a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

landscape painting, 1780-1850


people, terms, and concepts: classical landscape, picturesque landscape, pastoral, sublime landscape (cataclysmic sublime, infinite sublime), manifest destiny


Aside from Dutch Baroque landscapes, the dominant form of landscape painting before the late-eighteenth century was what was called the classical landscape, and wasn’t really a pure landscape at all.  Rather, it was a made-up scene (not painted from an actual location) that was largely a background to a little biblical or Greco-Roman narrative, and it was intended to teach a didactic lesson, just like Classical/biblical history painting.  Starting in the late-eighteenth century, you get two new types of landscape:  the picturesque and the sublime.

The picturesque landscape looks similar to the classical landscape at first, but it has some significant differences.  First, if it has people in it at all, they are contemporary rural workers doing ordinary daily tasks.  It also is often of a real place, and in general is much more disheveled and disorderly-looking than the carefully closed, balanced, centralized Classical type of landscape. So in the absence of any important biblical or classical lesson, what significance did these works have to contemporary viewers? Think about the historical context:  just as the picturesque landscape arises, we have the rapid growth of industrialization and the move to big cities, with their crowds, their noise, their crime and overcrowding ...  Think also about whether the picturesque landscape offers an accurate depiction of what rural life is like for the poor peasants who are often featured.

The sublime landscape differs from both the classical and the picturesque landscapes in that nature is not depicted as gentle and pastoral:  instead, the sublime landscape conveys a feeling of overwhelming awe in the face of a higher power, either by depicting scenes of nature’s tremendous force (the cataclysmic sublime of storms, volcanos, avalanches, waterfalls, etc.) or her immense size or scale (the infinite sublime of vast mountains, endless oceans, eons of time, and so on).  Again:  what significance would such scenes have to contemporaneous viewers? Think again about the historical context: in this case, with the rise of science, there is a gradual decline of traditional religious belief (God as a white-bearded old man whose presence is known through miraculous exceptions to natural law).  How does nature, particularly in her ‘sublime’ states, replace God or become another way of knowing God?

Be able also to discuss American artists' use of these types of landscape painting to celebrate the variety, divinity, and economic potential of the new nation, and to image possible futures for it (for example, Cole's warnings about over-development; Bierstadt's encouragements to fulfill Manifest Destiny).

Bierstadt, Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, American landscape, c. 1865

Church, Niagara Falls, American sublime landscape, c. 1855

Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, German sublime landscape, c. 1810

Constable, The White Horse, English picturesque landscape, c. 1820

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, American picturesque/sublime landscape, c. 1835