Art In History Art Blog
After my recent post on landscape painting of the Romantic period, I want to do a more general piece on the appeal of landscape. I believe this appeal is grounded in the appeal to our age of scenes in nature, and that painted landscapes depend in large part on capturing this appeal. This appeal has many sources, but for me, two of them stand out: empathy and nostalgia.
Even without these two elements, which we bring to nature from within ourselves, landscape would have plenty going for it. It is infinite in variety of texture, form and color, infinite in its possibilities for order, composition and movement. But these possibilities have always been there, and can't explain the immense appeal of landscape in the modern era. Landscape connects with us now as it did not in the earlier periods of human art, and the answer lies within us.
One source of this tremendous appeal lies in empathy. We have a strong need to read into nature a reflection of our own moods and feelings, and consequently to allow landscapes to color our moods and feelings. This the infinite variety of nature becomes the infinite range of our moods, from turbulent and angry to still and serene. In front of nature, we experience thse feelings more easily and more fully, and of course painted landscapes allow us to recreate the feelings again. The lead image, Church's view of Niagara Falls, stirs us because it resonates with emotions deep within us. Two images by Winslow Homer reflect widely different moods of the sea, and heighten our awareness of the range of our own moods.
Why is this a relatively new thing in human experience; what has changed? It think the answer lies in our progressive separation from nature. The growth of landscape painting and the sensitivity to landscape in general coincides with our urbanization. The Impressionists, whose popularity is immense and shows no signs of waning, were above all an urban phenomenon, Parisians who took to the countryside to reconnect with nature.
This longing for something that has been lost is nostalgia in its broadest sense. I believe that in some profound way urbanized man feels displaced, cut off from some important part of himself, and that this feeling has been growing for the last 500 years. Nature now represents something, rather than simply being the everpresent context of our lives. In nature we see something simpler, more genuine, more true to our own nature.
Inness' view of Lago di Nemi and Pissarro's view of harvesting show two sides of this nostalgic longing for reconnection with nature. "Nemi", which is imbued with longing for a classical past as well as a longing for nature, becomes dreamlike and magical in its stillness and "more perfect than life" quality. The Pissarro evokes a much closer and more tangible past, the life of our grandfathers.
For me, the landscape painter who defines the power of nostalgia in his work is Corot in his mature work. The scenes are timeless and suspended, a thing of dream and memory rather than current observation. In an age of plein-aire work - Corot himself did marvellous studies from nature - These are images which transcend experience and get to the heart of our longing for nature.
I will end with one of may favorite little landscapes, a watercolor by Turner of sunrise at Norham castle. It has everything: keen observation of light, magical color, absolute serenity. If you can look at this image without empathy for its peaceful stillness, and without feeling a connection to something purer and simpler than our modern reality...then I guess you deserve to live in squalor, din and stress.