research point: research artists from different eras who use landscape as their main subject

“I’m not sure which modernist critic said that it wasn’t possible to do anything with landscape anymore. But when people say things like that I’m always perverse enough to think, ‘Oh I’m sure it is’. I thought about it, then I decided that it couldn’t be true because every generation looks differently. Of course you can still paint landscape – it’s not been worn out.”  David Hockney (Gayford, 2011)

I’ve chosen to focus on El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos b1541), JMW Turner (b1775), and Peter Lanyon (b1918). Before getting stuck in  I felt I needed an overview of the development of the genre- those notes come first.

The genre of landscape painting is relatively recent in the (western) art world, first gaining widespread popularity in the C18th when it finally made it on to the ‘academies’ list of genres – though it only made it to fifth position out of six, one up from the lowly Still Life. This ranking reflected the moral force inherent in each genre. Prior to this moment, landscape was really only used as background, to religious, mythical and historical subjects – all bursting with moral message.


Ideal Landscape, 1645-1650, Nicolas Poussin

Arcadia was one such topic and artists depicted this idea of pastoral simplicity and harmony with nature with stylised ideal and unspoilt landscapes. Artists: Claude Lorraine, Nicholas Poussin

From Conversations with David Hockney:

“His pictures are theatrical; in fact, he did kind of invent that theatrical landscape – with trees on either side and deep space in the middle”

“Claude Lorraine was one of the major sources for both Turner and Constable. In other words, he was the origin of a landscape tradition to which Hockney had now attached himself. What’s more, Claude was close to the beginning, if not the actual progenitor, of the practice of painting landscape outdoors, directly from nature – to which Hockney had recently and unexpectedly returned.

Claude’s pictures have mythological and religious subjects, but fundamentally they are about light and space: wonderful airy vistas receding to blue hills in the distance or far out to sea. Claude makes space not so much with linear perspective as with what art historians call ‘aerial perspective’ – that is, colour and tone.” (Gayford, 2011 p.147)


Landscape with a cornfield near the sea, c1660, Jacob van Ruisdael

As with the still life genre, the idea of a landscape painting for the sake of the landscape itself first began to develop in Holland. Works became more naturalistic, indeed the word comes form the Dutch landscape (‘patch of ground’). Artists: Jacob van Ruisdael.

“It (the external vanishing point) pushes you away. When I went to the Jacob van Ruisdael exhibition I thought ‘My God, you’re not in the landscape at all. It’s all over there” David Hockney in Gayford, M. (2011) p58


After the Storm, 1872, Gustave Courbet

From the C17th to the mid C19th the idea of the sublime provided inspiration to artists. The term sublime was often applied to the natural landscape – when its grandeur was such that it inspired awe and wonder. Specifically the Romantic period 1800-1850 made the emotional response to the sublime central. As a move away from idealised landscapes, the Realists painted real-life, every-day scenes. Artists: Turner, Constable, Friedrich, Courbet.


Landscape at Giverny, 1887, Claude Monet

From the C19th the industrial revolution and the development of photography had huge impact on artists. The industrial revolution changed man’s relationship with the landscape, while the instant ‘copy’ that photography brought about required artists to bring something new to their work other than accurate reproduction. New ready-mixed paints (1841) meant artists could work outside, on the spot. Artists: impressionists (1872-1892), post-impressionists (1880-1914)


Bridge in Weisen, 1926, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Landscape was a subject for the various movements of the early C20th:  fauvism (1899-1908), german expressionism (1905-1933), cubism (1907-1922) Artists: Kirchner, Derain

Landscape Study 1952 by Nicolas de Stael 1914-1955

Landscape Study, 1952, Nicolas de Stael

C20th post-war artists focusing on landscape: Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Nicolas de Stael, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, Edward Hopper

Contemporary artists that depict landscapes that I have already discussed in my learning log: George Shaw, Alexandra Blum, Mamma Anderson

*Tate Britain is currently showing Paul Nash (until March 2017) which I won’t be able to get to, however I’m linking here to a blog I follow that gives a wonderful review of the exhibition and artist: That’s How The Light Gets In

[One final thought, because all of this is about Western art – from David Hockney who has studied and been influenced by Chinese scrolls, where the view is different, you are “journeying through the landscape. When you get to the great city of Wuxi, you go over the wall into courtyards, backstreets. You can’t go over a wall in a Canaletto.” (Gayford, 2011 p.178)]

El Greco 1541-1614


El Greco (real name: Domenikos Theotokopoulos) 1541-1614 painted View of Toledo in 1598. Though El Greco did not make landscape the primary subject of his work, and though this Research Point asks us to research the artist, rather than their work, I wanted to include this painting. Cited as the first Spanish landscape painting, I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw it – it looks so very modern – and the curve of the sky is startling. It reminds me of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889.

This is the brightest of nights, lighting up the city. The sky is melodramatic, in contrast to the rather controlled architectural quality of the buildings themselves. The slivers of moonlight on the edges of  buildings give the feeling of an etching. The moon casts a huge shadows across the facade of the highest building, singling it out as three- dimensional against the almost cardboard-cutouts of the other buildings. The lower half of the painting is far less interesting, and it’s as though the artist plays to this – the foreground is out of focus while the distant city is sharp.

El Greco painted almost exclusively religious subjects and portraits which makes me think he painted this for the pure joy of it, perhaps for the love of this adopted city.

Born in Crete, El Greco studied in Venice under Titian where he learnt about perspective and how to structure detailed narrative scenes. He then moved to Rome but settled in Spain where he worked on many commissions for religious paintings. His later work is known for its distorted figures and colours and he became an inspiration to artists hundreds of years later, specifically the German expressionists and abstract expressionists. Not a landscape but interesting as an example of how ahead of his time he seems to have been: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is said to be influenced by his Opening of the Fifth Seal, 1610.


Opening of the Fifth Seal, 1610, El Greco

Turner 1775-1851


Perspective View of Fonthill Abbey from the South West, 1799, JMW Turner

I didn’t fully appreciate Turner until I began to investigate the history of art through this course and saw Turner et la couleur at the Musée Caumont, a wonderful exhibition that happily came to my home town of Aix-en-Provence.

The juxtaposition of two paintings – one a commission and one kept in Turner’s private collection – but painted at the same time showed me clearly how ahead of his time he was. The first sticks to all the rules of traditional landscape painting but the second is all impression and emotion. It seems that his work transitioned enormously in his lifetime. He was capable of making a good living from his paintings of landscapes and estates but he also pushed on in his technique. He was clearly moved by what he saw and strove to find ways to capture that emotion. He also did not shy away from scenes of real life happenings and of emerging modern life. He painted the burning Houses of Parliament, slaveships, steamships, railways.


Rain, steam and speed, 1844, JMW Turner

Looking at his paintings one feels the physicality of his process. You can see where he has applied a wisp of paint with the gentlest brush of his arm, and you can see where he has repeatedly slapped paint on paper as if in time with the beating of the waves.

There is so much good writing about Turner it seems silly for me to simply regurgitate it here, so I’m focusing on what I find interesting about his development as an artist.

While studying art Turner took on work experience with an architect and architect’s draughtsman. He also painted stage scenery. Watercolour landscapes and topographical drawings (i.e., drawings that accurately represented the physical features of the landscape) for prints and books provided his first real income. In 1791 he took his first trip outside of London, to Bristol, where he discovered the value of sketching on the spot. (At the Aix exhibition his palette and paints were also on display – a small packet of colour blocks wrapped up in a leather book). Turner toured every year, beginning with the UK, but also taking in France, the Swiss Alps, Holland and Belgium. He began using oils in 1796 when he moved away from topography and found inspiration in history, myth and literature.

Peter Lanyon 1918-1964

Coast 1953 by Peter Lanyon 1918-1964

Coast, 1953, Peter Lanyon

Born and bred in St Ives, Lanyon was central to the St Ives School group of artists that developed post-war in Cornwall. His paintings are full of emotion. He appears to hold the landscape in his hands, to turn it about, to look right through it. And then he paints what he feels. His works are essentially abstract, but there are often recognisable shapes from the Cornish landscape in them – town, coast, clifftop. The colours reflect the magical way the Cornish weather can in a matter of minutes switch from gold and turquoise to slate grey and inky blues. He uses black a great deal but rather than flattening or deadening the image, it seems to stamp his connection to the land. Cornwall is scarred by mining and streaked with granite; these graphic black shapes feel as if Lanyon is tracing the anguish of these scars.


Farm Country, 1961, Peter Lanyon

‘I think my own myth was built up over this thing of miners working under the ground, under the sea, coming up to the surface’,  (Chris Stephens, Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape, London 2000)

As a group of artists, those forming the St Ives School were a strong influence for each other. Key members included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Nuam Gabo. Gabo’s transparent constructivist sculpture was said to be influential on all the artists and can be seen in the repeating womb-like, or enclosing motif of Lanyon’s works. Gabo’s sculptures, made of transparent or semi-transparent materials made the space as important as the object – something also seen in Hepworth’s sculptures.

Lanyon had been taught by Nicholson in the 1930s, and used his technique of painting over a white ground, applying colour in thin glazes and then scraping away the paint to create layers.

Later in his career Lanyon took to gliding in order to explore the land from above. He ended up exploring the air itself, describing it ‘as complex as the sea’.

Reading List


The Sublime in Crisis, Tate

Claude Lorrain

Paul Getty Museum

Eclectic Light

Visual Arts Cork

Studio International

Gayford, M. (2011) A bigger message: Conversations with David Hockney. London: Thames & Hudson.

2 thoughts on “research point: research artists from different eras who use landscape as their main subject

  1. suemaryoakley

    Wonderful examples – Kirchner and El Greco and Lanyon all resonate with me so strongly – and the Hockney quote is so apt… I get really excited about my connection with landscape through paint…and these very different masters are so inspiring…. Thanks for a really invigorating post!


    1. Kimbolina Post author

      Thank you! – yes I’m also very much drawn to our personal connection with the land. Anselm Kiefer is another of my favourites alongside Lanyon, another painter who grapples with our connection to place. If you haven’t read them already I recommend Philip Marsden’s book Rising Ground and Simon Sharma’s book Landscape and Memory!



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