The Landscape in Art: Part 1 — Beginning at the Beginning

The Landscape in Art: Part 1 — Beginning at the Beginning

Does Landscape Photography Matter?

As a photographer and artist — Hell, as a human being — I have always been drawn to the landscape. The experience of nature is restorative. It’s spiritual. On the right day, in the right place, in the right weather, I can have a religious experience unmatched by anything I have ever known inside a church.

But, more and more, mankind is leaving behind the landscape in favor of city life. One of the goals of my landscape photography is to help keep the idea and feeling of spiritual nature alive in modern life.

We are living in a time when the landscape in photography, or the landscape in any medium, is not well-respected as a serious art form (with some notable exceptions, such as the popular large-scale environmental landscape photographs of Edward Burtynsky). One current landscape photographer who works in a traditional style, complained on his blog that his work had been published in photography magazines around the world, and that he’d been recognized in many major photography competitions, yet important art gallerists refused to show his work. It leads me to wonder, does landscape photography matter? How does contemporary landscape photography fit into the art world? This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing in exploration of this question.

And where else to begin, but at the beginning?

Sacred landscape

Art has been a part of humanity since before we were humans. Recent discoveries have proven that Neanderthals were making sophisticated cave art before modern humans existed. Prehistoric humans made art from earliest times — figurative art and animal totems. They didn’t make landscape art, but they used the landscape in art. In Chauvet Cave, early artists used the shape of cave walls to add definition to a drawing. Native Americans and the Aborigines of Australia, made petroglyphs on mountainsides, rock walls, and boulders. The drawings told stories and helped make the locations sacred.

(Below) my black and white photograph of the petroglyphs at Mesa Verde, Colorado. They tell the creation story of the local Native Americans. Fine black and white prints are available.

The Japanese marked sacred locations with special shrines, torii gates, and shimenawa ropes. In a way, these markers served to highlight the landscape itself as a work of art.

The first winter landscape painting

Before there was photography, before there was even landscape as an art form, the goal of art was to glorify God, while downplaying sinful earthly pleasures, such as appreciation of scenic beauty. The landscape was minimized in art, serving as only imaginary and artificially-rendered backdrops for Biblical scenes. Flemish painter Joachim Patinier’s more natural — although still idyllized — panoramas helped usher in the landscape as an independent genre.

Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching, 1515 - 1518 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Joachim Patinier, Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching, 1515 – 1518 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Patinier’s work set the stage for later artists like Pieter Bruegel, whose masterful landscapes were clearly influenced by direct observation of nature and the landscape. Pieter Bruegel’s wonderful 1565 Hunters in the Snow (Winter), is widely regarded as the first true winter landscape painting. I believe all landscape photographs are direct descendants of this painting. Below is a brilliant video introduction to the painting by Khan Academy.


Khan Academy Video: Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow (Winter): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565, oil on wood, 118 x 161 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris.

Landscape painting achieved high levels of popularity and accomplishment with the Dutch masters’ landscapes of the low country in the 1600s. This was the era of Vermeer and Rembrandt, among others. It was also the era of artistic genres, which ranked categories of art from highest to lowest, with landscapes being near the bottom, just above still life. Could this prejudicial judgment of landscapes still be influencing the art world’s attitude about landscape art today?

Genres of art*

  • History painting, including allegories and popular religious subjects
  • Portrait painting
  • Scenes of everyday life
  • Landscape, including seascapes, battle scenes, cityscapes, and ruins
  • Still life

*(genre list courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem from the Dunes at Overeen
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem from the Dunes at Overeen

After the achievements of the Dutch masters, landscape art fell out of favor for decades, until its revival by the work of English painter John Constable in the 19th century. Constable prepared with sketches in the outdoors, and finished his paintings in the studio. He insisted on accuracy, faithfully rendering identifiable species of trees, and even studying meteorology so that he could represent realistic clouds and weather conditions in his scenes.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

In part two of “The Landscape in Art,” we’ll look at Impressionism, the introduction of landscape photography, and photography’s ongoing fight for recognition as a legitimate art form.

Thanks for reading!

Be sure to visit me on FacebookYouTube, Instagram, or Pinterest.


Leave a Reply