Art In History Art Blog
by art_in_history , May 28, 2009—12:00 AM
Over the course of the 18th century there was a remarkable change in attitudes toward nature, discoverable in all the arts, especially literature, painting and landscape architecture. It culminated in the Romantic landscape tradition in Europe and America in the 19th century, the golden age of landscape painting. It marked a major change in the relationship of man to nature.
Romantic landscape covers the gamut between the Pastoral - inhabited landscape: comfortable and relatively tame, with shepherds and peasants - and the Sublime - wild nature: vast and powerful, inspiring terror and awe. The Pastoral was not a sea change in attitude. It grew out of the Dutch and Italianate landscape traditions of the 17th century, and can be found in an unbroken stream leading up to the remarkable English landscape school. What is striking is the growth in appreciation for landscape as you find it, keenly observed and loved.
Perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon in this change is the mania for the "Picturesque", fostered by William Gilpin at the end of the 18th century. He urged everyone, not just artists, to go out into nature - the Cotswolds, the lake country - to look for scenes that reminded them of paintings by such masters as Claude Lorraine. He literally taught a generation of Englishmen to appreciate nature through the mediation of art, looking for composition, contrast, movement, and bringing their watercolor kit with them. And in an ironic turnabout, a surprisingly large percentage of the landscape of England was actually reformed to "make pictures", by the landscape architects who worked on the large estates.
The culmination of this Pastoral tradition is in the work of Constable, who painted the familiar English landscape within a short journey from his Dedham home, seldom venturing further than Brighton or Weymouth. By this time, Constable does not need the mediation of previous art to appreciate his surroundings: his attention to the infinite variety of the natural world is total.
The Sublime marks a much more radical change in attitudes toward nature. Wild nature was not widely appreciated at the beginning of the 18th century, and with good reason: it was really dangerous out there! The 18th century saw the growth of "the Grand Tour", where gentlemen of breeding finished their education by travelling to Italy to study the ruins and be introduced in the courts of the Italian nobility. But there was a problem: how to get there. You could take a short sea voyage from Marseilles to Genoa, but it was not only uncomfortable, it had the everpresent danger of being lost at sea, or taken by Barbary pirates. Still, most preferred it to crossing the Alps by the Saint Bernard pass (the only one then open) where animals and men were regularly lost to wolves and precipices.
But over the course of the 18th century, attitudes changed remarkably. Travellers detoured specifically to visit the glaciers, and spoke in hushed tones of the towering cataracts and vast unpeopled reaches of the mountains. People were falling in love with terror! And though they could not photograph what they saw, noblemen developed the practice of including an artist in their party, to record their experiences. John Cozens, a watercolorist who travelled to the Alps in the party of a young nobleman, was among the first to portray the alps in his work.
Perhaps the greatest European exponent of the sublime in landscape was the German artist Friedrich. His works have a powerful affinity with the poetry of Runge and the gothic novels of the day: they are almost literary in their impact: a monk wandering in the night, a snow-covered graveyard, young men in cloaks gazing at the moon. When I think of Friedrich, I think of Edgar Allen Poe.
This brings us to America. Poe may have been the greatest exponent of literary terror, and was wildly popular in Europe. During the same period America produced its first great indigenous landscape school: the Hudson River school. It mirrored the range of romantic attitudes from the Pastoral to the Sublime, though even the Pastoral tended to feature a wilder nature than in Europe (as did the continent itself). Asher B. Durand's herdsman surrounded by towering beeches is a good example.
The Sublime is wonderfully represented by Cole and Bierstadt. Bierstadt in particular, in a generation when the West was opening up to travel, sums up supremely well the new attitude of appreciation for the vast, untamable reaches of the wilderness. His landscapes are a veritable definition of the sublime in nature.