Constable

Landscape Painting and Politics by Jeannine Cook

There has been a small but fascinating exhibition tucked into the National Gallery rooms in London. "Forest, Rocks, Torrents. Norwegian and Swiss Landscape Paintings from the Lunde Collection" had just opened when I saw it in late June but it runs until the 18th September.

Two rooms, but expansive views of Norwegian and Swiss mountains, rivers and dramatic natural scenery that take one far away from the tourist-filled Trafalgar Square outside. It was a collection of small and beautiful paintings assembled by Asbjorn Lunde, a major art collector/lawyer from New York. Not only did this exhibition of art delight and inform, but it made me think about the role of landscape painting in national politics and national identity. This was mainly because of a fascinating and informative piece, "Two Traditions", in the catalogue written by Christopher Riopelle. Curator of post-1800 Painting at the National Gallery.

Ancient Rome celebrated its landscapes in frescoes, such as those which survived from Pompeii. However, in the Western art tradition, basically relgious motifs and classical narratives provided the major impetus for painting themes and subjects until the 17th century. At that time, the Dutch begain to celebrate their flat, luminous countryside, where the northern light and ever-present sea predominated. They had regained control of their land (and church) from the Spanish and by the 17th century, Holland was linking political identity with the Dutch landscape. In fact, the very word landscape, used in relationto painting, comes from the Dutch language, where landschap first meant a cultivated patch of land and then an image.

 View of Harlem   with Bleaching Fields,  1670-75, Jacob van Ruisdael, (Image courtesy of  Kunsthaus Zurich)

 View of Harlem with Bleaching Fields, 1670-75, Jacob van Ruisdael, (Image courtesy of  Kunsthaus Zurich)

Jacob van Ruisdael was a major protagonist of Holland's land and wide skies in his art in the 17th century, as one can judge in this "View of Harlem", above. Much of this landscape art was produced in studio after plein air studies had first been done.

Salomon van Ruysdael specialised more in maritime scenes, but he too represented the Dutch landscape in remarkable fashion.

The River Scene,   Salomon van Ruysdael, 1632(image is courtesy of the National Gallery.)

The River Scene,  Salomon van Ruysdael, 1632(image is courtesy of the National Gallery.)

These and many other artists were projecting the new self-confidence of a successful maritime nation whose trading stretched across the globe and brought home great wealth. These relatively small landscape paintings were bought by the affluent burghers as part of this new national celebration.

The same phenomenon occurred in Britain in the 18th century as the landed gentry and newly-affluent townspeople started to identify with their green, gentle island whose power was spreading far abroad. There were many great landscape artists working then, and even those more famous for portraiture, such as Thomas Gainsborough, were meeting this demand for landscapes. His 1748 "Landscape in Suffolk" is one such example. In subsequent decades, John Constable and J.M.W.Turner, amongst other artists, also allowed the English to be proud of their island, its landscapes, people and history, through their paintings.

Landscape in Suffolk ,1748  Thomas Gainsborough (courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum),

Landscape in Suffolk,1748  Thomas Gainsborough (courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum),

Harwich Lighthouse,  c. 1820, John Constable (image courtesy of the Tate)

Harwich Lighthouse, c. 1820, John Constable (image courtesy of the Tate)

Constable painted this canvas of "Harwich Lighthouse" about 1820. His renditions of skies and clouds show the results of his many, many wonderful cloud studies and knowledge of Britain's climatic conditions.

Turner was equally attentive to light and climate as he painted, as can be judged by this astonishing canvas from 1816, "Chichester Canal". Apparently, the Indonesian volcano, Mt. Tambora, had erupted very violently in 1815, and the ash travelled around the world, causing dramatic atmospheric conditions. The 3rd Earl of Egremont commissioned the painting.

Chichester Canal,  Joseph Mallord William Turner circa 1829 (Image courtesy of the Tate Collection).

Chichester Canal, Joseph Mallord William Turner circa 1829 (Image courtesy of the Tate Collection).

While the British, the Russians, the Swiss, the Norwegians and other Europeans were identifying increasingly with their nations, thanks in large part to artists' depictions of the natural wonders and characteristics, the Americans were doing the same. As the Hudson River School, the Romantic and Luminist schools of landscape painters developed in the United States, the paintings of the country's natural splendours helped fuel the sense of nationhood and drive towards development of the West. Even the eventual creation of National Parks was made easier by the depictions of the marvels of Yosemite and Yellowstone. Manifest destiny was implicit in much of the 19th century landscape painting in America, where discovery, exploration and settlement were all driving forces in society.

The Oxbow. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Mass. after a Thunderstorm ", 1836, Thomas Cole , (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The Oxbow. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Mass. after a Thunderstorm", 1836, Thomas Cole , (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

British-born American artist Thomas Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School; he introduced the beauties of the Hudson River Valley, the Catskill Mountains and upper New York/New England to an audience of appreciative fellow Americans. Second generation American landscape painters who continued to shape the political framework of America included such artists as Luminist John Frederick Kennsett. His work centered on the North East, but included work depicting the Mississippi and further afield.

Lake George , ca. 1860, John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872)  Oil on canvas, 22 x 34 inches (approx.) Collection Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain,

Lake George, ca. 1860,John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872)
Oil on canvas, 22 x 34 inches (approx.)
Collection Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain,

Thomas Moran, meanwhile, was celebrating the wonders of the West. His depictions of Yellowstone were hugely instrumental in the National Park being created. His dramatic canvases were complemented by watercolours of many natural phenonmena, such as this 1873-74 watercolour of the "Shoshone Falls, Idaho" (image courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art).

Shoshone Falls, Idaho,  1873-74,   thomas Moran,  (image courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art).

Shoshone Falls, Idaho, 1873-74, thomas Moran,  (image courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art).

All these landscape artists, European, Russian, American... were part of an ever-swelling political discourse about national identity and aspirations. The 18th and 19th centuries were era of great social upheavals and changes, with the Industrial Revolution shaping new societies. With increasing urbanisation, the role of landscape underwent a subtle change: it was no longer such an important defining factor in perception of nation. Artists themselves were often urban dwellers who had to make trips to the countryside to paint landscapes. The French Impressionists built on this tendancy that the previous generation of artists had begun - from Daubigny to Millet and Rousseau. Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and their companions all made trips out from Paris in their early times as artists. But they also found increasing inspiration in urban scenes - railway stations, the French boulevards, the Seine river. As the artistic trends evolved, Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Matisse and countless others began to turn away from landscape painting. There were, of course, others - Cezanne, the Fauves, Miró  - who still used the vocabulary of landscape to explore the role of man in society.

Nonetheless, I can't help wondering how much the influence of urban landscapes - concrete and stone boxes and towers, streets vanishing in distant perspectives, the geometry of man's creations - overwhelmed the artistic eye as the trend accelerated towards abstraction and away from organic natural shapes and scenes. With such a different artistic vocabulary, has our societal identification of land and nation altered? Even though today's world is saturated with high definition images of amazing landscapes, do we identify with our lands in the same way as people did in previous centuries with their artists' depictions of land/nation? Do we find it easier to airbursh/Photoshop ourselves out of involvement with the landscapes we are filling up and polluting and exhausting today? Easier than when we were being shown the beauties of our lands by artists who were, in essence, pictoral ambassadors for those splendors? Indeed, basically, the majority of today's populations live in some form of urban setting, where concrete obliterates the natural world and where political perceptions have been altered by those surroundings.

Today's landscape artists have a very different role, I suspect, from the nation-building one of the Dutch artists onwards. Now, perhaps, it is almost a rearguard action or one of recording natural beauties before they disappear. However, I have grave doubts as to whether any of today's landscape artists, seldom ones who make the headlines in the art world, have much sway amongst our politicians. Perhaps it would make society better if they did?

Artists' Eyes on the Skies by Jeannine Cook

I am sitting on a hotel terrace in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Ontario. A rainy day has yielded to golden light and jewel-like sparkles in the water in the early evening, with hours of light still remaining - in these northern climes. The River is sprinkled with small islands, mostly crowned with a cluster of trees, which are ebulliently vivid in their variety of greens above the ochres and greys of the granite rock shorelines. Limpid reflections shimmer on smooth waters. Above, osprey hover and dive, while great blue heron wing purposefully west above the pine tree crowns on the distant shore.

I have been watching this wonderful parade of light and magic because I have my artist's eye turned on. I keep analysing the scene in terms of how to depict what I see. I don't mean literally, in terms of representation, necessarily, because I am always "pruning" and editing the scene I am looking at, trying to select the most relevant details. Nevertheless, at the back of my head, I am aware that the veracity of a painting of drawing is underlined by the references, direct or indirect, to the climate, the light, the prevalent weather ... In the days that I have spent here, the light has been amazingly varied but always wonderful and very northern and cool, compared to the light of coastal Georgia or the Mediterranean.

Artistic fidelity to weather and atmospheric phenomena has proven useful on occasions. I have read that meteorologists have consulted paintings done in previous centuries to confirm weather events, volcanic eruptions, meteor showers and more. We were all recently reminded about the amazing sunsets caused by volcanic ash. I heard Simon Winchester talking on PBS about the insights into wind patterns circling the globe that were obtained from paintings done around the world by artists enthralled by the sunsets drama caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

Constable's drawings and paintings of clouds and related weather in 18th/19th century England have also yielded good science, thanks to their accuracy. He spent many an hour studying clouds and drawing them in their fugitive glory. I felt considerable empathy with him when I was Artist in Residence in Brittany in autumn, 2008, because there, too, the weather is never the same for more than half an hour!

Seascape Study, Boat and Stormy Sky, 1824, John  Constable  (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)

Seascape Study, Boat and Stormy Sky, 1824, John  Constable  (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)


Another benefit of artistic fidelity to weather conditions was written about by Dan Falk, an environmental journalist writing on June 6th, 2010, in the Toronto Star. A Canadian artist, Gustav Hahn (1866-1962), depicted a west Toronto neighbourhood in the winter of 1913. Above, the night sky shows the constellation, Orion, and also a bright series of objects streaking across the sky. Hahn, also an amateur astronomer, was recording the famous Canadian Fireball Procession of 1913, a very rare event when meteors graze the earth's atmosphere at a very low angle and break up into glowing fragments. This painting yielded all sorts of insights for Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State University, who is known as the world's leading "forensic astronomer". He mines classic works of literature and art for references to our universe - the moon, the stars and the sun - and calculates where and when each piece of art was created. For example, Olson has calculated the exact spot and time when Van Gogh painted Moonrise: 9.08 p.m. on July 13th, 1889. Another piece of art that became important in Olson's studies was a painting by Hudson River School artist, Frederic Church, entitled The Meteor of 1860, showing a peaceful late evening river scene, with a brilliant array of meteors streaking across the sky on an almost horizontal trajectory. Olson later deduced that Walt Whitman, in New York, had witnessed and then written of the same event in one of his poems. Both conclusions were buttressed by his having seen a copy of Hahn's painting of a meteor procession. Olson's analysis is appearing in the July issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

Painting of The Meteor of 1860 by Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. (Credit: Frederic Church courtesy of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt).

Painting of The Meteor of 1860 by Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. (Credit: Frederic Church courtesy of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt).


Without the keen watch that artists keep on the skies above, we would all lose a lot of fascinating information.

Clouds by Constable, trees by Cezanne, comments by Jeannine Cook by Jeannine Cook

March 1st, and the clouds sailing by remind me of Constable’s wonderful cloud studies. It is amazing how acutely he observed those cloud formations, especially when you think of the English climate, where winds so often move the clouds across the sky so speedily. No wonder meteorologists have used Constable’s cloud art to learn more of the 19th century climate in England! Here in coastal Georgia, cloud formations are perhaps less fleeting on many days, but today, with cold fronts moving in, the crisp clear light is like that of more northern climates.

“A Cloud Study," by the 19th-century painter John Constable. Credit Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

“A Cloud Study," by the 19th-century painter John Constable. Credit Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

John Constable. Cloud Study. 1822 (Image courtesy of the Tate)

John Constable. Cloud Study. 1822 (Image courtesy of the Tate)

Beneath the sailing clouds, the bare winter trees dip and bend, making me think of Cezanne’s austere trees. Every artist is indeed influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by what Cezanne did – witness the current hugely important exhibition, Cezanne and Beyond, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions). The trees that Cezanne distilled to their essence are an example of what Liubov Popova (Russian, 1889-1924) talked about: “Cezanne no longer depicted the impression of the object, but only its essence.”

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Almond Trees in Provence (1900),

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Almond Trees in Provence (1900),

When I draw trees in silverpoint or paint them in watercolors, I try to find what makes their strength and rhythms so distinctive, and yet so universal. Live oaks or red cedars, for instance, are emblematic of coastal Georgia, as they endure heat and wind, sandy soils and scant natural nourishment. Their survival could teach us all a great deal about living in grace, even in adversity.