Canaletto, 1738, Oil on canvas
124.5 × 204.5 cm (49 × 80.5 in)
National Gallery, London
Although Canaletto’s masterful representation of Venice’s Grand Canal appears highly naturalistic in its execution, the painting idealizes, manipulates, and crafts the scene in order to present a highly symbolic rendering of Venice’s most iconic structures and landscapes. The Church of Santa Maria di Nazareth situated on the right-hand side, for example, had many of its architectural details altered by Canaletto, such as the gesturing statues on its façade. In the left distance is the pitched-roof church of Santa Croce. To the left is San Simeone Piccolo, and at far left are Palazzo Foscari-Contarini and Casa Adolfo. In this painting, Canaletto condensed the composition by significantly reducing the number of buildings between San Simeone and Santa Croce in order for the viewer to see the two buildings at once, a distorted perspective and impossible view. Canaletto also manipulates various other aspects of the view; from the brightness of the sky, to the gentle curvature and undulations of the orthogonal lines, to the mixing between broad brushstrokes and dense detail, everything is carefully orchestrated to optically control one’s experience with the painting, ingesting an idealized and romantic view of Venice, a symbol of its counterpart in reality.
Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1773, oil on canvas
89 cm x 133 cm
National Museum of Western Art, Japan
Though born in Avignon, France, Joseph Vernet had a penchant for the Roman countryside, a subject he studied in depth when he located to Rome at twenty years old. There, he established his reputation as a popular and gifted seascape and landscape painter, whose topographic studies were famous for their aesthetic beauty, grand size, and unique depiction of nature’s tonal, atmospheric, and lighting effects. However, despite his naturalistic style, Vernet’s landscapes were largely decorative in execution. Vernet’s concern was not with aesthetic realism, but rather with making a landscape dynamic, sensationalized, and romanticized.
Vernet’s Summer Landscape in Italy is part of a series depicting a single fictitious Italian landscape over multiple hours of a day, an artistic landscape tradition that dates back to the early seventeenth century. Not unlike Rembrandt, Vernet populates his scene with various human vignettes, such as the riverside bathers shown here. Their intentionally small size emphasizes the grandeur of the proximate nature. Vernet’s landscape, imbued with twilight luminosity, illustrates the most pure form of Italy’s ideal countryside. His subject, ironically, isn’t the Italian landscape in actuality; it’s the idea of it, its romantic and idyllic elements and all.
John Constable, 1802 (top), 1828 (bottom), Oil on canvas
144.50 x 122.00 cm
Scottish National Gallery
John Constable’s contribution to landscape painting effectively increased the clout of landscape painting as a genre. Throughout the 18th century, landscape was consistently considered at the end of the hierarchy of subject matter. However, Constable’s dissemination of his history-painting-scaled landscapes, coupled with the encroaching cultural influence of the Industrial Revolution, fostered an appreciation and popularization of landscapes. For Constable, the rural became of symbol of a lost paradise, a moral epicenter epitomizing peace, childhood, and an escape from modernity and urban life.
The composition of The Vale of Dedham was in part inspired by Claude Lorrain’s Hagar and the Angel. Claude used popular landscape-structuring factors as organizational elements, such as trees as a framing devices and buildings as compositional stabilizers. Constable’s finer artistic details, however, from the texture of the clouds to the sense of recession, were based on sketches produced on site. In the studio, Constable attempted to preserve the transience and sense of emotional evocation of these outdoor sketches through a variety of techniques, using palette knives and specific brushes to render bold effects, contrasts, depth, and consistency.
Constable sketched and painted the subject of Dedham Vale multiple times over the course of his career, first in 1802, when Constable was twenty-six years old, and last in 1828. The latter contained a number of deviations from the former, including the inclusion of a gypsy mother nursing her baby by a fire, a lighter palette, and the addition of new architectural developments filtered throughout nature. During a time of such intense and rapid change for England and beyond, Constable found comfort in the genre of landscape, a symbol of what he feared to be lost and desired to preserve: rural, simplistic, natural life.
Thomas Cole, 1836, oil on canvas
39 ½ × 63 ½ in
New York Historical Society
The second painting in the Course of the Empire series by Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, epitomizes the pastoral landscape as a site of prosperity and peace threatened by imperial expansion and gluttony. Cole was famous for his stylistically and thematically romantic approach to the landscape genre, a style that became so popular and widespread that Cole emerged as the founder of an American art movement known as the Hudson River School. Cole and other artistic elites found comfort in the central morality of antiquity, and for this series, Cole channels that morality to create his own personal, fictitious pastoral world enlivened with pictorial references to ancient Greece: plush greens, plowed fields, and soaring mountains. The Arcadian’s human subjects live in harmony with the land: they build boats and temples, herd sheep, work the fields, dance, build fires. There is an ethical and effective give and take between the natural world and mortal one, a balance yet to be overthrown by man’s constant pursuit of expansion and domination. Cole transforms the landscape into a symbol of humanity’s general interaction with nature, and as nature declines, so does the morality of man.
As a landscape painter, Cole utilized The Course of the Empire series to enact a critique of Manifest Destiny, historical development, and civilization as a whole, a particularly pertinent subject given the significance of these concepts to Americans at the time. The series, particularly TheArcadian, emphasizes the transience of humanity’s power in comparison to the enduring, dominant force of the natural world, a dichotomy that serves to emphasize Cole and other artists’ fascination with and idealization of the pre-urban realm of antiquity
Carl Rottman, 1847, oil on canvas
35.5 × 45.5 cm (14 × 17.9 in)
State Art Gallery, Germany
Carl Rottmann was a German landscape painter most renowned for his depictions of ancient Greek mythological locations. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, artists, philosophers, and writers alike shared a nostalgic fascination with ancient Greece and Rome, thus instigating the emergence of Neoclassicism. Academics such as Johann Winckelmann perpetuated the notion that the height of humanity was during Greek antiquity, and that to replicate Greek art was to disseminate beauty itself. Rottmann’s Island of Delos, which depicts the mythologically and archeologically significant island, reputedly the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, reflects the utopian connotations of the antique. The saturated red, blue, and gold hues and pervasive luminosity are born from the artist’s imagination. While Rottmann painted the work on the Greek mainland, he takes liberty to exaggerate and invent the Island of Delos as a paradise in its own right.
Thomas Moran, 1881, oil on canvas
Framed: 109.22 x 203.2 x 15.24 cm (43 x 80 x 6 in.), Overall: 63.5 x 157.5 cm (25 x 62 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
In the 1860s, Thomas Moran, an artist from Philadelphia, was hired as a lead illustrator for Scribner’s Monthly, a magazine job that later paved the way for his career as one of the 19th century’s most renowned and prolific landscape painters of the American West. In 1871 the director of the United States Geological Survey invited Moran to join him on an expedition team into an unknown region of Yellowstone; Moran would be the first artist to record this natural marvel pictorially. Before he reached this ultimate destination, however, Moran discovered Green River, Wyoming. Struck by its beauty, grandeur, and luminosity, he returned to the subject repeatedly over the years.
Although Green River, Wyoming, was an up-and-coming railroad town when Moran first arrived, Moran’s landscape contains no trace of building structures, railroads, construction, or modern civilization. Rather, his depiction of Green River is an imagined picture of the American West pre–Manifest Destiny, pre–Industrial Revolution, illustrating a symbiotic and idealized relationship between the Native people and the land. Moran masterfully paints the textures, colors, and radiance of the scene to evoke emotional wonder and subjectivity. In turn, the painting is in itself a paradigm of the American relationship with the West: the ambivalence between a desire to conquer it and a nostalgic appreciation for its beauty and scope.