Friday, November 3, 2017

Genres of Landscape

Claude Lorrain
Landscape with goatherd and goats
ca. 1645
oil on canvas
National Gallery, London

"It was to Pliny and his chapters on classical art that the educated Italian looked for terms and categories to discuss and conceive the art of his time.  And in Pliny he would not only find the idea of landscape painting but also the notion of the specializing artist which remained for so long connected with it." 

"The process of identifying living artists with figures from Pliny had already begun in the fifteenth century.  In the sixteenth the habit was well established.  The whole world of art was seen through this preexisting screen. Whatever could be made to fit  and Pliny's terse and obscure references lent themselves to many interpretations  could find entry into the collector's consciousness." 

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"The implication that Northerners are famous for their good landscape painting because they have their brains in their hands, while Italians, who have them in their heads, paint mythologies and histories shows that Lampsonius accepts the academic prejudice.  Yet, he adds, it is better to paint landscapes well than to bungle figures  . . .  There is more in these verses than mere resignation to an inferior position.  The idea that each nation and each school of art should do what it can do best is symptomatic of a complete change in the notion of art.  The division of labor in the workshop of late Gothic times had served the practical aim of speeding up the work on a given commission.  Now the division of labor no longer applies to a concrete painting but to Art as such.  It is to Art as an abstract idea that each nation should make its contribution where it is best equipped to do so." 

Paul Bril
Landscape with goatherds
ca. 1620
oil on copper
Royal Collection, Great Britain

"For centuries to come the position of Northern artists in the Italian world of art was determined by general acceptance of this view.  From the Flemings whom Titian kept in his workshop to paint landscape backgrounds, to Bril, Elsheimer, Claude and even Philip Hackert, the Northern artist in Italy could make a living if he accepted the role of the specialist into which he had been cast by Northern tradition and Southern theory."

circle of Adam Elsheimer
Forest scene with shepherd
ca. 1600
oil on panel
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

"Vitruvius had referred to the practice of adapting the various types of stage scenery to the decoration of rooms.  . . .  Turning from the chapter on decoration to the earlier section on theatres, the artist would find this remark elucidated in the famous passage explaining the distinct properties of the tragic, the comic and the satyric scene.  The tragic scene is filled with 'regal' objects, such as columns, pediments and statues, the comic scene with 'common' sights such as private buildings, while satyric plays are performed on a stage with trees, caves, mountains and other rural images. "

"The parallelism between the dignity of subjects in literature and painting is familiar to us from Alberti's classification.  But while Alberti correlated landscape painting as such with the lowest rung in the social ladder, the passage from Vitruvius could serve as a starting point for a subdivision of the landscape genre itself according to social 'degrees'.  Thus when Lomazzo in 1585 came to write the first systematic account of landscape painting . . . he was evidently influence by these distinctions 

Those who have shown excellence and grace in this branch of painting, both in private and public places, have discovered various ways of setting about it  such as fetid, dark underground places, religious and macabre, where they represent graveyards, tombs, deserted houses, sinister and lonesome sites, caves, dens, ponds and pools; [secondly] privileged places where they show temples, consistories, tribunals, gymnasiums and schools, [or else] places of fire and blood with furnaces, mills, slaughterhouses, gallows and stocks; others bright with serene air, where they represent palaces, princely dwellings, pulpits, theatres, thrones and all the magnificent and regal things; others again places of delight with fountains, fields, gardens, seas, rivers, bathing places and places for dancing. There is yet another kind of landscape where they represent workshops, schools, inns, market places, terrible deserts, forests, rocks, stones, mountains, woods, ditches, water, rivers, ships, popular meeting places, public baths . . .

"Lomazzo's enumeration is anything but logical.  What is the difference between his 'privileged places' and his 'bright places'?  Why do schools and even bathing places occur in two categories?  Systematization is nowhere Lomazzo's strongest point and his distinction of various landscape genres is particularly muddled.  Nevertheless, the Vitruvian categories provide a clue to this.  That they were present in Lomazzo's mind is clear from the reference to 'regal objects' such as fill the tragic scene.  The 'caves' of the satyric scene were elaborated in his sinister mode, while the comic scene is probably responsible for his last category of realistic landscapes." 

"In view of the casual and arbitrary origin of these distinctions their subsequent fate is truly astonishing.  For Lomazzo's 'privileged places' are clearly turned into the heroic landscape of Poussin, his 'places of delight' become the Pastoral of Claude, his 'sinister dens' the subject matter of Salvator Rosa and Magnasco, and his inns and market places the Dutch bambocciate."

Nicolas Poussin
Landscape with a calm
oil on canvas
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Nicolas Poussin
Leavetaking of Diogenes from Sparta
oil on canvas
Prado, Madrid

"Nor, as we know, did the strange career of these categories end there.  The process by which they, in turn, were projected into nature has often been told.  There are countless passages in eighteenth-century literature like the one from a guide-book through the Lake District promising to lead the tourist – from the delicate touches of Claude, verified at Coniston Lake, to the noble scenes of Poussin, exhibited at Windermere water, and from there to the stupendous romantic ideas of Salvator Rosa, realized in the Lake of Derwent."

Claude Lorrain
Pastoral Landscape
ca. 1628-30
oil on canvas
Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas

Claude Lorrain
Landscape with Nymph and Satyr dancing
oil on canvas
Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

"Would these lines, one wonders, have been written if Vitruvius had not set the precedent by his distinction of three types of scenes, which became three recognized types of scenery? For the academic conventions of art, however arbitrary and illogical they may have been, were not only pedantic rules made to cramp the imagination and to blunt the sensibility of genius; they provided the syntax of a language without which expression would have been impossible.  It was precisely an art such as landscape painting which lacked the fixed framework of a traditional subject-matter, that needed for its development some preexisting mould into which the artist could pour his ideas.  What had begun as fortuitous modes crystallized into recognizable moods, strains of sentiment which could be touched upon at will."

 E.H. Gombrich, from The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape, first published in 1950, reprinted in the author's essay collection Norm and Form (London: Phaidon Press, 1966)

Salvator Rosa
Pythagoras emerging from the Underworld
oil on canvas
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Salvator Rosa
Democritus in meditation
oil on canvas
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen