Landscape painting has long since 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 in these artists, of trying to find 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, clearly indebted to Turner in this regard.
Albrecht Altdorfer – The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529). Alte Pinakotek, Munich
Altdorfer took the victory of Alexander over the Persians as his subject, also parallels have been drawn between that and the contemporary defeat of the Ottomans at the Siege of Vienna. For its monumental scale and realistic, minute detail, such a work even within the Renaissance was unprecedented. That said, the work can be appreciated in thirds. In the top third, the mountainous background shows a familiarity with Alpine terrain, and the sky is magnificent with the crescent moon in the top left hand corner of the canvas, and the setting sun, perhaps a symbol of Alexander’s glory, reflected in the lake, diametrically opposite.
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 browinsh 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
To wander is a particularly German pastime which doesn’t translate easily. There are negative connotations in English to aimlessly wandering, lost in one’s thoughts, for all the allusions to walking without a fixed direction, whereby the journey is more important than the final destination. There is a melancholy element to wandering in isolation, but mostly 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 inspiration, not just for fresh air. 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, for all its self-reflective uncertainty in the sea of fog.
© 2017 AGP