For many centuries, landscape painting has captured the imagination like no other genre. To begin with, from the rural scenes in Pieter Brueghel the Elder to the classically inspired settings from Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin, mankind was always at the heart of the paintings. There were exceptions, such as Jacob von Ruisdael, who depicted mankind’s insignificance when compared to the vast, overwhelming, panoramas of God’s creation. These poetic strokes of trees, fields and windmills would have a profound influence on John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Nature in these paintings was often depicted in objective, beautiful terms, but the sea change was the publication of the book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) by Edmund Burke. For the first time, the sublime was separated and lauded as an experience in its own right, with causes and effects that differ from the beautiful. The Romantic artists, drawing upon the subjective experience of man in relation to nature as found in William Wordsworth and other poets, often depicted nature in sublime terms, as a highly expressive experience in opposition to the scientific, objective study of nature so prevalent since the Age of Enlightenment. Perhaps also, following the Industrial Revolution and a mass migration to the cities, there is a sense of longing. The Romantics tried to depict one’s true inner self, which had been torn from the migrants since moving to the impersonal, oppressive cityscape, with factories appearing like the furnaces of hell. The genre developed further with the Impressionists, as Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, Paul Cézanne and others each created their own impressions, especially in the play of natural light and colour and its reflection on different surfaces. They were clearly indebted to Turner in this regard.
J. M. W. Turner – Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842). Tate Britain, London
An underappreciated painting in his lifetime, but now considered one of his best, Turner manages to turn the sublime into a truly terrifying experience, as the steamboat battles against the elements in the last place mankind has failed to master, the sea. He makes the viewer feel right in the vortex of the snow storm, of which he claims to have been witness, with swirling winds, the crashing and rising waves, the misty light and the steam. It is particularly notable for the way the smoke and brownish tint of the flames, as a signal from the boat, blends into the waves, on what is otherwise a grey and bleak picture.
Caspar David Friedrich – Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). Kunsthalle, Hamburg
The literal translation of the verb wandern, and the noun der Wanderer, somehow loses the essence of the original German. There are negative connotations in English, for example, to aimlessly wandering, lost in one’s thoughts. However, walking without a fixed direction was once a highly prized pastime, particularly in Germany, whereby the journey is more important than the final destination. There might be a melancholy element to wandering in isolation, or a spiritual aspect to losing oneself completely in nature, but the creative German of two hundred years ago, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche to Ludwig van Beethoven and Caspar David Friedrich, undertook hikes into the heart of nature for creative inspiration. Nietzsche was of the opinion that ‘all truly great ideas are conceived by walking’. Many of these wanderings, ironically, are now carefully planned trails, perhaps for tourist if not conservation purposes, to indicate where such and such an artist might have passed. Such a place is the so-called Sächsische Schweiz, south east of Dresden, where the misty, craggy outcrops of sandstone, with its bizarre rock formations, must have made quite an impression on the imagination. Both the landscape and the hike reached its artistic zenith with Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous work. One can’t be sure who the figure in the painting, with his back turned on us, actually is. Perhaps it is the painter, but the importance is not to focus on him but to imagine what he’s thinking and seeing, to contemplate in self-reflective uncertainty as you gaze out, like he does, over the sea of fog. He is at once the focus of the painting but at the same time insignificant compared to the landscape around him.
Albrecht Altdorfer – The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529). Alte Pinakotek, Munich
Altdorfer took the victory of Alexander over the Persians as his subject, but parallels have also been drawn between that and the recent defeat of the Ottomans at the Siege of Vienna. A truly global landscape, such a work even during the Renaissance period was unprecedented for its monumental scale and realistic, minute detail. That said, the work can be appreciated in two halves. In the top half, the mountainous background shows a familiarity with Alpine terrain. The sky is magnificent. Altdorfer depicts the crescent moon in the top left hand corner of the canvas, and the rays of the sun are perhaps a symbol of Alexander’s glory that is reflected in the Mediterranean, but equally signify Christendom’s victory over the Ottomans. The only negative is the geographic features, for example of Cyprus, the Nile and the fictitious mountain, which are falsely depicted in terms of size, ratio and perspective – however, the fault here may well lie in Altdorfer’s sources than the painter himself. In the bottom half, Altdorfer offers a rather fine example of a walled city and a pitched battle camp. It may be an idealised image of what Issus might have looked like, and it may be that Altdorfer had Tarsus in mind, but it also shows knowledge of religious architecture. The battle itself is perhaps less historically accurate than heroically inspired, but painstakingly detailed nonetheless. In spite of these criticisms, if we look at the painting through the eyes of an aesthete rather than an historian, then the overall effect is utterly sublime.
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