustrated visually”.
FLORYAN, M., 2015 “Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed July 7, 2017, https://smarthistory.org/whistler-nocturne-in-black-and-gold-the-falling-rocket/
Mousehold Heath, Norwich by John Crome (1768–1821)
oil on canvas, c1818-1820, 1098 × 1810 mm, Tate Britain Image: John Crome [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Back to a more traditional depiction of the countryside, once more in landscape format and with an horizon on the centre line, although the shape of the cloud formation adds a strong diagonal line to the top half of the painting.
As with the Gainsborough earlier, a central road meanders through the centre of the scene, leading the eye to the horizon. There is a small figure, with a dog, on the far right of the image, pointing to the centre of the scene. According to the Tate website “Crome advised a fellow painter ‘Breadth must be attended to… Trifles in Nature must be overlooked’. However, the ‘breadth’ of Crome’s great picture of Mousehold Heath was unacceptable to his contemporaries, and the painting remained unsold”.
The foliage at the front of the painting is rendered in fine detail and to me the impression this painting leaves is a celebration of the wonder of nature. According to the Encyclopaedia of Art History, Crome “gives us the very substance and being of the earth”.
Buckenham Ferry, on the River Yare, Norfolk by Joseph Stannard (1797 – 1830)
oil on panel, 1826, 400 mm x 610 mm, Yale Center for British Art Image: Joseph Stannard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Another painting from the Norwich School, this time with the horizon on the lower third of the painting. This image is about the people in the centre as well as the landscape itself. They, and their animals, are portrayed at a much larger scale than in previous paintings, making the viewer interested in what they are doing as well as looking at the environment they occupy. This is also a study of the sky and of the light as it falls on the different parts of the scene.
To me this is a romantic image of a tranquil, unhurried rural scene portraying people within their environment.
Greta bridge by John Sell Cotman (1782–1842)
Watercolour, 1807, 230 × 330 mm, British Museum Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)https://goo.gl/Pb4rAH
A third painting from a Norwich school artist, this time a portrayal of manmade structures (buildings and a bridge) within its natural setting. Again in landscape format, there are no people in this painting, the main focus is the bridge and the water flowing under it.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that Cotman “saw in nature the classic effect of precise, austere pattern and expressed this effect by eliminating detail through controlled, flat washes of cool colour”.
According to the British Museum website in the painting Greta Bridge “The watercolour is built up in distinct patches of restrained colour, held in a precise pattern of tone and line. These are the hallmarks of Cotman’s unique style. Here, the austere geometry of man-made elements is held together by the crisp shadows on the building and bridge. Even the sky is brought into line by a grey horizontal wash, echoing the river surface”.
To me this painting gives the impression of a calm, restrained scene. It is a study of the patterns created by man and the effect of them within their environment.
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet (1840–1926)
oil on canvas, 1872, 480 × 630 mm, Musée Marmottan Monet Image: Claude Monet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Although in landscape format, this image is closer to a square than any others I have looked at so far. The horizon has been set on the upper third of the image with a strong orange sun just above it on the upper right third. Small figures in boats can be made out in the lower and left centre of the scene, but the image mainly gives a placid feel, as the Encyclopaedia of Art History says, “The only evidence of life is the lazy action of the oarsman in the most sharply defined part of the composition”.
Monet’s concern with this painting is the interplay of light rather than any pictorial representation of the scene. The Encyclopaedia of Art History considers Monet’s “vision was entirely that of a landscape painter and his interest mainly in the effects of light rather than in any specific architectural features or the social significance of the manifestations of industry”. It also comments on the composition of the painting “The composition, though simple, like that of most Impressionist paintings, is nevertheless dramatically effective. The indistinct forms of the port run across the canvas, and a diagonal from the left edge through the three small boats emphasizes the positioning of the orange sun, while the middle small boat repeats the sun’s position in the alternative quarter. The effect is a dynamic balance in which the reflection of the sun in the water enlivens the scene”.
To me there is a sense of mysticism about the scene and it is a celebration of the colours and light in nature.
Glacier of Rosenlaui by John Brett 1831–1902
Oil on canvas, 1856, 445 x 419 mm, Tate Gallery London Image: John Brett [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a painting in the portrait orientation, although quite close to the dimensions of a square. The horizon is place on the upper third of the scene.
There are no people within the scene, and the image seems a topographical study of the rocks and formations, particularly the stones in the foreground. The Tate website concludes “Brett makes a meticulous study of different types of rocks and pebbles, offset by the dense blue-white folds of the glacier itself”.
Indeed, the painting, and Brett’s rendering of the intricate detail of the rocks attracts comment on the website of The Geological Society of London “This assemblage of stones is treated with an almost visionary clarity – so much so that we can even perform a rudimentary identification of the rock types concerned”.
I think that this painting is a detailed, almost photographic, study of the rock formation, but the way in which it has been included within the overall landscape gives it a sense of power and of the sublime.
Passing Storm over the Sierra Nevada by Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902)
Oil on canvas, 1870, 927 x 1397mm, San Antonio Museum of Art Image: Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Albert Bierstadt is known for his spectacular rendition of landscapes of the American West. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica his paintings were ”immense in scale and grandiose in effect”. Passing Storm Over the Sierra Nevada is typical of his work with strong colours and dramatic lighting. This scene is rendered in landscape format and there are no figures present.
Bierstadt made sketches on site but finished his paintings in the studio and, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he “freely altered details of landscape to create the effect of awe and grandeur. His colours were applied more according to a formula than from observation: luscious, green vegetation, ice-blue water, and pale, atmospheric blue-green mountains. The progression from foreground to background was often a dramatic one without the softness and subtlety of a middle distance”.
This to me sums up Bierstadt’s landscapes, strong emphasis on the dramatic giving almost unnatural results.
- Most (although not all) paintings were in landscape rather than portrait orientation
- Many were studies of light and/or colour
- None were a simple representation of a scene, all (even the Bierstadt) were seeking to convey a sense of place rather than a topographical or pictorial representation
- There were similarities in compostion between many of the paintings, a number of them observing the rule of thirds. Whoever the artist though, much thought had gone into the composition
- Each artist had tried to bring out of the image a particular theme, the play of light in Monet, the musicality of Whistler, the patterns in Cotman, the detail of nature in Brett or the breadth and solidity of Crome for example
The landscape photographs of Roger Fenton come to mind when considering these criteria,
Falls of the Llugwy, at Pont-y-Pair by Roger Fenton (1819-1869)
Albumen silver print from glass negative, 1857, 358 x 429 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Image: RogerFenton [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
The lighting and composition of the scene shares much with a number of the landscapes above. According to the Met Museum Timeline of Art History “Fenton possessed a particular sensitivity for the play of light and atmosphere in the natural world”
The Met Museum website describes the image “By photographing from below the level of the upstream river, Fenton immersed himself deeply in the natural elements, intensifying the experience of the falls. The dynamic structure of Fenton’s composition-zigzagging bands of water, rock, vegetation, and sky-is also noteworthy, adding a dynamism to the rushing river while only hinting at the village buildings beyond”.
To me this shares similarities with Brett’s image, the concentration on the rocks at the front giving scale and scope to the landscape beyond. But you also feel immersed in the scene as with the Cotman and many of the others.
The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams (1902-1984)
photograph 1942, National Archives https://www.archives.gov/
Image: Ansel Adams [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This shares the drama of the setting and the lighting with Bierstadt, but the composition has much more depth and feels much more open than Passing Storm over the Sierra Nevada.
I think it shares the same concern for the play of light as does Impression: Sunrise albeit in a very different setting and rendered in a completely different fashion.
Hedgerow by Richard Billingham (b 1970)
Image cannot be shown for copyright reasons but can be viewed at
This image shares the same compositional device with the Cezanne, with the tree framing the scene, but the actual scene I think owes more to the style of Constable or Gainsborough in its depiction of a scene.
This was a very interesting exercise. It would have been easy to choose twelve landscapes by renowned artists, all rendered in a similar style, which would have made it easy to list a series of commonalities. But I tried to find a very diverse series of paintings and see what they all had in common. As I stated above, I think the commonalities of great landscape images are:
- somehow capturing the essence of a scene, whether it be light, colour, patterns, etc
- the passion of the artist comes through (how many versions of Mt St Victoire did Cezanne paint?), they are not giving a simple pictorial representation, what else are they trying to convey
- conveying a sense of place, a unique scene