What is landscape – further thoughts

The issue of what constitutes a landscape image cropped up again in discussion with my tutor on some of the images I submitted for Assignment 5. He asked whether some of them would be better described as social documentary. I wrote about the subject in this blog, right at the start of the course http://light-writing.co.uk/land/2017/07/12/what-is-landscape/ and I wrote very briefly on it in my critical review for Assignment 4.

What is landscape? The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms’ definition seems very bland “A picture representing an expanse of natural scenery” (Clarke 2010 p141). While it may be what many people would immediately think of as appropriate, to adopt this definition would preclude any ‘urban’ or other ‘non-natural’ landscapes.

Harris (2006) talks of landscape painting emerging as a genre between the 17th and 19th centuries, by the 18th century it had become “an art form regarded as capable of conveying, symbolically, important religious beliefs, social ideologies, and aesthetic values”Harris (2006 p175). Hall (2008) describes how some Italian Renaissance paintings used “the landscape background to reinforce a moral allegory” Hall (2008 p192).

It appears to me that the term landscape can be used in an all-embracing fashion that includes a number of sub-genres. To illustrate this Andrews (1999) places two images alongside each other, the first, is “an unassuming pen drawing of a landscape” (Andrews 1999 p25) attributed to a German master, possibly Lucas Cranach. The second is a woodcut by Lucas Cranach of St Jerome in the wilderness

St. Jerome in the Wilderness, Lucas Cranach, 1509, Woodcut, 33.4 x 22.6cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

What is striking about the two images is that the landscape is almost identical, the second image differing only by the addition of St Jerome and a number of religious artefacts. Andrews suggests that the pen drawing may have been a study for the woodcut or even that the drawing was a copy made by someone who “wanted to make it a landscape by omitting all trace of its devotional subject matter” (Andrews 1999 p26). But what of St Jerome? Is it purely a religious painting? Does it stop being a landscape by reason of the religious references added to it?

To further consider what is landscape I looked at two very familiar images, The Hay-Wain by John Constable and Haywain with Cruise Missiles by Peter Kennard. Kennard’s work is known for its overtly political stance. So does this mean that Constable’s painting is purely landscape and Kennard’s a political image?

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas, 130.2 x 185.4 cm. The National Gallery, London

Andrews (1999) disputes that Constable’s work is not political. He suggests that they were idealised images that “could not be reconciled with what the painter knew to be the contemporary conditions of life for East Anglian labourers. Agricultural depression in the years following Waterloo provoked rioting among labourers desperate for work” (Andrews 1999 p171).

So even what many would regard as an iconic British landscape has strong political overtones for what it does (or does not) portray. Does an image stop being a landscape by reason of political overtones or social commentary?

I asked the question of when does an image stop being landscape and when does it become political or social commentary at a recent OCA Creative Arts Google Hangout. It was interesting to hear the responses as participants were studying different arts modules, not just photography.

Mr and Mrs Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1750, oil on canvas, 69.8 x 119.4cm. The National Gallery, London

One person thought that Gainsborough’s painting Mr and Mrs Andrews was a good example of an image that could be classified under different genres. Is it a portrait, a landscape, social commentary or a political image; arguments could be made for it to be classified under each of those headings.

I posed the same question in the OCA Landscape Photography Hangout. A range of views were expressed, but again people saw the difficulty of suggesting that a landscape image shouldn’t have a political or social comment slant. The example was raised here of the wok of the landscape photographer Fay Godwin – would images from her Our Forbidden Land series not be classified as landscape because of their political comment? https://prints.bl.uk/products/duke-of-westminsters-estate-c13527-33

This is particularly relevant to some of the work of the photographer Edward Burtynsky. His series of photographs entitled Oil are what would normally be described as landscapes but with a strongly social or political message. https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/projects/photographs/oil/ 

Loftus (2015) spoke to a couple of landscape painters to ask them about their work and what the word landscape means to them. One defined it as painting “what we see around us, be it nature or urban landscapes”, another felt that the term landscape was inadequate to define how it was being portrayed.

Some would argue that all landscape art is political, Adams and Robins (2000) analyse landscape art in relation to gender.

As I read more about the subject I noticed how the term ‘landscape’ was being modified. Schiel (2016) uses the term ‘Social Landscape Photography’ which is defined as portraying “the effects of human beings on the earth; it is photography of the human-built or human-altered landscape”. The winning image taken by the Environmental Photographer of the Year 2018 could be described as a landscape photograph.

This trend is explained by Wells who states “In the 2000’s, with widespread concerns relating to environmental change, imagery relating to land and place has re-emerged with renewed socio-political orientation” (Wells 2011 pXV).

Perhaps the term landscape in now so widely defined that these subcategories are being introduced to give it more meaning. If that is the case then it does mean that political, social or environmental comment can be contained within a landscape as a sub-category of the genre.


Adams, S. and Robins, A.G. (ed.) (2000) Gendering Landscape Art. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Andrews, M. (1999) Landscape and Western Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ciwem environmental photographer of the year 2018 winners – in pictures (2018) In: The Guardian 20 September 2018 [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2018/sep/20/ciwem-environmental-photographer-of-the-year-2018-winners-in-pictures (Accessed on 10 December 2018)

Clarke, M. (2010) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. (s.l.): OUP Oxford.

Edward Burtynsky’s corrupted landscapes – in pictures (2016) In: The Guardian 15 September 2016 [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2016/sep/15/edward-burtynsky-corrupted-landscapes-aerial-photography-in-pictures (Accessed on 10 December 2018)

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. Boulder: Westview Press.

Lee Friedlander: America By Car (s.d.) At: https://whitney.org/Exhibitions/LeeFriedlander (Accessed on 10 December 2018)

Loftus, S. (2015) The new definition of landscape art. At: https://curiousdukegallery.com/blog/342-the-new-definition-of-landscape-art (Accessed on 12 December 2018)

Lorch, B. (2002) landscape. At: http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/landscape.htm (Accessed on 12 December 2018)

Oil — Edward Burtynsky (s.d.) At: https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/projects/photographs/oil/ (Accessed on 10 December 2018)

Wells, L. (2011) Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London: I.B.Tauris.

What is Social Landscape Photography? (2016) At: https://skipschiel.wordpress.com/2016/11/29/what-is-social-landscape-photography/ (Accessed on 10 December 2018)