Art In History Art Blog
A few years ago I did a small piece under this same title, comparing two landscape paintings which treated the viewer very differently, one inviting him in, the second deliberately blocking his way. As a follow up to my recent posts on landscape painting, I thought that I should say more on this topic, which involves many of the most powerful tools available to the landscape painter.
The most compelling aspect of a landscape painting is its ability to draw the viewer into its world. We will see later that the choice to exclude the viewer is powerful precisely because it frustrates this natural impulse to enter and explore.
The "Cornfield" by Constable is a beautiful example of the magic of invitation, and of many of the most common devices by which it is nurtured. We are drawn into the landscape by many things: by the deep space of the distance, by the path which starts at our feet and leads us in, by the anecdotal incident of the shepherd with his dog stopping for a cool drink, and by the inevitable movement from shadow into light. I'll look in more detail at each of these devices, which became staples of the landscape painter's trade.
The view into deep space is perhaps the first to appear in Western art, since it was common in the fragments of landscape which began to be included in works devoted to other subjects. It is common in Renaissance works in both Italy and the north. Since the figures and the action still take place in the foreground, there is almost the sense of the pull of deep space drawing you away from the subject, even while drawing you into the painting. We see this in Piero della Francesca's "Baptism of Christ", and even moreso in Van Eyke's "Madonna with Chancellor Rollin". In the latter, the attraction of deep space and the interest of the detail there are in continual competition with the foreground action...sort of like trying to have a conversation in a wind tunnel.
In landscape paintings proper, the most obvious device was the pathway leading in for the viewer to follow. We can see this in Piero's Baptism in the form of the stream, and in Dutch landscape paintings like Ruisdael's "View of Amsterdam". The potency of the device is to convince the viewer that the painted space is an extension of his own space, and that nothing prevents him from following the path inward.
In Ruisdael's work, as in the Constable, the effectiveness of the path is increased by providing incidents along the way to engage the viewer's attention. In the Constable it is the boy and his dog and the farmer at the gate; in the Ruisdael it is a fisherman near the bridge you must cross, and other travellers on the road into town. We experience them as we would incidents on a walk in the country, moments which bring the journey into relief.
A slightly different device is the surrogate: the figure in the foreground who is looking at the landscape, and thus becomes you, or your companion. This seems to work best with landscapes which we cannot enter, where we must be observers, such as a panorama. Asher Durand's "Kindred spirits" is an excellent example of this, as we join the artist and the poet in their admiration of the scene.
Perhaps the most powerful device, developed in the Baroque by artists like Claude Lorrain, is the movement from darkness into light. As an example I am showing another Constable, one of his many views of Salisbury Cathedral. By placing the foreground in shadow and allowing us a view into a bright distance, he draws our soul or spirit out of darkness and into light. It is an irresistible pull, rooted in our psyche, and it seems to satisfy some universal longing.
In another landscape by Ruisdael, we see a darker use of the same device. Ruisdael favored stormy somewhat inhospitable landscapes, more in the sublime tradition than the pastoral, and in most of his works he was not in the business of making us comfortable. There is indeed deep shadow in the foreground, but it almost swallows up the background as well. The spot of sunlight in the distance seems to mock us more than to invite us; by the time we reach it it will be gone.
Because of this powerful urge to enter a landscape, the artist can make an equally powerful statement by deliberate exclusion. I am going to show just one example, the "House of the Hanged Man" by Cezanne. Cezanne was concerned with the competition between the description of solid form in space and the reality of the paint on a flat surface, and in this work he dramatizes this conflict by an apparent invitation which is then withdrawn. There seems to be a path from our feet into the cleft of space between the two houses, but when we try to proceed, we run into a wall of paint. The promise of space is an illusion...as of course is any such promise on a flat surface. With Cezanne, you can never forget the paint on the surface.